This blog post is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series.
In response to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China has escalated measures to control the spread of the deadly virus, including locking down Wuhan and other cities in the province starting January 23, 2020.
This followed an announcement issued by China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on January 20, 2020, declaring that the novel coronavirus-caused pneumonia is a Class B statutory infectious disease to be treated with control measures applicable to Class A diseases.
1. What is the law governing the classification of infectious diseases and their respective control measures?
The PRC Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases (Infectious Diseases Law) governs the prevention and control of infectious diseases, including in epidemic situations. First enacted in 1989, the Law was significantly revised in August 2004, after the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002–2003, and last amended in 2013.
The Infectious Diseases Law governs thirty-seven infectious diseases that are already known, i.e. the statutory infectious diseases. They are classified into three classes requiring the implementation of different preventive and control measures. There are only two diseases under Class A: bubonic plague and cholera. Class B contains diseases such as SARS, anthrax, AIDS, typhoid, and viral hepatitis. Class C contains diseases such as influenza, leprosy, mumps, and schistosomiasis. (Art. 3.)
The Law provides that the central government health department, i.e. the NHC, has the power to increase, reduce, or otherwise adjust the diseases under Classes B and C and to announce any such changes. (Id.)
2. What is a Class B disease treated with Class A control measures?
The Infectious Diseases Law specifically designates SARS, as well as another two Class B diseases—pulmonary anthrax and highly pathogenic avian influenza—as Class B diseases to be treated with the control measures applicable to Class A diseases. In addition, the NHC may, upon approval of the State Council, announce other Class B diseases or diseases of unknown causes to be treated with Class A control measures. (Art. 4.)
3. What measures are specified by the Law to control Class A diseases?
Whenever a Class A disease is identified, the hospitals may put patients, suspected carriers, and people in close contact with infected patients under mandatory isolation or quarantine and treatment in accordance with the Law. (Art. 39.)
A local government at or above the county level may decide to put places where a Class A disease was found and people in those places under isolation. During the period of isolation, the government that made the decision is responsible for providing living necessities to the people in isolation and employers must continue to pay the salaries of those people. (Art. 41.)
As an emergency measure intended to cut off the spread of the diseases, the government may “close places that may cause the spread of infectious diseases” when there is an outbreak of an infectious disease under any classes. The Law also provides for a series of other emergency measures, including closing markets, theaters, or large public gatherings and suspending businesses and schools. (Art. 42.)
On January 26, 2020, for example, the State Council decided to extend the nationwide Spring Festival holiday that was scheduled to end on January 30 to February 2, 2020. All schools and preschools in the country will postpone the opening of the spring semester until further notice.
4. Does the Law allow locking down a big city like Wuhan?
The Infectious Diseases Law contains a provision on blockading (feng suo in Chinese) an epidemic area (yi qu). According to the Law, during an outbreak of a Class A or B disease, a local government at or above the county level may, upon approval of the government at the next highest level, announce a part of or the whole area under its jurisdiction an epidemic area. Furthermore, only a Class A disease epidemic area can be put under blockade and the decision must be made by the government at the provincial level. If an epidemic area is in a large or medium-sized city or the area crosses borders of provinces, the blockade decision must be made by the central government, i.e. the State Council. (Art. 43.)
However, it is not clear if the current lockdown of Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province was decided in accordance with this provision. Circulars that have been located on the respective city government websites announcing the lockdown of Wuhan, Huanggang, Ezhou, Zhijiang, and Chibi were all issued by the “novel coronavirus infected pneumonia prevention and control headquarters” of these cities, without indicating the decisions had been made by the central government. None of the circulars use the term “blockade.” Specifically, the Wuhan circular ordered the suspension of trains and planes leaving the city (and the highways were also closed later on), as well as the operation of public transportation in the city.
5. Are there other laws that may apply?
A major epidemic of an infectious disease is also subject to the 2003 Regulation on Contingent Public Health Emergencies and the 2007 PRC Law on Emergency Response. Article 33 of the Regulation provides that emergency-response headquarters have the power to evacuate or isolate people and to blockade areas of epidemic infectious disease in accordance with laws. For more information on the health emergency system, see my 2015 Law Library report, China: Legal Responses to Health Emergencies.
6. What other countries do in response to public health emergencies?
The Law Library prepared a multinational report in 2015 that discusses the regulations addressing health emergencies in twenty-five jurisdictions: Legal Responses to Health Emergencies.
If you have more questions on Chinese law, feel free to submit them using our Ask a Librarian webpage.