Crisis Control in Top-down Bureaucracy: Theory and Evidence from China's Zero-Covid Policy


This paper examines the compliance of local Chinese officials with the zero-Covid policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. By analyzing biographical data of political elites and a prefecture-day level dataset on risk levels – an index reflecting the intensity of epidemic prevention and control under the zero-Covid framework – we find that promotion incentives of prefecture leaders significantly influence their response time to COVID-19 outbreaks. Our empirical findings indicate that leaders with higher promotion prospects tend to overreact to emerging cases and maintain zero-Covid measures for extended periods even after outbreaks are under control. However, the intensity of zero-Covid measures can vary substantially among officials with higher promotion incentives.

We propose a theoretical model based on a multi-task agency framework to explain these phenomena. In this model, officials must balance crisis control and routine performance tasks. We categorize officials into two groups: those facing immediate promotion evaluations and those without evaluations or with distant deadlines. Furthermore, we consider the variation in resources available to local governors for crisis resolution. Our model predicts that officials with imminent promotion evaluations will act more radically in complying with the zero-Covid policy by escalating risk levels, which are visible to the central government but may not reflect stringent containment measu res. Among these high-incentive officials, governors with ample fiscal or governance resources will prioritize both economic growth and pandemic control, while those governing less developed prefectures will favor a “one size fits all” approach, implementing regional lockdowns to halt virus spread. Our empirical findings support and validate these theoretical predictions.

In our ongoing analysis, we anticipate uncovering how connections with provincial leaders and announcements of revised zero-Covid guidelines (as well as lockdown events in large cities) also impact prefecture leaders' pandemic response. Additionally, we are investigating the relationship between local political elites' promotion outcomes and their anti-pandemic performance.

Andong Yan
Andong Yan
PhD Candidate in Economics