That has led to a culture of what Elizabeth J. Perry, a Harvard University scholar, has called “guerrilla governance,” in which results take precedence over procedure or accountability, and in which it is all leaders for themselves.
This approach is seen as crucial in having enabled China to lift hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty and turn itself from global backwater into world power.
But it can be disastrous when it comes to managing health and environmental issues.
Disease and pollution don’t respect provincial or municipal borders. And because of the way they spread, it often takes a unified, nationwide policy to prevent or stop them — something for which guerrilla governance is ill-suited.
“It’s very difficult to come together to create a clear actionable plan,” Mr. Yasuda said, adding that, for any health or environmental regulation to work, “you want it to be standardized, you want it to be transparent, you want it to be accountable.”
But China’s system de-emphasizes those concerns, sometimes to disastrous effect.
In the mid-2000s, Beijing demanded a drastic increase in milk production. When factory farms were unable to meet their targets, officials conscripted vast numbers of rural farmers. Some of the farmers, struggling to meet their quotas, watered down their milk, then added an industrial chemical known as melamine to fool quality sensors. The tainted milk poisoned thousands of infants.
Experts fear a similar regulatory failure may have enabled the coronavirus outbreak: the longstanding inability to clean up so-called wet markets, which are stuffed with livestock living and dead, domesticated and wild. Though the outbreak’s cause is still being studied, Wuhan’s wet market is considered a prime suspect.
The markets have long been considered a major threat to public health, particularly as a vector for transmitting diseases from animals to humans. And they are a lesson in the perils of patchwork, decentralized regulations like China’s: While some markets are more carefully policed than others, all it takes is one to cause an outbreak.