Confucianism Isn’t Helping Beat the Coronavirus

Cultural tropes don’t explain South Korea’s success against COVID-19. Competent leadership does.

Medical staff take COVID-19 test samples from a foreign passenger at a virus testing booth outside Incheon International Airport, near Seoul, on April 1.
Medical staff take COVID-19 test samples from a foreign passenger at a virus testing booth outside Incheon International Airport, near Seoul, on April 1. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

As COVID-19 ravages the United States and Europe, South Korea’s response to the pandemic is earning praises from around the world. The unmatched scale and efficiency of the country’s test-and-quarantine scheme allowed South Korea to stop the coronavirus in its tracks, pushing down the number of new cases to around 100 a day from a peak of around 900 new cases a day in late February. In addition to Korea’s testing capacity, the international media has marveled at its drive-thru testing facilities, detailed tracking of the movements of coronavirus patients, and the calm response of the public, which buys the same amount of toilet paper as before.

Perhaps inevitably, some media have offered reductive cultural explanations for this success. A common trope is that Koreans are less individualistic, more community-oriented, and more willing to sacrifice for the greater good. A New York Times article, for example, claimed: “Social trust is higher in South Korea than in many other countries, particularly Western democracies beset by polarization and populist backlash.” An analysis in the Wall Street Journal said that “the lingering cultural imprint of Confucianism gives a paternalistic state a freer hand to intrude in people’s lives during an emergency.” Several analysts offered that freedom-loving Westerners would not accept South Korea’s contact tracing, as the Western public would not accept the invasion of privacy that detailed every location they visited while carrying the virus.

This is nonsense, and it repeats the same mistake that allowed the rampant coronavirus outbreaks in the United States and Europe in the first place: the mistake of seeing Asia as an unrelatable other, a place so fundamentally different from the West that no knowledge or experience is transferable. The United States and Europe are suffering from COVID-19 because they saw the virus as an “Asian disease,” somehow unable to reach their own shores. Now, they run the risk of rejecting the best practices of combating the pandemic as they imagine “Asian solutions” that can never be replicated in their countries.

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South Korea is not at all the communitarian-spirited society of the kind that Americans like to imagine.

This is a long-standing pattern of Orientalism. Whenever a social policy seems to work well in an Asian country (usually Japan and more recently South Korea), Westerners—Americans in particular—are quick to claim that such policy was possible only because of Asia’s supposedly homogenous populations and harmonious societies. Such harmony, however, exists only in a racist fantasy that imagines a society made up of meek, compliant Asians. South Korea, specifically, is not at all the communitarian-spirited society of the kind that Americans like to imagine. In a 2018 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea’s score for “average trust in others” was merely 0.32 in 2014. The country was outranked by such so-called individualistic Western societies as Norway (0.68), Sweden (0.65), the Netherlands (0.54), Canada (0.44), and even the United States (0.41).

The contemporary trend of acrimonious, polarized politics supercharged by the internet didn’t skip South Korea. If anything, South Korea was at the forefront of that trend, as the country adopted high-speed internet on a mass scale earlier than virtually any country in the world. Before America knew what YouTube was, South Korea was already dealing with the negative implications of an online society, such as cyberbullying and misinformation campaigns. Years before Russian intelligence intervened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum, conservative South Korean presidents were using their own spy agencies to post millions of fake tweets to skew elections.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, South Korea’s politics have remained as fractious as ever. One egregious episode was the row involving the panel of medical experts advising the president. The Korean Medical Association (KMA), an interest group that represents doctors in South Korea, has long been critical of liberal President Moon Jae-in, who in its view expanded the coverage of South Korea’s national health insurance to the doctors’ detriment. As COVID-19 was reaching its peak in South Korea in late February, Choi Dae-jip, the president of the KMA (and a founder of a fascist group that purported to be the heir of the groups that massacred civilians during the Korean War), demanded that the Moon administration sack the health and welfare minister and the presidential advisory panel. To acquiesce to the KMA and protect its members from political attacks, the panel decided to voluntarily disband. In the middle of the most serious global pandemic in a century, South Korea’s politics caused the nation’s foremost experts in infectious disease to cease advising the president.

Of course, culture is a real thing that guides people’s actions. It is entirely possible to have a sophisticated debate on, for example, how Confucianism influenced the South Korean public’s reception of the government’s response to the coronavirus. (The ancient Confucian philosopher Mencius provides rich material on practical governance in accordance with the Confucian web of obligations between ruler and subject.) But curiously, the Western media’s discussion of South Korea’s Confucian heritage never makes any reference to the actual Confucian texts. Instead, Confucianism is merely an excuse to introduce tired old stereotypes about Asians as mindless drones, ignorant to the true meaning of freedom. As the pandemic rages across the West, the discussion about “Eastern culture” is not turning out to be an attempt to enlighten but a search for an excuse to remain benighted.

Ultimately, South Korea’s success is thanks to competent leadership that inspired public trust. No sacred Confucian text advised Korean health officials to summon medical companies and told them to ramp up testing capacity when Korea had only four known cases of COVID-19. No Asian wisdom made Korean doctors think they should test everyone with pneumonia symptoms regardless of travel history, which led to the discovery of the now infamous “Patient 31” and the suppression of the massive coronavirus cluster in the city of Daegu caused by the secretive Shincheonji cult. The South Korean public isn’t hoarding toilet paper not because they are sheep with no individual agency but because they plainly saw that their government was committed to being transparent and trusted it to act in their interest.

We can debate the extent to which Korea’s culture played a role in each of these developments, but make no mistake: There is nothing in any country’s culture that prevents any of these responses. It is absurd to suggest, for example, that Americans and Europeans would never submit to the type of high-tech contact tracing that South Korea has implemented, when millions of them voluntarily give up their personal data to the likes of Google and Facebook every day. (Indeed, the U.S. government is already using mobile ad location data to study the spread of the coronavirus.) No one should be so thickheaded as to claim that the Western notion of freedom compels doing nothing against a viral outbreak that is projected to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths or that a nationwide lockdown is somehow more consistent with the notion of freedom than a proper quarantine of individual patients that allows the rest of the society to carry on.

Although COVID-19 originated from China, Europe and the United States are facing the brunt of the pandemic because they failed to take the virus seriously. The Western world was too preoccupied with deriding China’s inept and opaque response and abetting anti-Asian racism to understand that soon Asia’s problem would be its problem too. (One Italian health official admitted that Italy saw the outbreak in China as a “science fiction movie that had nothing to do with us.”) Just as South Korea did, the United States and Europe could have moved in the earliest stage of the outbreak to implement a mass-scale test-and-quarantine program and minimize the damages of the coronavirus. By writing off South Korea’s response as culturally bound, the West is once again making the same mistake, failing to recognize that Asia’s solution could be its solution too.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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