A nation's governing system shapes its capacity for emergency preparedness and management. Designed to maintain the central government's absolute authority, China's governing system limits local governments’ initiative and capacity in responding to mass emergencies. By examining China's fight against COVID-19, this essay dynamically demonstrates how the country's governing regime constrains the initial response of local officials and other non-state entities to the virus but facilitated large-scale mobilization once the crisis was recognized by the central leadership. Four essential factors for an adaptive emergency management system are identified: 1) raising the central government's ability to recognize mass emergencies, 2) changing political incentives of local cadres, 3) creating a flexible and efficient ad-hoc resource allocation mechanism, and 4) embracing the participation of non-governmental actors. This study provides insights into how political realities explain the disparity in pandemic control performance across nations. It also shows how the resilience of a mass emergency management system can be enhanced within the constraints of existing governing institutions.