Issues & Studies: A Social Science Quarterly on China, Taiwan, and East Asian Affairs
Commentary / Analysis, Global governance, Public policy, East Asia, Asian Institute, Munk School

Strengthening the State through Crisis Management: Battles against the SARS and COVID-19 Pandemics in China

How do state leaders use crisis management to strengthen state infrastructural power? What explains the strategic choices of a state’s selective institutionalization of crisis measures? Crises offer unique opportunities for state-building, yet the role of crisis management in consolidating state power is underexamined. This paper explores these important issues by examining how the Chinese government has deployed wartime-like measures in battling the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and COVID-19. While authorities in China have adopted unconventional measures in managing the crises, they have selectively normalized ad hoc practices and institutionalized certain measures to strengthen state infrastructural power once they have ended or been temporarily contained. Drawing on the frameworks of rational choice and historical institutionalism, our analysis suggests that the central government normalizes or institutionalizes measures that help to consolidate its control of the bureaucracy and enhance regime legitimacy.