Category Archives: Politics

Why the Left needs to Talk about China

A lot of the rhetoric from segments of the Left around China lately has bothered me.

I’m not just talking about the tankies.

A couple weeks back, Peter Beinart, the liberal journalist known for his courageous support of Palestinian human rights, blamed American fears of China’s ascendancy for a recent spate of anti-asian hate crimes. Beinart’s post linked to one by the Quincy Institute’s Jessica J Lee, who asserted—with little evidence–that the Biden administration’s “toxic” discourse on China caused last year’s increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.   

Others, like Princeton human rights scholar Richard Falk, have argued that China’s success in lifting its lower-classes out of poverty (a weak claim given the persistence of grave inequality) compensates for its gross infringements on the rights of individuals and nations.

While China rhetoric on the right often veers into racist territory, and while demonization of “China” as a nation (as practiced by Donald Trump) can easily breed xenophobia, China’s trend towards revanchism and repression—at a moment when it has achieved Great Power status—deserves an accounting.


Pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi-wai scuffles with police during a march against new security laws in Hong Kong, China May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

China’s recent “national security law”, which allows Beijing to prosecute Hong Kong citizens accused of “subversion”, “seccession” or “collusion with a foreign power” (all loosely defined so as to accommodate the authoritarian sense fo arbitrary) on the mainland, not only severely erodes Hong Kong’s formal democracy but violates the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration (which, as a condition of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong, stipulated that Hong Kong’s representative government would be retained until 2047).

Just this month, the Chinese air force has engaged in repeated incursions of Taiwan’s air space, potentially foreshadowing an aerial assault. Should China follow through on its threats of invasion, it would set a chilling precedent to jingoistic governments from Azerbaijan to Israel that might makes right.

(And yes, international law never extends farther than the world’s nation-states permit. However, China’s unilateral invasion of Taiwan, if successful, would provide further precedent for states seeking to settle disputes via land grabs.)

Finally, China’s ethnic cleansing of its Uyghur minority from the Xinjiang autonomous region, which includes extensive forced sterilization and the largest mass detention since the Holocaust, makes a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provides yet another blueprint for chauvinist states in an era of democratic backsliding.

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Again, none of what China’s doing is particularly novel. The United States has also committed thinly-justified, unilateral invasions. The Soviet Union maintained a nightmarish gulag system whilst occupying a seat on the UN Security Council.  

And yet, though politics may be legitimated in the past, it is actualized in the present.

The world that China wants is one in which ultra-nationalism, police brutality, Islamophobia and racism are normalized, and respect for “sovereignity” trumps adherence to international norms on social and political rights.

Such a world is fundamentally at odds with the Left’s political values.


While China does not pose a threat to most liberal or social democracies (being militarily weaker and far away), it is able to instutionalize its world view through a strong presence in international bodies (like the UN and World Health Organization) and a lucrative consumer base.

Understandably, many on the Left who don’t sympathize with China may still fear that a vocal response would provoke war. I too oppose military escalation with China (which will cost countless innocent lives, increase sinophobia and, more likely than not, entrench repression across the pacific).

China’s integration with the global economy gives the US and international bodies multiple a strong level of economic leverage, fortunately. Aggressive carbon emission reduction policies desired by the Chinese and foreign governments can be used as a means to deter military adventurism (with war being one of humanity’s most carbon-intensive activities).

The American Left can counter China’s illiberalism while staving off the threat of a Great-Power conflict by promoting non-militaristic measures to restrain China.

But first, the Left needs to speak out, firmly and clearly.

Stop Excusing Anti-Asian Racism!

About two years ago, when I was still on Blogger, I penned a piece on how my compatriots on the Left/Liberal side of the spectrum in the US was largely indifferent to the prevalence of anti-Asian racism in US society.

Since then, the COVID pandemic has both upended and confirmed those priors. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see president Biden and other prominent Democratic elected officials forcefully condemn the post-COVID spike in Anti-Asian hate crimes. 

At the same time, much of the discourse on the Left about anti-Asian racism can be awfully blase. 

Responding to a recent spate of vicious attacks on elderly Asians in Oakland, Oakland City Councilmember Carroll Fife denied the existence of anti-Asian bigotry among the Oakland’s African-American community. The attacks were not the result of racism but of “survival-of-the-fittest capitalist culture” (a justification that mirrors the anti-woke left’s defense of Trumpism). 

Speaking of one of the assailants, Yahya Muslim, Fife “immediately assumed” that Muslim’s mental illness was the culprit, rather than latent racial animus. Fife’s definition of capitalist exploitation includes “generations of stolen labor from Black communities,” through slavery and Jim Crow, but excludes the indentured servitude experienced by Asian-American laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad and the “Bamboo Ceiling” that limits Asian-Americans’ professional advancement. 

Meanwhile, in the journalism world, Mehdi Hassan dismisses Asian-American Teen Vogue staff’s concerns about an editorial hire’s revolting past comments about Asian anatomy, by arguing that the hire had previously apologized (echoing Glenn Greenwald’s defense of wife-beater Aaron Coleman). 

Even worse are those who latently indulge in anti-Asian xenophobia, as many left-leaning housing activists do when complaining about foreign-owned vacant units.

Yes, African-Americans/the Left/etc. are not solely or chiefly responsible for anti-Asian racism. But having lived for generations in a society defined by Orientalism, it would be surprising if our political allies had not internalized some of it themselves.

Anti-Asian racism is as prevalent in the west as anti-black racism and deserves to be condemned just as strongly (and unequivocally) as the latter.

What Biden Needs to Do

Two words: crush COVID

Its killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, costing millions of jobs and separating families everywhere.

Biden knows this. “Our work begins with getting COVID under control,” he said in last night’s victory speech.

Candidate Biden’s 7-point program however, does not deviate much from the current approach being conducted many of the states. It proposes a national mask mandate, guidelines on when to open and close (and how to safely operate) businesses and institutions, and rapid testing expansion. As Commander-In-Chief, Biden additionally pledges to increase PPE manufacturing via the Defense Production Act and to efficiently distribute working vaccines (when the time comes).

While a dramatic improvement over President Trump’s do-nothing approach, the bulk of the plan rests on a combination of behavioral encouragement and at-will testing that has so far failed to stem the virus in most of the competent (i.e. non-denialist) states.

Not only Biden’s legacy but his prospects for re-election (and thus, the survival of American democracy) hinge on suppressing COVID. To do so, he will have to go above and beyond the existing containment approach.

Biden will need to take bold measures to ensure the survival of the Republic. Source: WIkimedia

While social distancing and masking help limit the virus’ spread, they provide no surefire guarantee that infected individuals won’t spread the illness. While mass masking can limit transmission of the disease in public, studies suggest that a substantial amount of spread occurs between members of the same household.

Suppose everyone in the country avoids all non-essential business and dons a mask in public. The million-plus confirmed cases don’t just vanish into thin air. Rather they are largely confined to the abodes they share with their partner or family. Even the most careful patient risks infecting their partner or housemate through prolonged cohabitation in a poorly-ventilated indoor space.

Image by manuel ramirez from Pixabay

Every country that has successfully suppressed COVID has used “central’ quarantines, mandating that positive cases isolate in designated “quarantine” facilities.

As it is, the CDC has 20 quarantine stations for travelers returning from abroad and many hotels lay vacant. While a federally-run quarantine system would be cumbersome to implement, both politically and logistically, it has sound constitutional merit. Biden and his team can release guidelines laying out standard procedures and best practices for states to follow and clarifying the constitutionality of various quarantine practices. They can supplement this with a federal quarantine program for travelers entering the country from overseas.

By publicizing and promoting quarantine policies, Biden and his team can significantly reduce the spread of COVID, to the point where the general public no longer has to socially-distance.

Alternatively, the federal government can enforce quarantines virtually. For instance, Taiwan (which has had the fewest COVID cases of any industrialized country) tracks incoming travelers, during their mandatory 14-day quarantine through cellphone geo-fencing. Such enforcement needs to be done carefully, to avoid infringing on civil liberties. It should be noted that even a seemingly-intrusive cell phone quarantine can increase civil liberty in the aggregate, by shortening or precluding lockdowns that impinge on personal and economic freedom.

Digital technology also plays a role in the second critical element in virus suppression, contact tracing. Each positive COVID-19 test is the tip of an infection iceberg. Unlike influenza, COVID-19 spreads unevenly, with as few as 10 to 20 percent of cases (“superspreaders”) responsible for 80 to 90 percent of infections. The focus of American contact tracing needs to shift from identifying the contacts of each discovered case to deducing which superspreader (or superspreading event) infected the individual, and subsequently testing anyone possibly infected as part of the spread. Such “backwards tracing” ensures that vectors of infection are swiftly tested and quarantined, limiting their potential for public spread. Countries such as South Korea use mobile notifications to warn citizens who may have been in contact with a superspreader. The Center for American Progress has proposed a similar “Surveillance Testing App” (run by a third-party non-profit organization that would guarantee privacy) for the federal level.’

Schematic of a COVID-19 Contact Tracing App. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, Biden will have to work to limit spread between regions. One of the frustrating aspects of America’s fight against the virus is the matter in which states get the virus under control only to be re-infected by visitors from neighboring states. For instance, returnees from South Dakota’s Sturgis motorcycle rally re-introduced the virus to neighboring Midwest states.

To address this issue the federal government would either have to lock down the whole country or impose interstate travel restrictions, limiting travel to and from high-infection states or locations. The former would be more logistically challenging to implement than the latter. Restrictions on inter-regional movement have helped contain the virus in several countries.


Quarantining, backwards tracing and travel restrictions will all require significant coordination of federal and state resources. All three strategies are likely to face political pushback. Biden should make clear that these measures are the ONLY way we can shorten lockdowns that have separated families and hurt the economy.

When Biden’s efforts pay off, he might be able to show even the most dogged Trump supporter that his presidency works for everyone.  

The Danger of Normalizing Trump

One interesting development during the Donald Trump presidency has been the rise of an “anti-anti-Trump” camp.

Past administrations have polarized the public binarily, between supporters and opponents. If you’re a democrat, you typically support Obama, and if you’re a Republican you typically oppose him (even if you disagree on specific policies).

Trump, himself a master at polarization, has certainly intensified the partisan schism. However, the Trump years have also bred a vocal tertiary force, a group of center-right and far-left intellectuals who purport to dislike Trump but spend the bulk of their energy dismissing Liberal-Left critiques as “hysteria.”

Perhaps the most vocal of this crew, in the last couple months, has been the Brookings Institute’s Shadi Hamid. In an article he published last week, Hamid argued that Americans had no business calling the Trump administration “fascist” when Xi Jinping commits genocide in XInjiang.

Hamid followed up by tweeting that Americans should not let their disagreement with Trump and his supporters fester into hatred.

The “fascist” analogy is far from perfect for America (where, as Jamelle Bouie notes, the Jim Crow South employed an equally-vicious strain of authoritarianism into the 1960s). And for the sake of one’s mental health, one should do their utmost to morally oppose evil, rather than “hate” it.

And yet, both now and in the future, liberals who treat Trump as a “normal president,” with whom they merely disagree, forego the opportunity to use this presidency as a teaching lesson, to ensure that future generations don’t enable an even more destructive leader.


“Impeach Putin’s Puppet”. Source: Wikiwand

As president, Trump has violated countless democratic norms. He has maintained investments in an international hotel chain while in office, enabling politicians and foreign leaders to easily bribe for favorable treatment. He distributed COVID-19 funding in a way that favored the states that voted for him. He has called the media the “enemy of the people” and incited violence against political opponents.

In referencing to Trump calling for Clinton to be thrown in jail. Source: WIkimedia

Most ominously of all, by flagrantly violating the rule of law on a daily basis, he has accustomed our country’s citizens to presidential rule-breaking. If Trump leaves office with ‘nary a peep from the Left, the public will tolerate even worse misconduct in the future.

Hopefully, the electorate votes out Donald Trump in a landslide today. If and when he finally leaves office, it is imperative that the opposition not simply “forgive and forget.” That we do our best to hold him, members of his administration and the party that supported him accountable. And that we teach future generations about Trump just as we have been taught about Hitler or slavery.

If Trump, god forbid, wins or (even worse) refuses to leave, we must stay out on the streets 24/7, protesting every executive order and court ruling that make a mockery out of democracy.

If we, instead, follow the advice of the Shadi Hamids of the world–capping the election–with a conciliatory gesture, we signal to Republicans that their rule-breaking is acceptable. As with petulant toddlers, we can only expect worse to come from such laxness.

Don’t Let the Experts off the Hook

Last week’s Last Week Tonight episode encapsulates a consensus view among my fellow liberals that Donald Trump botched his COVID-19 response by failing to heed public health advice.

While Trump’s record on COVID is indeed atrocious (not in the least for the President’s sociopathic acquiescence to the virus’ continual murder of his subjects in order to save face), I am not certain that the US would have fared much better with a more competent president. Even European countries like Spain, which has a moderately left-leaning prime minister, are seeing sharp second waves, that have no sign of relenting.

Throughout the west, public health experts showed hauntingly relaxed attitudes through February. As the pandemic spread in March, top public health officials’ disregard for common-sense measures like masking suggest that the virus would have gained ground under any administration. A Vox article from March 3rd read that “experts doubt it (the disease) can be totally contained and stopped (through isolation of the sick),” quoting an epidemiology professor who declaimed that “there (are) already too many undiagnosed cases out there.” (this being back when the US had under 30 confirmed cases).

And we shouldn’t forget the disease modelers who insinuated (at the end of February!) that air travel could be conducted safely.

None of this is to let Trump or the GOP off the hook. Their callous disregard for the virus’ seriousness has deprived our country of national leadership and engendered fatal skepticism of the virus among the sizable pro-Trump constituency.

And yet, public health professionals–whose career mission can be summarized as fighting pandemics–should aim to perform better than an incompetent kleptocrat.

This requires that they acknowledge and reflect on previous failures. That they evaluate which pieces of advice or approaches currently work and abandon the ones that do not.

It necessitates, on the one hand, a degree of humility and, on the other hand, a faith in concepts that work empirically, even if they have not passed a textbook-style research experiment.

The results of this introspection will not only affect how we fight this pandemic but how our policy-makers govern.

On a host of areas, from housing to public transportation to social services, both America’s Republican and Democratic polities govern with abject failure.

Especially for those of us on the left, who cherish social progress and equity, it is imperative that we do better.

And that starts with some introspection on what went wrong.

And how to fix it.

Entre-pocalypse:The End of America’s Long Twentieth Century (1898-2020)

In historical parlance, the term “century” denotes less a block of time than a zeitgeist, that roughly corresponds to the contours of a particular century.

Thus, Europe’s “long nineteenth century” spans the 125-year period from 1789 and 1914–a time when the (most of the) continent’s societies transitioned from semi-feudal monarchies to industrial democracies. The Storming of the Bastille and World War I provide meaningful start and end points, the former birthing Europe’s first bourgeois democracy and the latter marking the climax of Europe’s industrial militarization.

The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent uprising against police brutality, seem to bring about a major rupture in American history. With our federal government failing to provide its citizens with the most basic safeguards against the pandemic, yet capable of inflicting gratuitous violence on them, it seems clear that America’s 122-year reign as a military and economic superpower and, as a so-called “leader of the free world,” has concluded. It is time to start talking about the end of America’s Long Twentieth Century.


The Long Twentieth Century began in Havana, then part of the Spanish colony of Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898.

The US had just come of age, economically (having surpassed Britain in manufacturing output in 1885). Militarily, the US was still in infancy-with a navy and army smaller than Italy’s. Despite having catapulted to the apex of the world’s economy, the US neither pursued colonial expansion nor exerted cultural cachet.

At 9:40 P.M., the U.S.S. Maine, a Navy ship berthed in Havana harbor mysteriously exploded. 251 of the 290 sailors on board perished.

Copyright Tim Evanson, Flickr

By morning, the Hearst newspapers were clamoring for revenge on Spain. Two months later, President McKinley declared war. By the end of the year, America had seized control of the Phillippines, Cuba and Guam. Spain surrendered in September. The US now had an empire, and a military, to reckon with.

Over the next half-century, America’s global military and economic influence grew in tandem. America won two World Wars, hosted historical peace conferences and laid the foundations for a new international order.

Domestically, presidents like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt established anti-trust and social welfare legislation that allowed all of America’s citizens to share in its riches. The impressive economic expansion during World War II-the closest thing to a “people’s war” in Howard Zinn’s reckoning-yielded economic prosperity at home while furthering democracy overseas.

And in a corner of the country called “Hollywood”, motion pictures created an alluring image of this country that won hearts and minds across the globe. Jazz (and later, Rock) music, sports, and even modernist architecture came to convey a similar type of “soft power.”

It wasn’t all a big band show, however.

The President who issued the “Fourteen Points“, demanding the right to self-determination in Central and Eastern Europe, entrenched (anti-black) racial hiring practices in the federal post office and Treasury Departments. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, Americans of color in most states lived under an apartheid regime, with restrictions on everything from where they could buy a home to whom they could marry.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sought to vanquish institutional racism. Martin Luther King famously declared that freedom for people of color would constitute the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream.

However, even King’s lauded non-violent protest marches received tepid public support from white Americans. While civil rights legislation outlawed overt segregation, neighborhood- and school-level segregation remain pervasive in American cities. Police brutality and mass incarceration of persons of color have replaced Jim Crow as a means to repress and control the black and brown underclass.


The last paragraph may seem like a tangent from my previous thread.

But the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement proved to be the ultimate undoing of America’s 20th-century growth trajectory.

Starting with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, Republican Party politicians capitalized on white grievance to drastically roll back the post-New Deal welfare programs.

Meanwhile, the military arm of the American state grew more powerful and more removed from civilian oversight. In the 75 years following World War II, the US military engaged in more than 220 foreign interventions-all by bypassing Congress’ War Powers’ authority. This does not count the numerous covert operations carried out be US intelligence agencies,-who tampered with elections and assassinated politicians from Italy to Iran.

Throughout the Cold War, America’s martial imperialism left its white herrenvolk unscathed, even while the COINTELPRO program surveilled and harassed Civil Rights.

Following September 11th, however, Congress–in a moment of patriotic zeal–passed the Patriot Act, which gave federal agencies the power to requisition citizens’ business records and wiretap phones with little to no due process. Edward Snowden found that the government had obtained records of every single Verizon customer.

A government that could extensively spy on citizens and militarize its police force could only cobble together a patchwork “universal” health insurance system under a progressive president Obama.

But Tony Stark was a hit in China. Brooklyn’s culinary and creative ferment maintained the Big Apple’s status as the global capital of cool. And Silicon Valley drew the best and brightest from East and South Asia.

Now, even Marvel has stopped filming. The Momofukus and Robertas are shuttered. And with the American economy shut down (and the Trump administration sending hostile signals to immigrants) the talented masses are staying away.

Our time is finally up.

How can LA urbanize like East Asia? Regional Growth Axes!

Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes.

This second article in a series of responses to my piece examines how LA can densify following regional growth corridors, rather than concentrating in a single, high-rise downtown.

Like Los Angeles, Seoul is not only sprawling but “poly-centric”. A study from the early 1990s found that the city of Seoul alone had between three and twelve activity centers. A 2011 text on urban planning practices across the Korean Peninsula found that the Seoul Metropolitan area had three major centers: around the traditional Seoul CBD (around Seoul Station, north of the Han River), Gangnam (in the city of Seoul, south of the Han River) and in Incheon.

More than twenty locations met the authors’ qualifying criteria (20,000 jobs per square kilometer with total employment exceeding 50,000) for “jobs centers,” despite not sufficiently explaining employment distribution in the study’s model (examining the effects of the national government’s “Greenbelt” policy on Seoul’s growth).

Seoul’s polycentrism comes across more clearly when one examines a to-scale subway map of the region. A number of lines converge around the Central Business District. But the dominant pattern is of a tighter grid in and around Seoul city (with multiple employment districts rivaling Downtown LA) giving way to a more loosely-spaced grid around Incheon (the largest employment center outside Seoul City). As one travels to the south and north, urban development clusters along subway and commuter rail lines. Suwon, the largest city in Gyeonggi Province, lies at the junction of a subway and rail line.

Seoul Subway and Rail Map, to-scale. Source: Open Street Map.

Los Angeles, likewise, is a very polycentric city, with “employment centers” in locations ranging from Thousand Oaks down to the Irvine Spectrum. A UC Irvine study found that, from 1997 to 2014, employment “center” locations shifted 20 kilometers closer to downtown on average, and towards areas with passenger rail or freeway access.

Los Angeles Employment Centers in 1997 and 2014. Source: London School of Economics US Centre Blog.

Although job concentrations in Greater Los Angeles, are somewhat dispersed, they coalesce around a few distinct freeway and commuter rail corridors. The I-5/Ventura County Line corridor from Irvine to Simi Valley via Burbank; the I-405 corridor from Beverly Hills south to Long Beach; the San Bernardino and Riverside Line corridors from Downtown east to San Bernardino and Riverside; the 91 corridor from Riverside to Corona and the 15 corridor from Riverside to Temecula.

Employment Center Corridors in Grey, Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor (rough line) in Brown/Red.
Metrolink Map for Comparison. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Urban cultural attractions and activity centers cluster more tightly around the “Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor’, stretching from Downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean (along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards). This corridor also connects two of Los Angeles’ main job clusters and contains the region’s highest density neighborhoods.

Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor. Source: USC Dornsife School.

Rather than simply bolstering Downtown-or even the City of Los Angeles as a whole-, regional governing entities like SCAG should direct job and housing density towards defined regional growth corridors, in tandem with developing frequent, heavy-rail transit links along and between these corridors.

The development could follow a hierarchy similar to Seoul’s. The highest density of housing and jobs would cluster along the Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor, served by a tight grid of rail and Bus Rapid Transit (which the street network is well-adapted to). This could feed into another high-density axis, paralleling the 405 from Beverly Hills down to Long Beach. Less intense (but still mid-to-high density) residential and job development would abut the outlying corridors (which have less development to begin with).

Success demands that Los Angeles integrate its subway/light rail and commuter rail networks, making the latter a more reliable transit alternative.

State intervention may prove necessary.

And neighborhoods like Hancock Park, that occupy an excessive quantity of high-value of land, in the heart of the metropolis, must finally accept change.

Why the West Ignores East Asia at its Own Peril

The only countries in the world that have effectively contained COVID-19 have been in high-income East Asia. Despite strong travel links and economic ties to Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong staved off the mass infection now afflicting Europe and the US through early deployment of social distancing measures (including public mask-wearing and mandatory quarantine of infected individuals) and travel restrictions. South Korea contained its outbreak “curve”–the worst in the world in February–through extensive testing, followed by contact tracing (through both personal interviews and GPS-based mobile tracking) of positive cases.

The examples are not merely informative but instructive. While infection rates slow in most of Europe and United States, suggesting containment in the near future, removing lock-downs on either side of the Atlantic will be incredibly risky unless leaders follow East Asia’s lead in detecting and isolating infected individuals.

Unfortunately, while both Europe and the US seek to emulate South Korea’s drive-thru testing procedure, much of European and US public opinion seems skeptical about the adoption of mobile contact tracing used in South Korea and Taiwan. A perceived cultural difference pops up repeatedly in the skeptics’ arguments.

For instance, Vox’s Ezra Klein casts doubt on a Harvard University plan to develop a nationwide tracking app (of positive test results) by acknowledging that “while similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture.” A BBC article on the subject contrasts western “liberal democracies” with countries like “China, Singapore and South Korea”, implying that mobile contact tracing is more acceptable in the autocratic “East” than in the democratic “West.”

Its not just mobile contact tracing which encounters this dismissive mindset. Renee C. Wurth, a Public Health Professor at Northwestern University, warns that East Asian societies’ widespread face mask use does not make this an essential strategy for combating COVID-19 in the west: Rather, it is Asia’s “community-oriented cultures,” that are the true key to their success.

By insisting that Asian countries are fundamentally different from the West, these dismissals of Asian policy successes reveal the tenacious persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about East Asia.

Public Health Officials in the West advised against mask-wearing at first. ©Irfan Kahn, Los Angeles Times.

Since the time of Marco Polo, the Western World has perceived East Asia as irredeemably “exotic” and “mysterious.”

The image of the Orient as a threatening and monolithic “Other”–replete with strange foods, secretive rituals and persons who were not quite human–took hold over the centuries. This construct, which post-colonial scholars refer to as Orientalism, reached its zenith at the end of the 19th-century, when Western Powers encroached on East Asia.

Social Scientists developed grand theories, based on ecology (e.g. Marx’ “Oriental Despotism” hypothesis, which held that control of irrigation systems led to stagnant bureaucracies in Eastern polities) or culture (e.g. Confucianism as a cause of China’s decline) to explain Europe’s advancement relative to East Asia. Although objective on the surface, such theories implicitly justified Western hegemony relative to East Asia, and portrayed Asia as an “ontologically-different entity” (in the words of one historian) from the West-the former being fundamentally incomparable to the latter and requiring neither depth or nuance in analysis.

ln popular culture, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War fueled fears of a “Yellow Peril”-an invasion of Europe by barbaric hordes. In the United States, opponents of Chinese immigration to California spread lurid rumors of Chinese consuming rats and other unsavory foodstuffs.

19th Century Orientalism: Chinese immigrants as innumerable, rat-eating horde vs. the God-fearing virile Euro-American Worker

Early reporting on COVID-19’s origins at a wet market revealed the endurance of Orientalist stereotype of Chinese consumption of exotic foods.

And as Asian countries have emerged at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19, Orientalism lurks beneath the surface of western public opinion’s disregard for their policy successes.

For instance, Wurth’s opinion on the irrelevance East Asian mask-wearing, borrows from the trope that Confucian culture is a determining factor in the region’s mores. Instead of using the concept to explain East Asian stagnation, she touts it as a reason for the region’s advancement. Nevertheless, the concept still renders the region as “foreign,” albeit for the purpose of drawing policy best practices.

Moreover, Wurth, Klein and other writers have tended to describe East Asian countries’ policy success in collective terms, ignoring vast differences in policy and society. Discussing Singapore, a one-party state, and South Korea, a democratic presidential republic, in the same breath makes as little sense as equating the United Kingdom with Franco-era Spain. And yet, the fact that East Asia is not Europe permits such abstraction.

Nuances and details in East Asian policies are also ignored. The Toronto Star quotes an expert saying that South Korean contract tracing would “never work” in a western democracy, ignoring the fact that a) South Korea is a democracy and b) contact tracing app has also raised privacy concerns within South Korea. I have heard similar statements made by Twitter users:

Finally, Atlantic Magazine has published profiles in courage on Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern but none on (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in or (Taiwanese President) Tsai Ing-Wen (the latter has earned a paragraph in an article on female leadership in combating COVID). 

The hard truth is that Westerners still regard even developed Alien countries as alien: Robotic marvels that can earn a plaudit or two but never be seriously emulated or examined.


To be clear, this is not just a media issue (and there are some great articles like this WIRED one on Taiwan). Nor did this problem suddenly reappear with COVID-19. Over the years, I have received strange looks and remarks when I point to Japan as an example for American commuter rail planning.

But now the stakes are much higher.

If we (in the United States and Europe) don’t want to contend with a two-year lockdown or hundreds of thousands of more deaths, we will have to acknowledge some hard truths:

  1. South Korea is the only country in the world to have stamped out a large-scale (1000+) COVID-19 outbreak. There is no excuse for throwing out examples like New Zealand (which instituted a lockdown when there were only 100 cases) or Germany (which-despite mass testing-has over 100,000 cases and 5,000 diseases, with no signs of letting down).
  2. Stamping out COVID demands that Western Countries evaluate South Korea’s (and Taiwan’s and even Vietnam’s) policies in detail and determine how they can legally design and implement such policies.
  3. The belief that the West is the standard-bearer of progress, and therefore has nothing to learn from culturally- or geographically-distinct regions, is no longer true. Its high time we face up.