Written by Alexander van Wijnen
April 22, 2021

Since the beginning of the coronacrisis, there has been a lively debate on the successful handling of the pandemic in East Asia. In March 2020, we argued that we have to look beyond the idea of “strong governments” to explain why East Asia has coped well. Commentators, however, still point to the political leadership, social trust and state capacity of these countries to explain their success. Yet Western countries that share those characteristics have performed much worse. The key factor that seems to determine success in handling the pandemic is the historical lesson learned by East Asia in 2002/3 with SARS, another coronavirus. Interestingly, one of the most important lessons China learned with SARS is to overcome “impediments to the flow of information through the governmental hierarchy”.

Two years later, China launched its mass surveillance system to boost the flow of information for governments. Fifteen years later, China has been much better prepared for COVID-19 as rapid tracking and testing prevented the virus from spreading like in the Western world. Overall, we can explain the success of East Asia in terms of national character. However, instead of traditions of leadership, trust and capacity, national character also seems to be shaped by far more recent historical experiences.

Burning questions:

  • How will COVID-19 change the national characters of Western countries?
  • To what extent is the outperformance of East Asian governments part of a bigger competitive edge of these countries – and what does that mean for the future?