Never have the cultural differences between China and the West been so obvious to me as in the response to coronavirus. To understand the Chinese reaction, you have to grasp that its culture is grounded in the thought of Confucius. The emphasis he placed on the proper ordering of relationships – on harmony, loyalty and filial piety – has created a culture where people are ready to forego individual autonomy in favour of the common good.
This shows itself even in meetings during this time of infection: my Chinese colleagues here in Macao dutifully wear their masks, even when joining by videolink, whereas my Western colleagues often simply take them off. The willingness of the faithful here to forego Holy Mass and the Sacraments is not a sign of impiety, so much as a recognition that desperate times require desperate measures and that they trust their Shepherds.
Measures of social control are complied with much more readily – even when they are extreme. This is why the spread of infection appears to have been much easier to control, and why scenes of British shoppers panic-buying and hoarding bewilder, and even appal and disgust.
There is a flipside to all this. In Western cultures – which, however much they seem detached from Christianity today, were nevertheless formed by the Church – one finds a strong desire to stand up for the inviolable dignity of the human person. It also seems entirely natural to hold those in authority to account. By contrast, few here would – for instance – dream of asking for the evidence as to whether the ubiquitous masks actually work, or of questioning whether the numbers coming out of Mainland China can be believed, or of inquiring what the exit strategy to these unsustainable levels of social control might be.
Last month it was claimed that the authorities in Wuhan were sealing up doors to prevent people leaving infected tower blocks. Many in China dismissed these stories as untrue; when the evidence grew, they argued that it was disloyal to report such things. Finally, the standard line became that such measures were necessary. On the other hand, the scenes of chaos in Europe and North America, and the seemingly out-of-control numbers, often go to reinforce a distrust and fear of the West and a sense of Chinese cultural superiority.
This picture is, of course, over-simplified and where those cultures have long interacted – here and in Hong Kong – subtleties do develop. But both cultures can learn from each other.
If the West is to contain the spread of this dreadful virus, it may have to learn, for a while, to be more compliant with disease prevention measures. And if China is to earn the trust it so desperately craves, it may have to learn the value of openness and accountability.
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