“I think future historians will look back on this as a transitional moment when East Asian values will be taken seriously for the simple fact that they are clearly working, potentially fostering a global cosmopolitan vision beyond neoliberal ideologies. Or they will look back and say this was the moment when we turned to authoritarian nationalistic surveillance states, and that was the end of neoliberalism.”
May 24th 2020, Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University, shared his insights on the topic of “Governance, values, and what the world can (and can’t) learn from Asia” in the context of governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This talk was hosted by Professor Nam Nguyen of Fulbright University Vietnam as part of our ongoing speaker series seeking to elevate the debate on the COVID-19 crisis, bringing perspectives of global experts to scholars and policymakers, and the general public, in Vietnam and in the world.
As governments struggled to keep the pandemic under control with various degrees of effectiveness, a clear distinction emerged between the failures of broadly Western societies to contain the pandemic, namely the U.S. or European states such as Italy, the UK or France, and the successes of East Asian societies, such as China, Taiwan or Vietnam, among others.
In this talk, Dr. Puett outlines key ideas to understand how fundamental ideological differences regarding the role of government in those societies have contributed to making some better equipped than others to deal with the crisis, and how this moment will shift – and come to define – the ideological balance in the post-pandemic world.
Neoliberalism, from its birth in the British Empire…
To understand western political ideologies, Dr. Puett first outlines important aspects of its historical context, specifically the birth of classical liberalism, before discussing how neoliberalism came to be the dominant, or even only, ideology in the western political landscape. Classical liberalism arose in 19th century Great Britain. For Dr. Puett, a defining characteristic of this ideology is its focus on the individual, and its consequent goal becomes to create an economic, political and social world in which each individual should be allowed to pursue their self-interest, limited only by the exercise of self-interest by other individuals. But how would one create this ideal society?
At the time, some individual entrepreneurs were already very successful in pursuing their self-interest, in economic terms, through the mechanisms of the market. The key neoliberal idea, then, was to apply these existing structures to other aspects of society, modelling the entirety of the social and political order on the same vision. Allowing market forces to affect every level of society requires limiting the scale of government, reducing regulations to the minimum. In this ideal state, the government would not run the market. Instead the market would be regulating society, even establishing wealth as a meritocratic principle. “Those successful in the market would gain social mobility as well as potentially immediate access to political power, leveraging their wealth to decide future regulations. The implication here is that those wealthy individuals or corporations would theoretically know how the market works best, and is exemplified most clearly in the U.S. today, where states are run by entrepreneurs and corporations engage in lobbying,” emphasizes the expert.
But our expert explains this ideology arose in a very specific time and place. Indeed, classical liberal ideas arose during the British Empire, a period of radical economic disparity between an elite ruling class becoming extraordinarily wealthy, and a general population becoming poorer. “Keep in mind that when classical and neoclassical liberalism were being developed in Britain, the country was at the height of its global power. Operating in free markets was the key through which many countries throughout the world would become the sources of raw materials and very cheap labor needed by the states and corporations of the West, mainly Great Britain itself as the dominant empire. It is not too surprising to see its resurgence, as well as similar consequences in the current global power that is the U.S.”
…To a global ideological hegemony
Neoliberalism did not gain traction immediately. In fact, after WW2, “it was an accepted fact that state intervention in the economy, investments in infrastructure and regulations were important.” This ideology instead rose to prominence in the 1970-1980s through Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain and Ronald Reagan’s America. And yet, the most significant shift for our expert was its adoption, in the 1990s, by moderate leftists Tony Blair (UK) and Bill Clinton (US). These political leaders took ideas commonly associated with the right and claimed neoliberalism was not simply a good political ideology, but instead the correct political ideology for both sides of the aisle.
“One of Margaret Thatcher’s key statements was that this ‘was not a good system, or even the best system. It was the only system.’ There was no alternative. And chillingly, I think in part it became a vision that was accepted by much of the global elite,” recalls Puett.
This new, lasting political consensus brought about the reorganization of the social order in those two countries. In this scenario, not only does the government run on market principles, but everything from healthcare to educational institutions, and even families should be governed by this vision of a competitive marketplace. “Schools, for example, would train students to think in competitive terms about their own self-interest, hopefully helping them to become great entrepreneurs,” says Dr. Puett.
Global institutions further contributed to establishing this ideology around the world. Dr. Puett relates the example of the International Monetary Fund, which would establish conditions to join these new global markets. Namely, state power must be reduced: regulations on every aspect from worker safety to discrimination or environmental concerns were to be abolished in order to allow market principles to operate. And yet, this view of the world has possibly been shaken with the disastrous responses seen in America and in Europe to the crisis.
“These strategies were so successful that in our 21st century market principles have really become the dominant view in the world. But our current era may be seeing the beginnings of a very different way of organizing social political and economic life, learning from the successes of East Asian countries.”
Keeping Market and Government separate: The East Asian context
Dr. Puett shared with us his insights into political theory in Asia. In contrast to a model based on the individual, which “did not gain much resonance through East Asian history,” most of the views that would historically come to prominence are instead based upon the idea of relationships. In other words, if the starting point is relationships and not the self-interested individual, the immediate question is: “what relationships are dangerous? And which ones allow for human flourishing?”
The professor emphasizes that most of these political models and societies recognize that many relationships people engage in are not good and require constant efforts to change and improve. Humans are made of myriad relationships, whether family members, friends, different institutional orders, and more. “From this perspective, it is undesirable to have a single ideology to be dominant in all spheres of life. No single ideology is likely to foster good relationships in all of the spheres, from the familial to the political or economic.” Although Dr. Puett recognizes that markets have played a key role in the incredible growth of East Asian economies, the critical point is that from the perspective of those societies, markets should exist in a separate sphere.
Instead, meritocratic principles should apply to select the governing elite outside of the marketplace, separating as much as possible the wealthy elite from their meritocratic, bureaucratic, educated counterparts. “When the engine for social mobility is education, not the marketplace, it becomes a distinct mechanism for gaining political power,” explains Dr. Puett. To this end, a bureaucracy can hopefully teach aspiring leaders that promotions depend on examination systems, and assessment of their leadership qualities. Government officials can also be physically moved around to other geographical locations, preventing them as much as possible from overly connecting with local networks of power.
For the presenter, this clear separation allows for the state to organize and execute projects that go against the natural order of the market, such as large infrastructure projects. “Furthermore, building a road, or a bridge, will also reshuffle the deck and open opportunities for others. Local power structures may not want to see their situation change. But the state should not have to worry about that,” elaborates Puett.
Contrasting results in the pandemic
Whether analyzing the decisive lockdown protocols implemented despite their negative economic impact, the emergency construction funded by the Chinese government of hospitals in Wuhan, or the wide scale deployment of testing, tracking and public healthcare measures, the measures most effective at containing the epidemic required the fast action of a government unhindered by market forces. As our presenter explained, this has been a determining factor for East Asian countries to control the epidemic. “States that have developed this meritocratic elite and have the strength to initiate large scale government initiatives have responded extremely successfully to the crisis,” concluded Puett.
Meanwhile, the consequences of the neoliberal ideology in the West have been disastrous, as agencies at the national level were underequipped after many years of neoliberal policies limiting their ability to operate. As Dr. Puett explains, “top talent has simply been driven away after years of defunding, meaning we lacked not only the resources, but also the meritocratic elite necessary to respond decisively and effectively,”
Stark economic inequalities also resulted in aggravating the suffering of the economically disenfranchised and minorities the most. “The homeless and extremely poor minorities have not been able to gain any kind of support, and the effects have been devastating. The healthcare system has been very good for the wealthy elite, but horrific for those who were not. The dangers of neoliberalism have now been made extremely clear,” the expert emphasized. But changes never come without risk.
Opportunities and dangers in equal measure
“Moments of transition also hold peril,” declared Michael Puett. Indeed, COVID-19 has not only revealed the benefits of stronger governing institutions. It has also enabled attitudes toward surveillance that will not necessarily go away.
The expert on East Asian politics warns us of the dangers of ‘Legalism’, an ideology that has become “quite dominant in China.” If neoliberalism represents making the market the be all end all solution, legalism represents its mirror image through state government control. A tendency now further empowered by new technologies and the surveillance capacity developed in response to COVID-19. “China has not only seen exciting projects such as fast increases to infrastructure. It has also seen the development of a surveillance state working through algorithms developed by Google to trace all movements of citizens occurring throughout daily life, who you talk to and who you meet,” elaborates Puett.
Those technologies can be used to the benefit a broader national response to a pandemic, such as through contact tracing, but are harder to scale down after the crisis, a worrisome outcome. “Increasingly, powerful voices in America are also saying that maybe those surveillance state techniques developed in China should also be applied here,” says Puett. But the expert would argue for extreme caution: “Many other East Asian countries have seen success in curbing the epidemic, but it seems that those technologies from China have gained the most resonance in America as a response to neoliberalism.”
In conclusion, Dr. Puett reemphasized the need for a global debate to address the pandemic, but also to seriously decide which practices from East Asia should be implemented, and what their implementation would mean. “With the challenges facing us, both for this crisis but also the impending environmental crisis and our uncertain world, it is crucial to allow these ideas and rethink and challenge our most fundamental assumptions, but also to consider carefully what it takes to to build a global cosmopolitan order.”