“The fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of ‘Asian values’. “The emphasis of Asian culture on obedience to authority may play a role in explaining the success of public health measures in the region. “The massive disparity between eastern and western responses to the pandemic lies in their cultural values. Western “individualistic” culture puts the needs and wants of the individual first, while Eastern “collectivist” culture puts the needs of society first. “
Over the past year, “Asian values” have become the sole explanation for the success of countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam in controlling the virus. The West, many insisted, had paid for its individualistic ethics by ensuring that populations refuse to obey the authorities, do not wear masks or do not observe confinement.
Except it didn’t quite turn out like that. The Tokyo Olympics were superb, full of spectacle and drama. But there was no spectator in the stadiums to watch this drama. Tokyo is in its fourth lockdown and Covid cases continue to rise sharply. Most Japanese did not want the Games and in no country has there been more contempt for the way authorities have handled the pandemic. Less than a third of the population has been vaccinated and only a minority trusts Covid vaccines. The only other country so skeptical of vaccines is another East Asian country, South Korea. These two countries also have the lowest levels of confidence in the ability of health authorities to implement an effective immunization program. There are reasons for such skepticism, such as Japan’s history of botched vaccination programs. Yet all of this puts a damper on the claim that Asian countries have special trust in authority and exhibit flock-like obedience.
Meanwhile, in Britain 96% trust Covid vaccines. The supposedly very individualistic population throughout the pandemic wanted more restrictions than the government imposed. The latest polls suggest that nearly half of Britons think the restrictions were lifted too soon (compared to one in eight who think they should have been relaxed sooner); the vast majority want masks to be compulsory in shops and on public transport and for social distancing rules to be maintained; half want nightclubs closed; and nearly one in five want to maintain the toughest forms of restrictions – prohibiting people from leaving their homes except for essential shopping, exercise and work.
Such attitudes are not peculiar to Great Britain. At the start of the pandemic, most European countries were very supportive of blockades and other restrictions on personal freedoms, much to the surprise of the authorities. Confidence in vaccines has increased in most European countries, including France where, for historical reasons, hesitation has been greater. Australia has seen a low number of Covid cases and deaths, but also a freezing vaccination rate. Individual states have imposed a series of severe lockdowns but, despite a number of anti-blockade protests, most people consider authorities to have handled the pandemic very well. Australians appear to be, if not more, willing to comply with government demands as a people in most “Confucian” countries.
Far from being a simple east / west divide, the overall picture is messy in terms of attitudes, policies and results. East Asian countries have disappointing vaccination rates, but the number of Covid deaths also remains low. Britain has a very high proportion of people vaccinated, but the death toll is very high and few would suggest, other than the rollout of the vaccine, that the policy has been consistent or well judged.
This mess reflects the fact that Covid-19 responses and outcomes are the product of many factors. One of the reasons many East Asian states were initially better prepared for Covid was their recent experience with similar illnesses, especially Sars. In Britain, the plan that had been prepared to deal with pandemics was scrapped, in part because of austerity. The foreclosure of the state and the outsourcing of basic functions have constrained Britain’s ability to respond to major issues. In the EU, the inertia of the bureaucratic machine and tensions between national interests and bureaucratic needs have paralyzed policy-making, especially in vaccine deployment. In America, political polarization has shaped attitudes towards Covid and social restrictions.
Much of this complexity is overlooked in looking for simple categories through which to visualize people and events and simple divisions with which to explain the world. Many cultural developments in East Asian countries, from the Seoul club scene to Japanese subcultures, belies the label “conformist”. Or consider that when comparing China and Taiwan, whether one is authoritarian and the other democratic matters more than whether both have Confucian traditions. Ignoring this distinction allows many to describe authoritarianism as Confucianism. Confucianism is also not the only philosophy in East Asian countries – it is simply the one with which Western observers are most familiar.
Likewise, the idea that one can simply distill “Western values” into individualism is as misleading as to imagine that “Eastern values” are synonymous with conformity. Liberal individualism is certainly a common thread of Western traditions. But Western cultures have been shaped by figures as divergent as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke and Karl Marx, as by philosophers of the liberal tradition, such as John Locke or John Stuart Mill.
Perhaps the most depressing consequence of the east / west myth is the belief that one can only have one or the other: that one can either have a social mind or believe in individual freedoms. The fallout from this kind of zero-sum thinking has been the distortion of ideas of both freedom and social spirit. On the one hand, the ideas of freedom and rights have been increasingly associated with law and trivialized. When the refusal to wear a mask becomes a heroic celebration of individualism, there is something deeply confused about this notion. Meanwhile, many sections of the left seem to have forgotten the importance of freedom to those who have it least and have come to view the community spirit as the imposition of greater restrictions.
There are clearly cultural differences between nations, but to define such differences in “east versus west” terms is to ignore the reality. If the pandemic has revealed anything about values, it’s that East and West still struggle to work through the relationship between individualism and community spirit.