Strong government responses? Reflections on the management of COVID-19 in Hong Kong and Taiwan

Natalie W.M. WONG, Ka Ki Lawrence HO, Mao WANG, Chih-Wei HSIEH

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3 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Purpose: A debate emerged among members of public administration academia soon after COVID-19 appeared on the roles and measures that governments ought to deploy to prevent infection. One prevalent discourse is the strength of “strong government” in the fight against the virus—the administrative capacity to launch prompt, appropriate and effective actions that entail collaboration with citizens. A notable development in governance is that new public management (NPM) principles, such as the value of money and the pluralisation of service delivery, are gradually put aside when governments urgently need to curb the spread of infection. The roles of bureaucracy and centralised action are re-emphasised in the policymaking and implementation of anti-epidemic measures. Such a trend allows us to examine if the COVID-19 public health crisis has fundamentally reversed the trend of government retreat in public service within neoliberal regimes since the 1980s.

Design/methodology/approach: For this research, the authors selected two “strong governments” in Asia—Hong Kong and Taiwan—by showing how administrators outline their anti-pandemic strategies, examining the role of government in coordinating responses and how bureaucracy interacts with the other two key domains of the governance mechanism: civil society and the market. These two offshore Chinese capitalist economies and pluralistic societies are perceived to have “strong government capacity” in the fight against COVID-19, presumably as a key attribute to their success confining the spread of infection during the early stages of the first outbreak. Both societies reported low infection rates and low mortality rates until September 2020. The authors browsed databases developed by scholars (Cheng et al., 2020; Hale et al., 2020) and referred to two “rubrics” to assess and compare government actions in both places in response to COVID-19. The authors itemised, categorised and counted the policy actions in both places according to the rubrics, noticed that the policy footprint appeared in over two-thirds of indicators of proactive government interventions and identified double-digit counts in nearly half of the categories. 

Findings: The authors found that both governments attempted to establish strong stewardship and quick measures to contain the infection. The pattern of “strong government” is, however, not the same as that superficially exhibited. Taiwan took limited steps to regulate business activities but proactively intervened and coordinated the supply of hygienic utilities. Hong Kong launched aggressive attempts to reduce human mobility but remained non-active despite the “face mask run” in society. The “strong government” aspect also received divergent reactions from society. There was extensive cross-sectoral collaboration under the centralised “National Team” advocacy in Taiwan, and there has been no record of local infection for over 10 months. The Hong Kong government was repeatedly doubted for its undesirable stewardship in anti-epidemic measures, the effectiveness of policy interventions and the impartiality of law enforcement. Spontaneous actions during the health crisis from civil societies and private markets were noted, but they seemed uncoordinated with official attempts. 

Originality/value: The initial findings enable us to rethink correlations between state capacity and legitimacy in the fight against the virus and its development post-COVID-19. Apparently, Taiwan and Hong Kong demonstrated a “re-expansion” of their public sector during the public health crisis, but not in the same format. This can be understood based on their varying regime values and administrative systems. The pandemic has been a catalyst, pushing both regimes back to their original track of public administration establishments. The concept of “path dependence” might explain the initial development and project the longer-term transformation of the public sector in both places. Copyright © 2022 Emerald Publishing Limited.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)428-440
JournalInternational Journal of Public Sector Management
Volume35
Issue number4
Early online dateFeb 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Citation

Wong, N. W. M., Ho, K. K. L., Wang, M., & Hsieh, C.-W. (2022). Strong government responses? Reflections on the management of COVID-19 in Hong Kong and Taiwan. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 35(4), 428-440. doi: 10.1108/IJPSM-06-2021-0158

Keywords

  • COVID-19
  • Government responses
  • Taiwan
  • Hong Kong

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