Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

State competence is more important than democracy

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that the so-called Asian century is not about dominance or hegemony, but the ability of the region’s governments to take care of their own people relative to their Western counterparts

It’s often observed that with the Covid-19 pandemic, Asian countries have outperformed Western ones as many manage to keep deaths low and the economic damage minimal.

This may be surprising as we are accustomed to thinking the West ought to be better equipped to deal with pandemics and other natural disasters because of its advantages in science and democracy.

That may well be true in the past century, but if we look a bit further into the early 19th and 18th centuries, the governments in Asian countries such as Korea, Japan and dynastic China often performed reasonably well in dealing with disasters including pandemics and famines, relative to their Western counterparts.

This may be due to their state capacity, which had reached a high level, especially with the imperial Qing court during the 18th century, until its decline and fall after Western incursions in the following century.

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It’s part of a general historical narrative that southern China has always been a hotbed of diseases, waiting to break out and spread to other countries. This may have more to do with deteriorating state capacity during those particularly turbulent times in China’s modern history.

State capacity takes a long time to build or rebuild. We are now again seeing its effectiveness in Asia in government responses to Covid-19, relative to declining democratic governance and its effectiveness in some Western countries, notably the United States and Britain.

In his 1985 presidential address, titled “The structure of Chinese history” and presented to the Association for Asian Studies, George William Skinner, the American anthropologist and China specialist, recalled an episode of extraordinary state effectiveness at famine relief in mid-1740s China. It’s worth quoting at length:

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“In the autumn and winter of 1743–1744, a major drought afflicted an extensive portion of the North China core, resulting in a virtually complete crop failure. The famine-relief effort mounted by the court and carried out by ranked bureaucrats was stunningly effective. Ever-normal and community granaries were generally found to be well stocked, and the huge resources of grain in Tongzhou and other depots were transported in time to key points throughout the stricken area.

“Networks of centres were quickly set up to distribute grain and cash, and soup kitchens were organised in every city to which refugees fled. In the following spring, seed grain and even oxen were distributed to afflicted farming households. As a result of this remarkable organisational and logistic feat, starvation was largely averted, and what might have been a major economic dislocation had negligible effect on the region’s economic growth.”

It’s part of a general historical narrative that southern China has always been a hotbed of diseases, waiting to break out and spread to other countries

Much of the 18th century was a time of wealth and stability for China under the emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. High state capacity extended to containing pandemics, not only in China, but with the courts of Japan and Korea as well.

An interesting 2018 study titled “Great divergence of the 18th century?” and published in the quantitative history journal Cliodynamics, offers this intriguing analysis.

Again, I will quote a long passage: “East Asia … secured effective protection from pandemics in the 18th century. It was essentially based on the politics of seclusion, which was implemented in Japan, Korea, and China. The governments of these states strictly limited and controlled all contacts between their countries and the outer world. Thus, for example, foreign trade with Europeans was allowed through only one port (Nagasaki in Japan, Canton [Guangzhou] in China).

“The Chinese government exerted strict control over land passageways as well. East Asian ‘seclusion’ had, of course, a number of negative consequences, hindering the spread of certain important innovations from Europe. However, it also hindered the distribution of some negative phenomena, such as the opium trade (in order to start this trade in the 1840s, the British had to forcefully ‘open’ China) and waves of epidemics. Indeed, in the 18th and the early 19th centuries, global epidemic waves persisted in inflicting demographic catastrophes on the countries of the Global South, being a strong obstacle to their economic development, but largely failed to penetrate the East Asian countries due to their seclusion.

“Moreover, we should note a remarkable high level of sanitary culture in East Asia, which also contributed to the decline of epidemics. Thus, in China already in the 18th century even commoners did not drink unboiled water, city waste (including human faeces) was immediately removed and used as fertilisers, and so on.”

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If the paper were written today, I have no doubt that the authors would have cited the general success of Asian governments as a regional revival of state capacity and competence.

But two years ago, they had to make do with other matrices such as patent grants to state their thesis. Essentially, I appropriate their idea of state capacity for this column.

They wrote: “Remarkably, the division of the world into the Global North (including Russia and China) and the Global South taking place in the 18th century reveals itself in our current time as well, if we take into account such an important indicator of technological innovative activity as the number of patent grants per millions of people.

“Indeed, it is the Global North that experiences vibrant technological development and patents the majority of global inventions – dramatically more than in the Global South. This pattern becomes visible through a somewhat unexpected correlation between the current number of invention patents per 1 million people and economic growth rates in the 18th century.”

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For millennia, Asians had judged their rulers by their state capacity and competence. Such notions fall under the Confucian percept of duty and are directly related to the political concept of legitimacy often translated as “the mandate of heaven”.

Such standards offer useful criteria for judging and predicting the success of a state rather than solely relying on the Western-centric notion on whether it is a democracy or not. Covid-19 is an example.