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“A person can fly to Japan from anywhere,” historian Edward Luttwak wrote in 2019. “But you can only fly from Japan to the third world.” At this time last year, a country with twice the population of the United Kingdom and a quarter of the number of Covid-19 deaths did not seem to change even this line. Trying to understand its success is due to the meek and bureaucratic superclass of the East.
Hokum, yes, but soothing hokum. One comfort of the pandemic is that it reveals social patterns that others should imitate. (Germany is another.) When it illuminates the path to a better life, trauma is easier to bear.
Even this comfort is now rejected by us. East Asia has become a laggard among developed countries in the vaccination race. South Korea has completely assassinated 13% of its population. Taiwan manages about 1%. Of course, Vietnam is poorer, but the model for avoiding economic recession with China in 2020 is 0.4%. Whether the cause is insufficient government preparation, distrust of authority, or apparent carelessness in the context of low case rates, stereotypes will plummet.
When they did this, two conclusions stood out. The first is grand enough to be called geopolitics. Even if it is tasteful to weigh these things, there is nowhere to “win” the pandemic. China crushed the virus, but was accused of accidentally spreading the virus. America’s economic growth is daunting, but its death toll is also daunting. India seems to have shaken off its hellish low expectations within a few months. Europe has restored its vaccine farce, but its stain lingers. Even the canonization of Jacinda Ardern was put on hold.
If the world is a contest of governance models, then the pandemic will become a net neutral event. Whether one-party democracy is better than boisterous democracy is not clearer than in 2019. Or if one of them defeated the high-tech dictatorship. Or, if generous welfare trumps lean countries. Or, if collective action between different citizens is easier than homogeneous citizens.
Indeed, there are several countries that can tell good stories almost unambiguously. But discovering the values and institutions that link Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Mongolia is a feat. As if to make fun of us, when a theme does come up—the careless “neoliberalism” of Britain and the United States—it will wither with further evidence. In other words, as time goes by, we learn less and less. Part of the reason why the past 18 months have been so unforgettable is that they lack all the patterns and meanings.
This is the sunnier lesson of glacier vaccination in parts of Asia. The other is that the West’s view of these countries is still very rough. Whether it’s awe, disgust or complete neutrality, some of the smartest Americans and Europeans I know attribute the impressive 2020 in East and Southeast Asia to innate collectivism. Some people get paid for better understanding of specific tasks. Even at that time, it was a strange view for an area with the most developed youth subculture on the planet and a denser city that is more open 24 hours a day than anywhere in the West. The conflation of Japan and South Korea (I heard people in each country tend to describe it) also illustrates the problem.
In recent months, this metaphor of herd respect has become complicated. Even well-intentioned clichés, that is, deep-rooted capabilities, have weakened. But what is surprising is that it has flourished for such a long time. You won’t understand Japan’s decades of corporate paralysis from the myths mastered by technocrats. You don’t know how vivid memories of poverty and chaos in the country are for some Singaporeans and Vietnamese.
A pleasing misunderstanding is still a misunderstanding. Edward Said By portraying the “East” in the West as perceptual and noble mistakes, the entire academic field was created. Even he really only refers to Britain and France on the one hand, and the Middle East and India on the other. Today’s version includes a wider range of participants, as well as larger stakes. A credible mid-century G20 will make Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand the Asian giants they are today.
There is no doubt that not understanding is more than just rewards. There is something like Occidentalism, and its prosperity was not so good at this time last year. However, given the power flow in this century, it is clear on which side the burden of understanding must fall.
Email Janan at email@example.com
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