Keeping the Distance: why Europeans Find it so Difficult to Learn from East Asia

By Marina Rudyak, Maximilian Mayer and Marius Meinhof

“We need not be at this point.” Such was the verdict of virologist Isabella Eckerle commenting on the second lockdown in the German talk show “Hart aber fair (Tough but Fair).” With that, Eckerle, who heads the Centre for Novel Viral Diseases at the University Hospital in Geneva, contradicted all those who argue that it is still not clear how we should deal with this pandemic. Yet, when Eckerle pointed to the successful approaches in East Asia, she was interrupted by host Frank Plasberg: “they surely don’t care much about democracy.”

Plasberg’s reaction is typical for a widespread rejection of East Asian strategies in dealing with the corona pandemic in Europe. Some—as in the debate about masks in spring 2020—stress the Otherness of Asian cultures, invoking Confucian values or collectivism. Others, habitually reduce the debate to remarks about the Chinese surveillance state. Yet, thus keeping the distance does not get us anywhere.

Illustration of people wearing face masks in the crowd. Source: https://www.coe.int/en/web/genderequality/ women-s-rights-and-covid-19

Back to Normality?

The fact of the matter is that East Asian countries have largely returned to normality today. On 31 October, 130,000 people celebrated Taiwan Pride, Asia’s largest LGBTQ parade. A total of 7 people have died of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in Taiwan and there have been no new infections for over 200 days and no lockdown, as in South Korea. In Vietnam, which has almost 30 million more inhabitants than France, only 35 people have died—in France, over 40,000 so far (as of november 2020). China, too, has managed to bring the virus almost completely under control and the economy is recovering rapidly.

The goal of some of the massive restrictions on basic rights in spring last year was to gain time and to build up an infrastructure to keep the pandemic under control later on. Why have East Asian countries managed to do so while Europe has failed?

In East Asia, governments focused on rapidly suppressing local outbreaks, whereas in Europe local hot spots got out of control during the summer when epidemic measures were eased. East Asian countries tested on a massive scale and with public funding, while in Germany and other European countries testing was limited in availability and had to be paid for privately in some cases. East Asia implemented early and consistent infection chain tracing with the help of Big Data; while in Europe, digital networking in the health sector lags far behind. More importantly, perhaps, despite the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which offers the strictest protection of privacy in the world, a high degree of distrust towards digital technologies remains the rule: we prefer putting everyone back into lockdown to using an effective app on a mobile phone, or to allowing the digital monitoring of a few on quarantine. Our irrational scepticism towards face masks has no equivalent in East Asia.

The Principle of Eradication

From the outset, experts in Europe and East Asia adopted different strategies. After the experience with SARS in 2003, East Asian countries pursued the “principle of eradication.” Australia chose a similar roadmap, aiming at preventing new infections as effectively as possible—successfully. In Europe, on the other hand, even the theoretical possibility of eradicating the virus seemed unimaginable. Instead, epidemiologists presented the familiar “influenza model,” according to which the virus cannot be stopped only contained and a slow global spread must ultimately be accepted, as the only alternative.

The fact that these two radically different models to the pandemic exist is hardly ever mentioned in Euro-American discourse. Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, China and Mongolia are seldom mentioned, or their success in combating the pandemic is dismissed with general references to insularity or autocracy.

Instead of demonstrating a healthy dose of curiosity about the political, organisational, technical and medical measures that made some of these stunning victories over Covid-19 possible, there is aloofness and ignorance. Scepticism towards autocratic China has made a rational debate and pragmatic learning about how to deal with the pandemic more efficiently impossible and instead has highlighted the question of who is to blame, accompanied by a moralising undertone of regime critique.

Reservations about learning from authoritarian China are understandable, especially in the current charged geopolitical climate. But South Korea and Taiwan are liberal democracies. Blanket delineations between democracy and authoritarianism have made a differentiated understanding of East Asian prevention measures impossible.

The Habitus of Superiority

Asia experts in universities and think tanks across Europe could have helped point to successful approaches from Taipei to Seoul. Those with appropriate language skills have followed the corona outbreak in Asia closely from the start. A look at the European China Twitter in January would have been enough to see what was in store for Europe.

The intuitive distancing polemic against China’s authoritarian regime and the stubborn ignorance of Asian success models can perhaps best be termed epidemic Orientalism, the latter a mindset that precludes all learning, because the Other is seen as inferior and therefore, never possibly a model, only a foil for ideological demarcation. In talk shows and crisis meetings from Bern to Berlin, neither the “eradication model” nor the epidemiological expertise and experience of scientists from East Asia were heard. An opportunity missed when it would have been possible to seriously discuss alternative ways of contact tracing or local mass testing to be implemented successfully in Europe.

Orientalist prejudice and a habitus of superiority have made us fail in our handling of Covid-19. It is an attitude diametrically opposite to the self-image of liberal, enlightened societies. Should not open public discussion of different approaches and the ability to learn from others be our strength? European governments could have started a dialogue with leading East Asian experts in the spring. Already then, it was evident that it would be worthwhile looking for replicable concepts and instruments elsewhere. Instead, we now find ourselves in a second lockdown, with no predictable endpoint in sight. Isabella Eckerle was quite right: we need not be at this point.

A German version of this article appeared in Neue Züricher Zeitung, 20.11.2020. This article was originally published in the inaugural issue of CATSarena, the newsletter of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS) at Heidelberg University, which can be found here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.


Marina Rudyak is Assistant Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies, Heidelberg University.

Maximilian Mayer is Junior Professor of International Relations and Global Politics of Technology, Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies (CASSIS), Bonn University.

Marius Meinhof is Head of DFG-Project “Civilized Families. Discourses of ‘Filial Piety’ in the Age of the China Dream”, Bielefeld University.

The research project “Lost in Translation or Failure of Pandemic Communication? ‘Epidemic Orientalism’ and the Construction of Expertise About Covid-19,” explores the interplay of psychological, cultural and political factors of health information flows between China and Germany and theorizes on the transnational and transcultural dimensions of epidemiological knowledge production.


Citation: Marina Rudyak, Maximilian Mayer, and Marius Meinhof, Keeping the Distance: why Europeans Find it so Difficult to Learn from East Asia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26665.


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