The Promise of a Non-Binary World: A Japanese Perspective on the Global Corona Crisis

While progressive European intellectuals, researchers, and activists have come to champion a non-binary approach to everything (even in the controversial domain of sexuality), the glaring paradox is that European political knowledge remains deeply attached to the binary of regime type. In a time of global crises, this sort of divisive thinking hinders effective and innovative policy solutions, writes Valdai Club expert Kazushige Kobayashi.

The ongoing corona crisis is profoundly reshaping global order(s), although its ultimate consequences are yet to be seen. This article argues that effective and innovative policy solutions to global challenges require mutual learning. Divisive thinking which prevents open and critical thinking – such as regime type binary of democracy/autocracy – hinder collective efforts to thwart common threats. Building on a Japanese perspective of the ongoing corona crisis, the article advocates that, more than ever, the international community needs flexible global partnerships which produce concrete results and foster a non-binary mindset.

Japan was one of the first nations to be affected by COVID-19. The first corona case emerged in Japan on 16 January 2020. Japan has an extremely high level of interdependence with China. It also has the world’s highest aging rate, high population density, and a notoriously overcrowded public transport system. Despite all this, Japanese policymakers managed to contain the initial corona pandemic in January and February this year (though citizens and journalists criticized the Abe Administration for its sluggish response). However, in late March, a second wave of the contagion has arrived in Japan and the number of new infections are surging. Geneticists and scientists show that most of the second-wave infections have arrived from Europe, not China. The New York Times remarked a similar trend in New York, reporting that “most New York coronavirus cases came from Europe.”
Democratic Conflicts: Japan, South Korea, and the Alignment of Distrust
Kazushige Kobayashi
It is ironic that bilateral agreements between Japan and China have been more stable, because Chinese leadership rarely changes, and when it does, the continuity is (more or less) assured by the hegemony of the Communist Party. This is one of the reasons why Tokyo is not so enthusiastic about the prospect of democratization in China, because Chinese democratization is likely to replicate the ongoing problem of Japanese-Korean relations in a yet larger scale

Russia’s case mirrors that of Japan. Despite the high level of interdependence between the Russian and Chinese economies, the Russian government managed to successfully contain the initial wave of the virus in January and February; but then Russia was hit hard by the second wave largely emanating from Europe. The purpose of bringing these facts into relief is not to place blame on Europe. However, such facts make it clear that the European failure is responsible for bringing a second – and more serious – wave of infections to Japan, Russia, the United States, and other countries. In many ways, Europe was a blind spot: many Japanese policymakers and citizens believed that if anybody were to manage this crisis well, it would be Europe. 

Such optimism was not unfounded. Take, for instance, the 2019 Global Health Security Index (GHSI), which is co-managed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and developed in partnership with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The United States topped the 2019 GHSI, followed by the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. In 2019, Japan ranked 20th on the GHSI, and most of the top-ranked nations were EU member states (France ranked at 11th, Spain 15th, and Italy 31st). Although many global citizens and policymakers – including those in Japan – trusted this sort of ranking, the reality turned out to be different. The United States and the United Kingdom emerged as hotbeds for the coronavirus, together with many of the Western European nations. In contrast, countries which had been judged to be unprepared based on this scale surpassed expectations. Sean Fleming from the World Economic Forum recently praised Vietnam for an exemplary policy response, despite Hanoi’s limited resources (Vietnam ranked 50th at 2019 GHSI). Cuba, ranked at 110th in the 2019 ranking, but has been relatively effective in its response to the coronavirus , even sending medical doctors to help Italy and other countries. To be fair, the available data still remains incomplete and scientists cannot yet make a final judgement with regard to the scientific validity of GHSI.
But even taking into account the limitation of data, one thing is clear: European nations which had been judged “well-prepared” for a major global health crisis were not prepared at all.

How did this happen? This article argues that this is not an acute technical error – in fact, it is more the result of a systematic knowledge bias. For years, a number of Japanese political philosophers and social scientists have warned that the scientific rigor of American and European knowledge has been eroding due to the obsession with democratic values. Keishi Saeki, for instance, posits that the seemingly unbounded faith in democratism has crowded the judgements of American and European experts.  Rather than critically investigating how different types of political systems can learn from each other, the faith-based episteme of regime type introduced teleological “scientific” indices which tell the same simple story: democracies always perform the best under all circumstances. In line with this, GHSI is built on EIU’s Democracy Index and Risk Briefing, both of which emphasize transparency, accountability, and human rights. 

Like the inventors of GHSI, I firmly believe that democratic values are useful for the sake of human progress. Yet there should be a sober recognition that personal faith can systematically distort scientific research. This is why science must be based on facts, and not on normative values. In the wake of the current corona crisis, many European observers confidently asserted that authoritarian regimes like China inevitably fail to manage global health crises because the lack of transparency hinders timely and effective policy response.

To what extent is such claim driven by democratic faith, rather than dispassionate investigation of facts on the ground? As discussed above, many “authoritarian” regimes which have deep ties to China managed to contain the initial waves of corona contagion. Conversely, “transparent” and “democratic” Western European nations largely failed to devise a timely and effective policy response. And indeed, European policy failures occurred despite a distinct second-mover advantage. By observing Wuhan’s total lockdown after January 23, European policymakers knew that a dangerous virus was spreading and they had the luxury of time to prepare for it, but still they did not act decisively until the pandemic became too widespread to be contained. Italy instituted the country-wide lockdown on March 9, nearly 40 days after the first corona case in Italy was confirmed on January 30, 2020. 

By prematurely singling out “authoritarianism” as the sole reason for China’s initial policy failure, the faith-based episteme of regime type appears to have created a false impression that Western European “democracies” are safe. Zoénie Deng, a young Chinese doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam, recently questioned on OpenDemocracy: “was the old dichotomy of the liberal-advanced-rich West and the non-liberal-backward-poor East alive and well? Did this line of thinking also influence western governments in tackling the pandemic?” 
Many European policymakers are seemingly programmed to think that there is nothing the “democratic” Europe could learn from “autocratic” China, because they apparently constitute totally different political spices.

Such attitude is not only unhelpful but self-defeating. Excessive faith in democratic values has not only put the European peoples in grave danger, but it has also constrained the ability of European policymakers to learn from others’ experiences with open-mindedness. 

While progressive European intellectuals, researchers, and activists have come to champion a non-binary approach to everything (even in the controversial domain of sexuality), the glaring paradox is that European political knowledge remains deeply attached to the binary of regime type. In a time of global crises, this sort of divisive thinking hinders effective and innovative policy solutions. For instance, a number of observers proclaim that China failed because of its lack of democracy, while the “Asian democracies” of South Korea and Taiwan emerged as exemplary policy responses  I agree that South Korea and Taiwan have largely succeeded in containing the virus, but they did so through the creative appropriation of “autocratic” measures. South Korea intrusively tapped surveillance cameras, public transport data, and even credit card records to accurately reconstruct the movements of infected citizens, which are publicly shown on smartphone apps. Those who disobey the quarantine instructions are punished by up to one year of imprisonment and penal servitude or a large fine of max.10 million KRW (around 7,500EUR).  Taiwan practically turned smartphones into surveillance devices – those who are suspected of being infected by the virus were ordered to stay home under 24-hour surveillance by police, who are able freely (without warrants) to access smartphone location data to monitor compliance and enforce penalties. To reiterate, my point is not that autocracies perform better than democracies, since such a line of thought remains trapped within the regime binary. What is being called for is the ability – and also the courage – to think beyond such binaries, and to focus on policy measures which produce concrete results and save lives.

No nation is safe in the face of global crises. That is why we need to be ready to learn from each other, rather than retreating into comforting binaries. Driven by such conviction, Japan has been practicing a non-binary approach to international affairs for decades.
In a sense, Japan can be conceived as a post-democratic nation – it cherishes democratic values, but it does not place an absolute faith in it. We refuse to live in an artificially divided world.

Since January, Japan has closely cooperated with China in developing joint solutions to the global pandemic, including collaborative trials of the Avigan drug (which had been originally invented by Japan’s Fujifilm). Most Japanese policymakers do not care if China is a communist, nationalist, or state capitalist. If China develops a solution which could possibly save a large number of human lives, then others should strive to learn from it. Life depends on it. In a similar vein, on May 7, 2020, President Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Abe agreed that Russian Direct Investment Fund (Russia’s sovereign wealth fund) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation would initiate a joint project to develop rapid corona testing kits. Some time ago, in a conference, a Western European researcher asked me: “How does Japan manage to cooperate with aggressive authoritarian regimes like Russia and China?” I smiled and responded: “Japan can cooperate with Russia and China because we see them as neighbors, not as ‘aggressive authoritarian regimes.’” 
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.