In our post of 17th April we briefly outlined the then history of the COVID epidemic. The ‘quotes’ were précised versions of media opinions in China and the West. They reflect accurately the views of the majority in each jurisdiction. Neither the West nor China could understand, let alone appreciate, the views of the other. Today is no different. It comes down to culture.
The Chinese Government is popular with its citizens. Chinese people approve of the measures that the Government took – and has taken – since the start of the epidemic. Nobody in Wuhan or any other city, liked being locked down for weeks at the start of the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar. It was the equivalent of cancelling major festivals elsewhere such as Christmas or Diwali. People in China did not just accept the restrictions. They were proud of the success their government had in controlling the virus.
The Chinese government and media were quick to pass on their recommendations to the West at the time. The Chinese could not understand why western governments did not take them seriously. It took six months, for example, for western countries to accept the need for face masks. Many individuals in the West still do not accept them. Chinese people think this is selfish; the system that allows it – democracy – is dysfunctional and leads to chaos. Individualism must be subordinated to the common good.
Countries around the world, whether in Asia or the West, have dealt with the epidemic differently. However, in Asia, the cultural tendency is to exercise discipline. China is more disciplined than most. But the democracies of Japan, Singapore and South Korea have accepted discipline because this is part of their national culture. As a result, they have been more successful in controlling the virus.
By comparison, the self-appointed leader of democracy and individual rights, the USA, still argues interminably about what its constitutional position should be. It is no coincidence that infection and death rates from COVID-19 in the USA are the highest in the world. Not all North Americans agree, but many accept that this is a price worth paying to preserve individual freedoms.
Then there is the economy. This, every country agrees, is critical. Here again though, cultural differences arise. All countries, centralised or not, have poured money into sustaining businesses and their citizens. Western countries have used the economy as a reason for not doing more about controlling the epidemic.
China’s economy has also suffered. However, it is growing again by more than many observers thought was possible. It is growing not only because the virus is better controlled but also because the Central Government is better able to put resources where it considers they are most needed.
Two examples of western culture appeared in the Sunday newspapers in the UK this week. The first, written by the wife of a leading Cabinet Minister, challenges the latest virus control measures publicly supported by her husband. Sarah Vine believes that people in the UK no longer willingly accept restrictions on their social and emotional lives brought about by lockdowns and self-isolation.
Blinded by the science and the maths, our Government – and foreign governments – have come up with a solution that requires the people to do the one thing they have no hope of ever doing: stop being human. Stop loving, caring, crying, missing, laughing, feeling, misbehaving, having fun. Become robotic, unquestioning, unemotional zombies willing to comply unquestioningly with every directive. In a despotic dictatorship like China you have some chance of success…
Ms Vine’s argument is that the UK Government needs to be more sensitive in how it tries to control the epidemic. But many Britons share Ms Vine’s comments about the need to be human.
In his article, Simon Heffer, an English historian, journalist, author and political commentator, writes:
… the latest restrictions, announced on Thursday, are even tighter for most than those before this lockdown began and have been greeted as excessive by many on whom they will be imposed…. the reaction to the new tiers proves that acceptance and endurance of this authoritarianism is near to snapping.
He goes on to quote historical ‘revolutions’ that occurred in the UK after periods of intense hardship such as the first and second world wars.
Only (after this is over) will we discover whether the roar of the 2020s is one of joy, relief, and optimism – or anger, resentment, and a possibly destructive determination to challenge an idea of a tainted, arbitrary and discredited authority.
Neither of these two articles would see the light of day in China. If they were to, they would be condemned by most citizens. This is not because of a ‘despotic dictatorship’. Chinese people have shown many times in their history that they can and will over-throw dynasties that have failed them. It is because their society demands, as it has for thousands of years, that the community is more important than the individual. Individual discipline and obedience are vital for the well-being of all.
If you are Chinese, the community to which you belong is more important than just you. In the video below, Xiaojuan describes this. Xiaojuan has lived and worked in the UK for ten years. Her home and family are in China. She is very clear about Chinese culture.
You can see the full video on YouTube.
China and the West cannot understand each other. Each thinks the other’s system is wrong. Their norms and values are fundamentally different. Each society has long historical roots. Each culture has value.
Most important is that neither is right or wrong. Neither China nor the West has any right to try and change the other – even if that were possible.