Has Confucius won the Corona war?
Can Cultural Imprints Account for Success and Failure in Coping with the Pandemic?
When Western observers comment upon the astonishing success of the People’s Republic of China in fighting the pandemic, they are often quick to offer explanations: one can hardly trust the official figures, and even if they should be correct, China is a repressive surveillance state that knows everything about its citizens and has no scruples about massively restricting individual freedoms and fundamental rights. Shame about the inability of Western societies to cope with the pandemic is thus turned into a narrative of moral superiority.
However, one does not have to look at China to realize that there is a considerable discrepancy between the “Western world” and East Asia in general when it comes to the effectiveness of infection protection strategies. Japan, South Korea, and especially Taiwan, compared to, for example, Germany, have significantly lower numbers of new infections and deaths as a result of Covid-19. Now, these three East Asian countries are functioning democracies at a technological and economic level comparable to Germany. Accordingly, it is tempting to look for cultural causes for the differences. Indeed, there has been much speculation about culturally determined differences in social behaviour and their influence on the incidence of infection: East Asians, it is claimed, have a different perception of appropriate physical distance than “Westerners”; people usually greet each other without touching; people are used to wearing masks (initially ridiculed by Europeans) to prevent the infection of others (a motivation that many Europeans found most irritating); etc.1
But can these differences in everyday culture really explain the extreme differences in the number of cases, or do we have to consider other cultural factors, too? Indeed, there is a “clash of civilizations” raging in the media. A new system competition seems to be emerging – instead of communism vs. capitalism, it is now “East Asia’s ‘soft’ culture” vs. “‘hard’ Western culture”.2
For example, LiLee Ng, an economics professor originally from Singapore, claims: “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 [as] the priority whereas Eastern ‘collectivist’ culture pushes societal needs to the forefront. Personal freedom and individual rights […], to defy authority and independence takes precedence over interdependence. In a collectivist culture people might sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good of everyone else, be more accepting of authority and comply with strict enforcement of regulation more amicably.”3
It is thus suggested that cultural imprints and traditional norms account for the differences in fighting the pandemic. When one speaks of cultural imprints and traditional values, one inevitably has to consider the religious factor. Historically, religions have been the main providers of cognitive and normative orientation. They have created and enforced comprehensive, highly binding systems of knowledge and values that have not simply disappeared in the course of secularization and globalization (or “Westernization” in the case of non-Western societies). They remain effective as remarkably resilient dispositives of perception, interpretation, and action. It can therefore by no means be categorically ruled out that religious imprints may be one factor in a bundle of factors that determine success or failure in pandemic control. However, identifying cultural or religious differences as causal factors is notoriously difficult and speculative.
This does not prevent authors from postulating such causalities. For example, East Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin in Asia Times offers the working hypothesis that “the Asia triad of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu has been absolutely essential in shaping the perception and serene response of hundreds of millions of people across various Asian nations to Covid-19. Compare this with the prevalent fear, panic and hysteria mostly fed by the corporate media across the West.”4 Whether the response of people in Wuhan to both the pandemic and the drastic measures taken by the government is adequately described as “serene” and whether this serenity has its root in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism may well be questioned, of course. Martin goes on to explain that the acceptance of government surveillance measures in tracking chains of infection in East Asia is related to the fact that “East Asia is about collectivism, and individualism is not on the forefront.”5 Likewise, the acceptance of various radical forms of quarantine to which 700 million Chinese were subjected for weeks, the author contends, was a result of Confucian influence.6 “Confucius”, he claims, “is winning the Covid-19 war”.
In the same vein, Lee Sung-yoon, professor of international relations, told the Wall Street Journal: “In South Korea, as in Japan and Taiwan, the lingering cultural imprint of Confucianism gives a paternalistic state a freer hand to intrude in people’s lives during an emergency […] Most people willingly submit themselves to authority and few complain. […] The Confucian emphasis on respect for authority, social stability and the good of the nation above individualism is an ameliorating factor in a time of national crisis.”7
However, such essentializing and potentially orientalist theses do not go unchallenged. In Foreign Policy, Nathan S. Park dismisses explanations based on the difference between a collectivist East Asia and an individualist West as sheer nonsense: “This is a long-standing pattern of Orientalism. Whenever a social policy seems to work well in an Asian country […], Westerners […] are quick to claim that such policy was possible only because of Asia’s supposedly homogenous populations and harmonious societies. Such harmony, however, exists only in a racist fantasy that imagines a society made up of meek, compliant Asians. South Korea, specifically, is not at all the communitarian-spirited society of the kind that Americans like to imagine.”8 His conclusion (also the title of the opinion piece) is “Confucianism Isn’t Helping Beat the Coronavirus”9 and “[c]ultural tropes don’t explain South Korea’s success against COVID-19. Competent leadership does.”10
The question remains unanswered, however, why South Korea’s “competent leadership” has been able to implement measures that Western nations do not even dare consider, e.g. consistent tracing, strict quarantine surveillance, etc.
How the Corona Crisis has Spurred Mutual Cultural Comparisons
Regardless of how one evaluates culturalist explanations of the successes and failures in tackling the pandemic, it is remarkable how the Corona crisis has spurred mutual cultural comparisons. The global crisis reveals actual or ascribed cultural differences and potentially leads to a consolidation of cultural stereotypes in the dispute over which culture has been more successful. In a process of mutual observation that includes external ascriptions as well as self-attributions, such culturalist stereotypes could ultimately become actually effective. Alluding to the so-called Thomas theorem, one might say: “If people define cultural differences as real, they are real in their consequences.” Since individuals, like societies, tend to identify themselves even with attributes externally ascribed to them, cultural stereotypes can actually become relevant for social behaviour and political action. The self-perception of the individualistic and freedom-loving West as opposed to the supposedly collectivist and obedient East may lead those characterized thus to behave in accordance with these stereotypes, which thereby become real in their consequences. If it is part of the self-image (and claim to superiority) of Western societies to give greater weight to individual freedom than to collective well-being, to favour individual responsibility over consistent state action, this has real, sometimes fatal consequences.
As Friedrich Tenbruck pointed out, the mutual comparison of cultures triggers reflection on both sides about their own culture, the nature and legitimacy of which must now be reassured in comparison with the other.11 Cultural comparisons thus serve less the knowledge of foreign cultures and more self-reflection. In this sense, it is more fruitful for comparative cultural studies, like the study of religion, to ask which external attributions and self-perceptions are evoked in the discursive competition for the best cultural and religious preconditions for fighting the pandemic than for actual causalities.
Is the “West” Ready to Learn from the “East”?
Obviously, the “West”, in its post-colonial hubris, shows little inclination to learn anything from the alleged cultural peculiarities of the “East”: hundreds of thousands die here, but they do so in freedom and dignity. We could be more successful in fighting the pandemic, but after all, we are not Chinese – thank God!
The comparison of alleged or actual cultural and/or religious influences as factors in the fight against the pandemic could certainly be a motivation for a critical revision of one’s own values. Do we not construct a false antagonism between individual freedom and collective responsibility? Is there really a contradiction between individual freedom and social solidarity? In the post-modern West, humans are seen not so much as social beings dependent on mutual solidarity but rather as sociable beings dependent on enjoyable company in the first place. Many “Westerners” seem to have forgotten that the individual can only lead a free, self-determined and secure life in a functioning and solidarity-based society – something that may in fact be more present in the consciousness of societies shaped by Confucian norms and values. All too often, freedom and self-determination are confused with selfishness and recklessness. In this respect, it is absurd to say that it must be the individual’s free decision whether he or she wears a mask and with whom or how many people one meets. And it does concern the state (and society!) how Friedrich Merz celebrates Christmas.12 In a pandemic, such decisions are not only private because they have (potentially lethal) consequences for society, i.e. other individuals.
Those who place all their emphasis on self-responsibility rather than on rules and regulations, and who consider this to be the foundation of Western democracies, should consequentially demand the abolition of all laws. Why should trifles such as fare evasion or the theft of a candy bar be punishable, but potentially fatal violations of the Infection Protection Act defined as just trivial misdemeanours? And does the inviolability of the family also apply to marital rape or child abuse?
At the beginning of the pandemic, some had hoped that the imagined global community could draw sustainable lessons and critically question forms of action and thinking that had previously been taken for granted, including an unleashed individualism and an egocentric concept of freedom. This could also have included the willingness to learn from direct cultural comparisons, e.g. from East Asia.13 But the West does not seem to be ready for such self-criticism: Even failure is celebrated in the gesture of moral superiority as a necessary sacrifice for the only true and globally implementable attitude.
- Cf. Rochelle Kopp, “Does Japan’s Culture Explain Its Low COVID-19 Numbers?,” accessed December 1, 2020, www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2020/04/01/voices/japan-culture-low-covid-19-numbers/; Deutsche Welle, “How Japan's mask culture may have saved lives during coronavirus | DW | 19.10.2020,” accessed December 1, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/how-japans-mask-culture-may-have-saved-lives-during-coronavirus/a-55321518.
- LiLee Ng, “East Asia’s ‘Soft’ Culture Key to Beating Covid-19,” accessed December 1, 2020, https://japantoday.com/category/features/opinions/east-asia%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98soft%E2%80%99-culture-key-to-beating-covid-19.
- Bradley K. Martin, “Confucius Is Winning the Covid-19 War,” Asia Times, April 13, 2020, accessed December 1, 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/confucius-is-winning-the-covid-19-war/.
- Timothy W. Martin and Marcus Walker, “East Vs. West: Coronavirus Fight Tests Divergent Strategies,” The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2020, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/east-vs-west-coronavirus-fight-tests-divergent-strategies-11584110308.
- S. N. Park, “Confucianism Isn’t Helping South Korea Beat the Coronavirus,” Foreign Policy, April 2, 2020, accessed December 1, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/02/confucianism-south-korea-coronavirus-testing-cultural-trope-orientalism/.
- Friedrich H. Tenbruck, “Was war der Kulturvergleich, ehe es den Kulturvergleich gab?,” in Zwischen den Kulturen? Die Sozialwissenschaften vor dem Problem des Kulturvergleichs, ed. Joachim Matthes, Soziale Welt, Sonderband 8 (Göttingen: Schwartz, 1992), 23.
- Georg Ismar, Maria Fiedler, and Robert Birnbaum, “Merz Stemmt Sich Gegen Fest-Auflagen „Es Geht Den Staat Nichts An, Wie Ich Weihnachten Feiere“,” accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/merz-stemmt-sich-gegen-fest-auflagen-es-geht-den-staat-nichts-an-wie-ich-weihnachten-feiere/26646258.html.
- The Institute of East Asian Studies (IN-EAST) of the University of Duisburg has invited to a ZOOM online panel discussion on "Covid-19 - What can we learn from the strategies of East Asian countries?" on Dec. 15, 2020. https://www.uni-due.de/in-east/events/ostasien-gespraeche.php