Illustration: Craig Stephens
Guillaume Zagury and Laurie Underwood
Guillaume Zagury and Laurie Underwood

How pandemic proves China’s ‘digital Confucianism’ is superior to the West

  • For all the West’s complaints about invasion of privacy and freedom of movement, there are obvious benefits to an approach combining Confucian-style acceptance of governance with tech advancements
  • The ability to quickly ease social distancing rules and return to jobs and classes in person are also valuable freedoms

As families worldwide send their children back to school, one region stands out regarding the mood of both students and parents. Families in East Asia face the new academic year with more calm and less fear about the pandemic disrupting education than most other regions.

Importantly, most kids here prepared to attend school in person, gaining the full benefit of face-to-face teaching and socialising. The possibility of an outbreak does not worry most families here because occasional outbreaks are met with the swift, effective isolation, imposing quarantine until the outbreak subsides.

Contrast this against the “back to school” season in the United States, where some students witnessed protesters passionately picketing against masks outside their school gates. In Europe, similar confusion erupted. Professors in Brussels, for example, returned to the classroom wearing masks while their peers in Flanders returned barefaced, triggering confusion among students.

By now, it is clear East Asia has generally contained the virus far more efficiently than the West. In tracking coronavirus-related death rates, East Asian countries tend to have tens to dozens of deaths per million people versus 1,600 per million in Europe and 2,000 per million in the US.

It is also clear that successfully containing the virus requires the implementation of key public health measures. For the public, those include mask-wearing, social distancing and handwashing; for Covid-19 patients, testing, tracing and isolation; and for hospitals, adequate equipment, staff and space.


US Covid-19 deaths could increase by another 100,000 unless Americans change their ways

US Covid-19 deaths could increase by another 100,000 unless Americans change their ways

So, if the “how” of fighting the virus is well-known, why have East Asian societies achieved a death rate far lower than that of the West? These results illustrate far more than better implementation of public health measures.

We believe these results demonstrate the effectiveness of a new sociopolitical model emerging in East Asia which we call “digital Confucianism”. This model, which combines Confucian-style acceptance of governance with continuous advancements in technology, is clearly suited to containing pathogenic virus pandemics.

The combination of digital technology plus smooth acceptance of its mass use has armed East Asia with speed. In China, for example, each outbreak of the virus has seen the government respond swiftly by shutting down affected districts – locking down specific buildings, metro stops or airports – until all Covid-19 patients are hospitalised and everyone exposed is quarantined.
Most of China’s virus controls have been enhanced by digital tracing. Because the country is now essentially cashless as virtually all consumer transactions are conducted by mobile e-commerce, people seamlessly accepted the government’s requirement for all residents to use an app showing their individual health status. Flashing one’s mobile health code – showing as green, yellow or red, depending on one’s exposure to Covid-19 – is a “new normal” across China when entering public areas.
People in Beijing line up to scan a health check QR code with their smartphones to gain entry to a shopping and office complex on August 31. Photo: AP
Elsewhere in East Asia, similar health status mobile apps and QR codes are in use in South Korea, Japan and Singapore. While China did not miss a beat in rolling out its digital health code, France is still struggling to gain public acceptance of the pass sanitaire and the US cannot even discuss systematic digital tracing.
Is digital tracing a violation of personal privacy? Certainly. Is personal freedom hindered when any shopping centre security guard can trace your location during the past 14 days? Yes. Is other data also collected, by phone apps as well as closed circuit TV, in many areas of China? Yes.

But none of our Chinese colleagues and friends are complaining about this. In fact, the comment we have heard repeatedly during the past two years is, “We are so lucky to be in China because China is safe.”

If all this sounds like George Orwell’s 1984, we agree. The authors of this article, being French and American citizens, value highly the ideals of freedom and democracy. However, being based in China during the entire pandemic, and in our roles as educators and physicians (and as parents), we see first-hand the many benefits of digital Confucianism.

A woman runs near a banner for Covid-19 vaccination in Seoul, South Korea, on September 10. South Korea is among the Asian countries that have turned to digital contact tracing to help curb Covid-19. Photo: AP

Many of our friends back home passionately defend the right to privacy and reject mass use of digital tracing in the name of freedom. However, we propose an alternative view. The ability to return to work within weeks rather than months or years of social distancing – thus avoiding the isolation, stress and exhaustion caused by working from home, including demotion, furloughing or job loss – is also a form of freedom.

The speedy reopening of restaurants, theatres and recreation travel – contrasted against the prolonged social distancing in the West – is also a form of freedom.
Most importantly, the ability to send our children back to school in person and avoid the harmful impact on youngsters of prolonged “learning from home” – including depression, apathy and other mental health problems – are also very valuable forms of freedom.

The Chinese model against Covid-19: a total war of the people, for the people, by the people

To sum up, we believe that East Asia’s superior management of the virus signals far more than the efficient containment of Covid-19. The pandemic has, in many ways, dethroned Western-style democratic capitalism as the best sociopolitical model to advance society, foster economic growth and address pressing social problems.

Digital Confucianism is here to stay and will be used across East Asia to effectively fight a number of pressing social issues. Armed with this approach, China, Japan, South Korea and other East Asian nations will progress far faster than Western nations in solving a host of social issues, including crime, environmental protection and poverty alleviation.

The world is now in the midst of an era of phenomenal advancements in digital technology. Going forward, nations that pair these advancements in science and digital technology with mass acceptance of them – for the collective good – will zoom ahead. It is our deep hope that the West will recognise the many benefits possible with the discerning use of digital Confucianism and will start zooming too.

Dr Guillaume Zagury is a French epidemiologist and medical practitioner based in Shanghai. He is author of a forthcoming book detailing key learnings from the management of the pandemic worldwide

Dr Laurie Underwood is a professor of intercultural business communications (adjunct) at NYU Shanghai and other business schools