President Xi Jinping’s timely directives on guiding Hong Kong’s bitter fight against the worsening fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak allows the city to see light at the end of the tunnel. The number of new infections has soared over the past week. The speed of transmission is so fast that it threatens to stretch our healthcare system to its limit, with isolation facilities and hospital beds for infected patients now operating near full capacity. Special arrangements are required to ensure the orderly supplies of fresh vegetables and other necessities in Hong Kong, and to prevent the new wave of infections from further spreading to neighboring cities in the Greater Bay Area through the logistics supply chains and other channels.
Around the world, the traumatic experience of the pandemic has compelled us to rethink the role and importance of public sector capacity, and Hong Kong is no exception. Public sector capacity refers to the set of skills, capabilities, and resources necessary to perform policy functions, ranging from providing public services to designing and implementing policy measures in order to attain specific goals. Fighting COVID-19 is a critical test of government capabilities to manage an emergency and lead societies to overcome a crisis.
Large-scale mission-oriented policy mobilization may not be a mode of governance that Hong Kong is traditionally familiar with, but the world has been changed by the pandemic, and Hong Kong needs to adapt and enhance its governance capacity as well
To effectively deal with the pandemic, the government needs a strong mobilization capacity to mobilize resources and coordinate policy measures. It requires a capable and adaptive public sector to strengthen healthcare services and pandemic control at the front line, provide targeted relief-funding support to residents and ailing small businesses, and implement economic policies to support employment and stabilize essential-goods supply chains. All of these take hard work to perform well and cannot rely on improvisation.
Government mobilization capacity depends on the cumulative investment in the public sector resources and talent as well as the trust between the government and society. For decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, the logic of public sector reform in many high-income economies had been outsourcing, marketization, and privatization, with lackluster investment in the public healthcare system and related infrastructures. Where past investment proves inadequate and needed resources are not in place when the pandemic hits, it’s difficult for the government to deal with emergencies simply by ad hoc measures. Capacity-building in normal times shapes resilience in crisis times.
The prevailing mindset, values and governance philosophy also matter enormously. The doctrines of laissez-faire policy and government noninterventionism are not conducive to effective collective responses to the grand societal challenges such as a pandemic, climate change, and demographic problems. It takes leadership, political will and a strong sense of public responsibility and social solidarity to cope with the pandemic and other grand challenges of our era. As economist Mariana Mazzucato points out, governments in the 21st century need to have mission-oriented thinking to generate public policies that can systemically mobilize knowledge, skills and resources across sectors to confront the big societal problems.
With different capacity, ideology and commitment, governments around the world face different constraints and have varied responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the policy thinking seems to be bifurcating into two branches — “dynamic zero tolerance” or “living with the virus” — but the reality is a more-complicated and evolving spectrum of policy choices associated with different costs and benefits.
The Chinese mainland has demonstrated an extraordinary government mobilization capacity to fight the pandemic, effectively implementing a “dynamic zero-infection” policy with strict contact tracing, testing, quarantining, and treatment measures, supported by state-of-the-art digital technologies. For Hong Kong, it’s vital that the local policy responses catch up with the new situation and achieve greater coherence and alignment with the pandemic-control policies and technologies on the mainland.
Some analysts argue that because Hong Kong operates under a different institutional environment from the Chinese mainland, it may not be realistic for the Hong Kong government to maintain the “dynamic zero infection” goals as the Chinese mainland does. These pessimistic views are problematic as they have underestimated the commitment of the central government to provide a backstop for Hong Kong as well as the potentials of policy learning and adaptation in Hong Kong.
As recently reported in the media, China’s central government leadership has expressed great concern about the pandemic situation in Hong Kong and instructed the special administrative region’s government to make pandemic control the top priority. The message is that the Hong Kong government should mobilize all available resources and take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of residents and the stability of society. The related departments of the central government and local governments were instructed to fully support Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic efforts.
With the backing of the central government, Hong Kong can benefit from the government mobilizing and coordinating multiple sectors (private, public, and civil society) and stakeholders to address concrete targeted problems in pandemic control (such as testing, quarantine, treatment, tracing, and border control), combining top-down directions with bottom-up experimentation.
To achieve this, the Hong Kong government needs to strengthen its mobilization capacity and embrace mission-oriented policy thinking. In particular, it needs to gain more access to digital technologies and platforms, with stronger capacity to monitor and govern data. It also needs to ensure the resilience of front-line healthcare services and basic-goods supplies. In the long term, the government needs to play more-active and entrepreneurial roles in investing in the healthcare system and technological innovation to enhance Hong Kong’s public sector capacity to confront the grand challenges of an aging society.
It is well known that the Chinese word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing “danger” and the other representing “change point”. What we know for sure is that the creativity and adaptation of human societies will eventually overcome the pandemic. What is uncertain is the duration and cost of the fight. COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on how our society and economy is governed in the post-pandemic world. The near-term choices that Hong Kong makes will have longer-term implications on its competitiveness. Large-scale mission-oriented policy mobilization may not be a mode of governance that Hong Kong is traditionally familiar with, but the world has been changed by the pandemic, and Hong Kong needs to adapt and enhance its governance capacity as well.
The author is an associate professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a research fellow (by courtesy) at the Lau Chor Tak Institute of Global Economics and Finance.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.