Washington International Law Journal


Although COVID-19 was first detected in the People’s Republic of China, the pandemic now appears contained there. Western and Chinese media attribute this apparent success to the central level of the Chinese state and the Communist Party. However, this article reveals that local entities provided critical contributions to China’s COVID-19 management, particularly in the pandemic’s first epicenter: Wuhan city in Hubei province. Chinese cities like Wuhan can fight public health emergencies through legal and nonlegal instruments. Although Wuhan had prepared for possible pandemics, its existing plans, institutions, and warning systems initially failed against COVID-19. The city did not contain the viral outbreak beginning in November 2019. As a result, Wuhan officials were forced to use strict measures to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. From January 23, 2020, a lockdown cordoned off the city, and from February 10, a closed management of neighborhoods introduced a curfew-like shutdown.

These two cordons sanitaires and other so-called normative documents were imposed by Wuhan’s own COVID-19 Headquarters, a municipal mixed party–state organ. Still, the central level must approve—or even directly command—all fundamental decisions of local COVID-19 management. The center controls local entities like Wuhan not through channels of the state but through the vertical and horizontal conduits of the Communist Party, treating “the whole country as a chess game.” China’s “COVID-19 chess” has proven itself an effective method of pandemic containment. However, this central–local “chess game” yielded detrimental effects for many individuals within and outside Wuhan. The reason is that China’s central level, aiming at eliminating COVID-19 instead of merely flattening the curve, neither requires Wuhan to contain COVID-19 proportionately and balanced, nor allows individuals to challenge these containment measures in court. Therefore, without being held accountable, Wuhan could encroach on myriad rights and freedoms for millions of individuals for several months. And despite subsequent easing, China’s “people’s total war” against COVID-19 continues—but its focus has shifted. The strictest containment measures now apply to foreign nationals and Chinese citizens returning from abroad, as China has drawn a third cordon sanitaire around its national borders.

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