Vaccination and the bonfire of Asian clichés


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“One can fly to Japan from anywhere,” wrote the historian Edward Luttwak in 2019. “But from Japan one can only fly to the Third World.” This time last year, a country with twice Britain’s population and one-40th of its Covid-19 deaths seemed short-changed by even that line. Efforts to fathom its success credited eastern docility and a bureaucratic superclass.

Hokum, yes, but soothing hokum. One consolation of the pandemic was that it revealed the social models that others should ape. (Germany’s was another.) Trauma is that much easier to bear when it illuminates the path to better days.

Even that solace is now denied us. East Asia has become the rich world’s straggler in the race to vaccinate. South Korea has fully jabbed 13 per cent of its population. Taiwan has managed around 1 per cent. Vietnam is poorer, granted, but that paragon of 2020, which joined China in dodging recession, is at 0.4 per cent. Whether the cause is government unpreparedness, mistrust of authority or plain insouciance amid low case rates, the stereotypes tumble.

As they do, two conclusions stand out. The first is grand enough to be called geopolitical. Even if it were tasteful to weigh such things, nowhere is going to “win” the pandemic. China crushed the virus but stands accused of carelessly loosing it. America’s economic surge is daunting but so is its death toll. India seemed to buck low expectations before its few months from hell. Europe has redeemed its vaccine farce but the stain of it lingers. Even Jacinda Ardern’s canonisation is stalled.

If the world is a contest of governing models, the pandemic is turning out to be a net-neutral event. It is no clearer than it was in 2019 if one-party democracy outperforms the more raucous kind. Or if either beats high-tech dictatorship. Or if generous welfare trumps a lean state. Or if collective action is easier among diverse citizens than homogenous ones.

A few countries, it is true, have almost unambiguously good stories to tell. But it is some feat to spot the values and institutions that link Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Mongolia. As if to tease us, when a theme does emerge — the heedless “neoliberalism” of Anglo-America — it wilts on further evidence. That is, we have learnt less and less over time. The past 18 months are so haunting in part because they lack all pattern and meaning.

And this is the sunnier lesson from the glacial vaccination in parts of Asia. The other is how crude the west’s picture of those countries still is. Whether in awe, distaste or perfect neutrality, some of the smartest Americans and Europeans I know put east and south-east Asia’s impressive 2020 down to innate collectivism. Some are paid for the specific task of knowing better. Even at the time, it was an odd take on a region that has the most evolved youth subcultures on earth and cities denser and more 24-hour than any in the west. The conflation of Japan with Korea (I hear there are people in each who are inclined to delineate) was no less telling.

Recent months have complicated that trope of herd-like deference. Even the well-meant cliché, namely that of ingrained competence, has waned. But the wonder is that it thrived for as long as it did. You would not know from the myth of technocratic mastery about Japan’s decades of corporate torpor. You would not know what vivid memories national penury and chaos are for some Singaporeans and Vietnamese.

A flattering misapprehension is still a misapprehension. Edward Said coined a whole academic field by faulting the west’s picture of the “Orient” as sensuous and noble. And even he really just meant Britain and France on the one side, and the Middle East and India on the other. Today’s version encompasses a wider cast of participants, and vastly grander stakes. A plausible mid-century G20 will add Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand to today’s Asian colossi.

No doubt, the incomprehension is more than reciprocated. There is such a thing as Occidentalism, and the boom in it this time last year has not aged all that well. Given the flow of power in this century, though, it is clear on which side the burden of understanding must fall.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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