Dilemmas of securitization and health risk management in the People's Republic of China: The cases of SARS and avian influenza

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Since the SARS epidemic in 2003, the international community has urged Chinese leaders to do more to address infectious diseases. This paper looks at two cases in which the Chinese government securitized infectious disease (SARS and avian influenza) and examines the pros and cons of securitization. It is argued that the reactive mobilization involved in a securitizing move runs counter to the preventive risk management strategy needed to address infectious diseases. Although the Copenhagen School favours desecuritization as a return to normal practices, in the Chinese cases desecuritizing moves proved detrimental, involving cover-ups and restrictions on activists pressing for greater information. The article begins by examining the contributions of the Copenhagen School and sociological theories of risk to conceptualizing the security challenges that pandemics pose. Although analysis of the cases of SARS and avian influenza gives credence to criticisms of this approach, securitization theory proves useful in outlining the different stages in China's reaction to epidemics involving reactive mobilization and subsequent efforts to return to politics as usual.The second section examines securitizing and desecuritizing moves in Chinese responses to SARS and avian influenza. Each case study concludes with an assessment of the consequences for health risk management in China. The reactive mobilization implicit in Chinese securitization moves in the two cases is contrasted with the preventive logic of risk management.A third section draws out the implications of these cases for theories of securitization and risk. It is argued here that when securitization has occurred, risk management has failed. Although Copenhagen School theorists see the return to politics as usual-what they call 'desecuritization'-as optimal, this turns out to be far from the case in China during SARS and avian influenza, where the process involved retribution against whistleblowers and new restrictions on health information.In conclusion, the article argues that alternatives to securitization, such as viewing health as a global public good, would require a prior commitment to risk management within affected states.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)454-466
Number of pages13
JournalHealth Policy and Planning
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2010


  • SARS
  • avian influenza
  • risk
  • securitization
  • severe acute respiratory syndrome


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