This essay, on why there is no simple divide between “Eastern” and “Western” values, was my Observer column this week. It was published in the Observer, 8 August 2021, under the headline “Can Covid death rates be reduced to a clash of values? It’s not so simple”.
“The fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of ‘Asian values’.” “Asian culture’s emphasis on obedience to authority could play a role in explaining how successful public health measures have been in the region.” “The massive disparity in Eastern and Western responses to the pandemic lies in their cultural values. Western ‘individualistic’ culture puts the needs and desires of the individual the priority whereas Eastern ‘collectivist’ culture pushes societal needs to the forefront.”
Last year, “Asian values” became the one-stop explanation for the success of countries such as China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam in controlling the virus. The West, many insisted, had paid for its individualist ethos by having populations refuse to obey the authorities, fail to wear masks or observe lockdowns.
Except that it has not quite turned out like that. The Olympics in Tokyo have been superb, full of spectacle and drama. But there have been no spectators in the stadia to watch that drama. Tokyo is in its fourth lockdown and Covid cases are still rising sharply. Most Japanese did not want the Games and in no country has there been more scorn for the way the authorities have handled the pandemic. Less than a third of the population has been vaccinated and only a minority trust Covid vaccines. The only other nation so sceptical of vaccines is another East Asian country, South Korea. Those two countries also have the lowest levels of trust in health authorities’ ability to deliver an effective vaccination programme. There are reasons for such scepticism, such as Japan’s history of botched vaccination programmes. Yet all this puts a dent in the claim that Asian countries are particularly trusting of authority and exhibit a herd-like obedience.
Meanwhile, in Britain, 96% trust Covid vaccines. The supposedly highly individualist population has throughout the pandemic desired more restrictions than the government imposed. The latest polls suggest almost half of Britons think restrictions have been lifted too soon (as compared with one in eight who think they should have been eased sooner); the vast majority want masks to be mandatory in shops and on public transport and social distancing rules maintained; half want nightclubs closed; and almost one in five want to maintain the toughest forms of restrictions – banning people from leaving their homes except for essential shopping, exercise and work.
Such attitudes are not peculiar to Britain. At the beginning of the pandemic, most European nations were highly supportive of lockdowns and other restrictions on personal freedoms, much to the surprise of the authorities. Trust in vaccines has increased in most European nations, including in France where, for historical reasons, there has been greater hesitancy. Australia has seen low numbers of Covid cases and deaths, but also a glacial rate of vaccination. Individual states have imposed a series of severe lockdowns but, despite a number of anti-lockdown protests, most people view the authorities as having handled the pandemic very well. Australians seem as, if not more, willing to conform to government demands as people in most “Confucian” countries.
Far from there being a simple east/west divide, the global picture is messy in terms of attitudes, policy and outcomes. East Asian countries have disappointingly low vaccination rates, but the numbers of Covid deaths also remain low. Britain has a high proportion of vaccinated people, but the numbers of deaths are also high and few would suggest, with the exception of the vaccine rollout, that policy has been coherent or well-judged.
This messiness reflects the fact that both responses to Covid-19 and the outcomes are the products of many factors. One reason many East Asian states were initially better prepared for Covid was their recent experience of similar diseases, especially Sars. In Britain, the plan that had been prepared for dealing with pandemics was shelved, partly because of austerity. The hollowing out of the state, and outsourcing of basic functions, has restricted Britain’s ability to react to major issues. In the EU, both the inertia of the bureaucratic machine and the tensions between national interests and bureaucratic needs paralysed policymaking, most noticeably at the beginning of the vaccine rollout. In America, political polarisation has shaped attitudes to Covid and to social restrictions.
Much of this complexity gets ignored in the drive to look for simple categories through which to view people and events and for simple divisions with which to explain the world. Many cultural developments in East Asian countries, from Seoul’s club scene to Japanese subcultures, belie the “conformist” tag. Or consider that in comparing China and Taiwan the fact that one is authoritarian and the other democratic matters more than the fact that both have Confucian traditions. Ignoring that distinction allows many to portray authoritarianism as Confucianism. Nor is Confucianism the only philosophy in East Asian countries – it is simply the one with which Western observers are most familiar.
Similarly, the idea that one can simply distil “Western values” into individualism is as misleading as imagining that “Eastern values” are synonymous with conformity. Liberal individualism is certainly a key thread in Western traditions. But Western cultures have been shaped by figures as divergent as Aristotle and Aquinas, Edmund Burke and Karl Marx, as by the 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 have only one or the other: that one can either be socially minded or believe in individual freedoms. The fallout from this kind of zero-sum thinking has been the distortion of ideas both of freedom and of social-mindedness. On the one hand, ideas of freedom and rights have been increasingly associated with the right and often trivialised. When the refusal to wear a mask becomes seen as a heroic celebration of individualism, there is something deeply confused about the notion. Meanwhile, many sections of the left seem to have forgotten the importance of freedom to those who least possess it and have come to view community-mindedness as the imposition of greater restrictions.
There are clearly cultural differences between nations but to frame such differences in terms of “east v west” is to ignore the reality. If the pandemic has revealed anything about values, it is that east and west are still struggling to work through the relationship between individualism and community-mindedness.