Dr. Jing Wang is an associate professor at the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Her research focuses on the role of technology and innovation in healthcare delivery, the provision of long-term care, and the promotion of social welfare in the Chinese healthcare system. She is a 2019-2020 Visiting Scholar with the Harvard China Health Partnership. These remarks represent her own personal views, not the views of the Harvard China Health Partnership or the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
As COVID-19 spread across the globe, East Asian countries, like China, South Korea, and Singapore, exhibited many similarities in their approaches to fighting the pandemic. Most of these societies rolled out intrusive electronic monitoring and tracking, restricted people’s travel, organized mass testing, and required strict isolation. Although their political systems are different, these countries’ policy responses to COVID-19 share common features. One might ask why these measures were implemented so successfully in East Asian societies. This is difficult to understand from a Western perspective. For example, while Western onlookers tend to emphasize the “mandatory” and “centralized” features of policymaking in East Asian countries, they ignore the fundamental institutional culture that these societies have in common.
The traditional East Asian Confucian culture values order, family, and the common interest. While in the United States, individualism and freedom are widely held as basic values, in East Asia, they have selfish and unruly connotations. Confucianism argues that “there is no rule without a circle,” individualism breeds anarchy, and certain social rules are necessary to advance the collective interests of society. Therefore, during a major disaster, people view their government like the head of a family, hoping their leaders will assume the responsibility of parents. In this way, the people empower the government. Their trust and obedience to their government are internalized in mind and externalized in practice.
In this light, the differences in Chinese and American behavior during the coronavirus pandemic are manifest. In China, almost no one argues over whether to wear a mask because wearing a mask is assuming responsibility for the collective, but in Western culture, wearing a mask is often considered something that should be left up to the individual, undermining attempts at regulation requiring it. Additionally, in Western culture, wearing a mask is often associated with being sick, and people worry about facing discrimination for doing so in public. As a result, early on in the pandemic, people did not appreciate the protective value of wearing masks. As for “lockdown” measures, in the early days of the crisis in the United States, when New York’s outbreak was the worst in the country, the Trump Administration considered restricting travel out of the New York state to control the spread, but resistance by the Governor killed the idea. In China, in contrast, residents of Wuhan sacrificed their freedom of movement during a lockdown period. Most people generally accepted the government’s restrictions, and few resisted the policy.
China is also aided by its robust community-level self-governing organizations. They can take the government’s place in performing certain auxiliary government functions. For example, during the outbreak, they assumed responsibility for health education, community-based screening, the dissemination of prevention and control information, and disinfection and sterilization for community residents. Community workers helped COVID-19 patients buy food and daily necessities while they were isolated at home. They also helped to connect residents in need of healthcare with medical resources. Community-level self-governing organizations have made important contributions to stopping the rapid spread of the virus in China.
There are many factors that determine a country’s success or failure in fighting a pandemic. Government action is certainly important, but it is not the only factor, as is illustrated by the similar experiences of China, Singapore, and South Korea. In many cases, traditional institutional culture also plays an important role in determining societal performance.