Covid-19: Lessons from the East?

Are there lessons still to be learnt about the way the East has handled coronavirus? As Europe and the US adopt increasingly draconian measures to stop the spreading of the virus, Asia is slowly recovering. Within a similar period of time, the virus has made a greater number of victims in Europe and the US than in Asia. This imbalance is not only a matter of governance or national health systems – a lot of it is cultural.  

The People’s Republic of China, a country of 1.4 billion people, managed to contain the virus in about ten weeks reporting the first day without deaths on April 7th. Vietnam, one of the PRC’s neighbours and home to the first registered case outside of China back in January, has only a few hundred infections within its territory and, seemingly, no deaths. The government in Hanoi was even praised by the World Health Organisation for its performance. South Korea, one of the virus epicentres back in February, managed to slow down the spread and now has about 10,000 cases (one seventh of those registered in the UK) and only 222 deaths.

What made Asian countries’ response to the virus effective? Many have found an answer in the ability of governments to strictly control their citizens. This capacity is seen as the direct result of the presence of authoritarian governments – China, Vietnam – or authoritarian traits within formally established democracies – South Korea – and has been dismissed in the West as something neither possible nor desirable. But this view might be simplistic. As much as a country’s policy-making reflects the nature of its political systems, political arrangements result from the mindset, customs and social behaviour of a people or a society. To put simple, politics rests upon culture.

There are a few societal behaviours shared by China, Vietnam and South Korea that are absent in the Western cultural tradition. First, the general tendency to value the collective over the individual. This fundamental premise is a legacy of Confucianism and an underlying concept to the notion of citizenship in China and culturally proximate countries. Confucius preached that the virtuous individual should be willing to sacrifice for the family, the neighbouring social circles, and ultimately the state.

Valuing the collective over the individual is a two-fold asset at a time like this: first, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the South Koreans have arguably had less troubles than Europeans or Americans in accepting the idea of suffering any form of discomfort – isolation, in this case – for the common good. As such, they proved more disciplined. This is evidenced by the Chinese experts that were sent to Europe to help fighting the virus: “The main problem is that too many people are still out in the streets,” they declared to China’s State News Agency.

Secondly, the importance conferred by the individual on the state, combined with centralized policy-making, allowed the government to adopt cost-cutting strategies to deal with the crisis. For instance, central governments in China and Vietnam have been able to elude market rules in order to prioritize production of certain goods over others: this allowed to avoid the risk that key products – such as food, surgical masks, and sanitary products – get out of stock or become overly expensive.

Most European countries and the United States have been taking on some of the measures that proved successful in Asia, but recovery is nowhere near in sight. As Westerners, we feed into the idea that this imbalance is the result of the ideological premises of liberal democracy that grant citizens’ individual freedom instead of controlling and restraining them. This might be true. But on closer inspection, we might find that some aspects of existing liberal democracies exceeded those premises: undeterred individualism, the rule of the market, and the lack of state intervention, if unchallenged, may be our doom in the world of the future.

 

Lost Confucianism in Asia: South Korean Case

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on the 15th of March 2018. UPR Outcomes on the Republic of Korea.

Mr President. Human Rights in the Republic of Korea are often neglected because many think all is well in South Korea in light of the country’s economic affluence. However, according to the World Health Organization, South Korea has the second-highest suicide rate in the world as well as having the highest suicide rate for any OECD member state.

This is due to the significant level of suicide among our senior citizens, which is the major contributing factor to South Korea’s overall suicide rate. With the population among the elderly increasing, the NCF calls for urgent attention to be paid to the situation of our elderly in South Korea.

South Korea’s elderly are suffering from poverty and income inequality due to the insufficient pension system and poor welfare system. Poverty rate among the elderly reached 61.7% in 2015, the highest for any OECD country, and yet, there is still no adequate system to provide help for people as they prepare for their lives post-retirement. Public social expenditure is the second lowest among the OECD countries.

Mr President, elderly poverty is an urgent social problem in South Korea. A lot of the elderly are suffering from lack of adequate sanitation, heating, lighting and food, exposing them to a wide range of hazards. Some of them choose to suicide, and some even fall prey to criminal activities such as prostitution.

South Korea is known for its rapid economic growth and has been held up as an economic model for other developing countries. However, there is a serious gap between the nation’s exemplary economic development and the poor pension and welfare systems for the elderly. The Next Century Foundation suggests that immediate attention be paid to this situation by the UN and calls for systematic reform in South Korea. Thank you.

Korean Peninsula Crisis

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 4 ID on 12th March 2018, the special report on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea:

Mr President, my name is Be Sun Lee from the Next Century Foundation.

The Next Century Foundation recognizes that despite the positive signal given by the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeong-Chang, the underlying antagonism on the Korean peninsula persists. The Next Century Foundation feels that the United Nation has not been involved as actively or thoughtfully as it could have been on the issue.

North Korea has long been known for human rights violations. On 13 February 2017 Kim Jong-Nam was assassinated. On 19 June 2017 Otto Warmbier died at the age of 22 after 17 months of imprisonment with hard labour in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Furthermore in 2017 alone, 23 missiles were fired, threating to undermine international security and infringing the universal fundamental human right to freedom from fear.

Meanwhile, in response to the Korean crisis, the UN Security Council has adopted economic sanctions against North Korea. However, it was the welfare of the population that was negatively affected by the UN’s action, whilst the authoritarian elite in North Korea was smuggling resources from abroad. On 24th March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council adopted an “experts in legal accountability” process to assess cases and develop plans for the eventual prosecution of North Korean leaders responsible for crimes against humanity. But Mr President what practical effect have these measures had? The Next Century Foundation believes the United Nations has merely been provoking outrage in North Korea and made prospects for democracy even weaker by making the DPRK believe they are not part of our international community.

As a citizen of the Republic of Korea, I do not wish to see harm come to South Korea nor indeed to North Korea. Nearly 3,800 of the people who’ve been waiting to reunite with their relatives in North Korea died last year; however almost 60,000 South Koreans are still waiting desperately to see their separated families. We therefore appeal to the UN and the international community to collaborate together, rather than using this crisis to advance selfish political or economic interest, and to devise a thoughtful resolution of the problems facing the Korean peninsula. Only then can we genuinely invite North Korean leaders to denuclearise, protect human security, and promote human rights for all.

Rocket Man’s Last Resort, Winter Olympics 2018

It seems like Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean dictator, has run out of cards. Under the increasing pressure from the US and the international community to denuclearise, North Korea announced on Tuesday that it wanted to join the Winter Olympics 2018, in Pyeong-Chang, South Korea.

After two years of silence, Kim Jong-Un has reconnected the military hotline between North and South Korea to show a desire to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics and offered to meet with the South Korean government. As a result, South Korea and the United States have decided to delay their joint military exercises until the end of Olympic Games.

As a result of the dictator’s “infantile repartee” with US President Trump, international sanctions against North Korea’s weapons production were reinforced and caused huge job losses, leading to economic downsizing and reducing the dictator’s popularity in North Korea. As an effort to appease the public, North Korean media again put the blame on the US, publicly denouncing the US for being an obstacle to peace with South Korea and stating that South Korea should discontinue any joint military actions with the US.

Kim Jong-Un should be given credit for always coming up with a brilliant plan to preserve his power, but he has got to be stopped.

The relationship between South and North Korea has been used by China, Russia, and America in their effort to seize preeminence in the Northeast Asian arena. The cost of their power game is usually put on South Korea’s shoulders. The dehumanising and precarious human security in North Korea is already well known to us. However, South Koreans are also being threatened every day by the unpredictable relationship between the US and North Korea. The dictator’s suggestion that the US and South Korea’s joint military action is a hostile act rather than merely defensive should be criticised strongly by the international community. His decision to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics should not change any current course of action against North Korea. And once and for all, I just wish genuine “freedom from fear” and better human security would be realised both in South and North Korea in 2018.