“State of Emergency” and Enforcement of China’s “Zero-Covid” Policy

Photo by Jida Li on Unsplash

China’s stringent “dynamic zero-Covid” policy, despite its great human and economic costs, is here to stay. The policy relies on mass testing, movement controls via “health codes,” strict lockdowns, and quarantine mandates to stamp out outbreaks. Noncompliance with those restrictions is fairly common, and the police’s preferred enforcement tool has been Article 50 of the Public Security Administrative Punishments Law (PSAPL) [治安管理处罚法]. This provision authorizes a warning, a fine of up to 500 RMB, or 5–10 days in administrative detention for those who flout official anti-Covid “decisions or orders,” depending on the severity of their violations.

To the police, Article 50 is more useful than criminal-law alternatives. The “crime of obstructing the prevention and control of infectious diseases” [妨害传染病防治罪], for instance, requires the defendant to actually spread Covid-19 or create a “serious risk” of its transmission.[1] This charge therefore cannot be brought against someone who, say, refuses mass testing but otherwise has no Covid-19 symptoms or close contact with someone who has tested positive. In addition, as the police may enforce Article 50 alone, they are relieved of the procedural and evidentiary burden that comes with criminal prosecutions.

There is, however, one precondition for invoking Article 50: the government “decisions or orders” violated must be issued in a “state of emergency” [紧急状态]. Law professor Tong Zhiwei [童之伟], among many other scholars, has argued in a since-censored open letter that the phrase in Article 50 refers to a constitutional state of emergency, which may be declared only by the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) or the State Council.[2] Because neither has done so, the argument goes, the police could not lawfully use Article 50 to penalize noncompliance with Covid restrictions.

Below, we first delve into the debate over the scope of “state of emergency” in Article 50, before examining how Article 50 has been used in practice and why the issue persists.

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Has an NPC Spokesperson Declared Shanghai’s “Hard Isolation” Unlawful?

By @tango2010 on Weibo. Original post since censored. Archived copy courtesy of @NiaoCollective on Twitter.

Shanghai’s lockdown to eradicate a local Covid-19 outbreak continues. Over the past weekend, Shanghai residents in multiple districts discovered that green metal fences were erected outside their residential compounds or buildings. In a widely circulated notice by the Pudong New Area government, that move was termed “hard isolation” [硬隔离]. Exasperated by the latest development, many residents dug up a set of Q&A-style statements issued by the Legislative Affairs Commission (LAC) of the NPC Standing Committee in March 2020 and relied on them to argue that Shanghai’s “hard isolation” measures were unlawful. But do the LAC statements in fact support the residents’ argument?

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A Survey of Legislative Responses to COVID-19 by Chinese Provinces

Five months after China first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) cases of pneumonia of an unknown cause on December 31, 2019, that disease, now known as COVID-19, continues to ravage the world, causing public health emergencies of a scale unseen in recent history. In response, governments worldwide have resorted to extraordinary measures in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading: from shutting borders to locking down cities, from closing businesses to mandating social distancing.

In China, local (especially provincial) legislatures, like other governmental bodies, have played a part in epidemic response. Acting in an almost concerted fashion, over twenty provincial legislatures[1] adopted decisions dealing with COVID-19—which we will call “COVID Decisions”—in a twelve-day period in early February. These Decisions address the responsibilities of a range of parties: government entities, businesses, medical institutions, social groups, communities, individuals, etc. (All but Shaanxi’s require individuals to wear masks in public, for example). Equally important, the Decisions also grant emergency powers to local governments.

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Translation: NPCSC’s New Public Health Legislative Plan in Response to COVID-19

Editor’s Note (Oct. 2, 2020): This page is not being updated. For the latest status of each project in this legislative plan, please see the Legislation page or the projects’ individual bill pages.

On Wednesday, April 29, the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) released a special legislative plan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is devoted to improving China’s public health legislation. According to an NPCSC spokesperson, the pandemic has exposed the “gaps” in and the “weaknesses” of the current legal scheme. Because to fix those problems many laws need to be enacted or updated, the authorities thought it appropriate to formulate a legislative plan to proceed in a coordinated manner. The spokesperson also said that the legislature would approach different laws in different ways: some would need complete overhauls, while some (like newer ones) would need only “targeted” changes. Finally, as expected, the NPCSC will focus on public health legislation in the near future, and other legislative projects would be deprioritized as a result.

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NPCSC Session Watch: COVID-19 Responses, Copyright, Armed Police Reform & Silence on 2020 NPC (Updated)

UPDATE (Apr. 28, 2020): The NPCSC decided on April 29 that the NPC’s 2020 session will start on May 22. We do not know how long the session will be at this point. They ordinarily last around ten days, but several outlets reported that this year’s would be shortened to only a week. The official schedule is expected to be released the day before the session starts, on May 21.

The NPCSC also approved the revision to the Law on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Waste, effective September 1, 2020, and the decision to authorize the suspension of certain statutory provisions in the Hainan Free Trade Zone, to expire on December 31, 2024.

UPDATE (Apr. 26, 2020): According to the official readout of the first plenary meeting of the NPCSC’s session this week, the Council of Chairpersons has indeed submitted a draft decision on the new dates for NPC’s 2020 session. We expect the NPCSC to adopt the draft decision and announce the new dates this Wednesday. Bloomberg reported last week that the NPC might meet from May 23 to 30.

The Council of Chairpersons decided on Friday, April 17 to convene the 17th session of the 13th NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) from April 26 to 29. Contrary to what we have expected, this upcoming session seems to be a regular bi-monthly session, where the NPCSC will review seven legislative bills. Below, we will briefly review the session’s agenda before turning to the question on everyone’s mind (well, ours at least): when will the NPC meet this year?

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NPC Calendar: April 2020

Even as China now officially reports few domestic COVID-19 cases everyday, the situation is still fluid in light of the steady influx of imported cases and over a thousand cases of asymptomatic infections. It is therefore hard, if not impossible, to predict the NPC’s legislative activities this month.

Reuters reported in mid-March that the NPC’s delayed annual session had been “tentatively” scheduled for “late April or early May.” If that is still the official plan, we expect the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) to meet by mid-April to set a date for the NPC’s meeting and to also discuss a draft of its annual work report and other documents to prepare for the NPC’s annual gathering. The Council of Chairpersons could meet as soon as this week to decide on the agenda and dates of the NPCSC’s pre-NPC session.

The NPCSC was scheduled to convene for a regular bimonthly session in late April, but that is now unlikely to take place given the reported schedule of the NPC session. The NPCSC may choose to combine this scheduled “full” session (where multiple bills are usually considered) with the shorter, pre-NPC session (where, as noted above, only preparatory work for the NPC session is usually done) for a longer pre-NPC session. If so, some of the following bills may return for further review:

This post will be updated if the NPC’s 2020 session is scheduled to start this month.

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NPC Calendar: March 2020

The revised Securities Law [证券法] takes effect on March 1.

The 13th NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) is expected to convene for a special session by mid-March to discuss a draft of its annual work report and other documents to prepare for the NPC’s 2020 annual session. It is also expected to set a new start date for the NPC session.

The 13th NPC is likely to convene for its third annual session in late March. We expect the session’s agenda to include the following:

  • Hear and deliberate the Government Work Report;
  • Hear and deliberate work reports by the NPCSC, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate;
  • Review and approve a report on the execution of the 2019 National Economic and Social Development Plan and on the draft 2020 National Economic and Social Development Plan;
  • Approve the 2020 National Economic and Social Development Plan;
  • Review and approve a report on the execution of the 2019 Central and Local Budgets and on the draft 2020 Central and Local Budgets;
  • Approve the 2020 Central Budget;
  • Deliberate the draft Civil Code  [民法典].

We also expect the session to retroactively approve the resignation of Feng Zhonghua [冯忠华] as an NPCSC member in June 2019. He has since been appointed a Vice Governor of Hainan. Under Chinese law, an NPCSC member must resign if he is to serve in an administrative organ.

On the day before it opens, the NPC session will convene for a preparatory meeting to select members of the Presidium (which will preside over the session) and to finalize the session’s agenda. The Presidium will then immediately meet to decide on (among other matters) the session’s daily schedule. Shortly thereafter the session is expected to hold its first press conference.

We expect the NPC’s 2020 annual session to last around (maybe slightly longer than) ten days. On the last day, we expect it to approve the Civil Code.

Should the authorities decide not to convene the NPC by the end of March, however, we expect all the preparatory events mentioned above, including the NPCSC’s special session, to be accordingly postponed.

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