Political institutions, state capacity, and crisis management: A comparison of China and South Korea

AuthorYexin Mao
DOI10.1177/0192512121994026
Publication Date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
https://doi.org/10.1177/0192512121994026
International Political Science Review
2021, Vol. 42(3) 316 –332
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0192512121994026
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Political institutions, state
capacity, and crisis management:
A comparison of China and South
Korea
Yexin Mao
The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Abstract
How do political institutions influence crisis management? By comparing responses to COVID-19 in China
and South Korea, this article argues that different political institutions affect countries’ responses to crises
by shaping state capacity. First, the article proposes a state capacity-driven crisis management framework
including four types of capacity: information capacity, decision-making and implementation capacity, coercive
capacity, and mobilization and cooperation capacity. Second, the article contributes to the literature by
making linkages between different forms of state capacity and regime type. Combinations of state capacity
are different in democracies and authoritarian regimes because state capacities are shaped by two different
institutional arrangements: central–local government relations and state–society relations. Additionally, the
article finds that the impacts of political institutions on crisis management through different state capacities
are contingent on scenarios such as the different stages of a crisis.
Keywords
Political institutions, state capacity, COVID-19, crisis management, China, South Korea
Introduction
How political institutions influence crisis management is an important question subject to intense
debate among political scientists. The global expansion of COVID-19 has further intensified dis-
cussion of this issue. Countries with different political institutions have adopted varying strategies
to combat the pandemic. Compared with many Western democracies such as the United States, it
seems that China as an authoritarian country has performed better in addressing the crisis. Does
this mean that authoritarianism is more conducive to crisis management?
Some studies indicate that authoritarianism is more effective in tackling crises. They have sug-
gested that democracies face more challenges in managing crises. For example, Boin et al. (2017)
Corresponding author:
Yexin Mao, Department of Politics and Public Administration, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong
Kong, China.
Email: ymao@hku.hk
994026IPS0010.1177/0192512121994026International Political Science ReviewMao
review-article2021
Special Issue: The Political Ramifications of COVID 19
Mao 317
argued that leaders of democratic countries face more institutional constraints, such as the rule of
law and pressure from civil society, free media, and other opposition forces. For authoritarian
countries such as China, the government has demonstrated strong authoritarian resilience. In addi-
tion to coercive repression, it is able to cope with crises through different institutional strategies
such as coopting social elites (Nathan, 2003). By comparing the US failure to control COVID-19
with more effective responses in China, Diamond (2020) further noted that the virus poses a par-
ticular challenge to democratic governance.
However, a section of the literature has argued that compared with democracies, authoritarian
countries are less effective in mitigating crises. For instance, Chan and Zhao (2016) found that due
to a lack of diverse and independent source of information, authoritarian countries have an infor-
mation disadvantage when responding to emerging crises. By analyzing China’s Great Leap
Famine, Kung and Chen (2011) argued that without an effective self-correction mechanism, politi-
cal career incentives within China’s nomenklatura system drove officials to implement more radi-
cal policies, which led to the agricultural crisis and famine. Kavanagh (2020) also doubted the
effectiveness of authoritarian responses to COVID-19 in terms of information politics.
These studies do not contain a consensus on which political institution is more conducive to
crisis management. Both democratic and authoritarian institutions may have their own advantages
and disadvantages in mitigating crises. China and South Korea are selected for comparison because
they represent two different paths in an authoritarian regime and a democracy to effectively contain
the pandemic. By comparing their responses to COVID-19, this study explains how different polit-
ical institutions influence countries’ crisis management by shaping different types of state capacity.
The article develops the theory of state capacity, applies it to the study of crisis management, and
proposes a state capacity-driven crisis management framework. The framework is characterized by
four dimensions of state capacity in crisis management: information capacity, decision-making and
implementation capacity, coercive capacity, and mobilization and cooperation capacity.
Moreover, the article contributes to the literature by making linkages between different forms of
state capacity and regime type and further explaining how different combinations of state capacity
generate specific strengths and weaknesses of government responses to crises. Democracies are
more likely to possess strong information capacity which is conducive to crisis management. Their
decision-making and implementation capacity and mobilization and cooperation capacity depend
on effective intergovernmental coordination and state–society synergy. However, weak state coer-
cive capacity may weaken the effectiveness of democracies’ responses to crises. In contrast,
authoritarian regimes’ information capacity is weak which may lead to delayed responses in the
early phase of crises. However, information capacity may become strong when the central govern-
ment emphasizes information collection and disclosure because without transparency, crises will
spread and threaten regime stability. Additionally, authoritarian regimes demonstrate strengths in
tackling crises because they are more likely to possess strong coercive capacity, centralized deci-
sion-making and implementation capacity, and state-directed mobilization and cooperation
capacity.
Combinations of state capacity are different in democracies and authoritarian regimes because
state capacities are shaped by two different institutional arrangements: central–local government
relations and state–society relations. Central–local government relations influence information
capacity and decision-making and implementation capacity. State–society relations shape coercive
capacity and mobilization and cooperation capacity. Additionally, the impact of political institu-
tions on crisis management through different state capacities may be changed according to differ-
ent scenarios, such as those presented by the different stages of a crisis. The article first introduces
the analytical framework and research methods and then explains how the two cases demonstrate
the framework.

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