The Sense of Survival in Megacities: One More Step Towards the End of Simplistic Divisions between the East and the West Marta Soler, PhD candidate, Waseda University

In Análisis, Sociedad by Xulio Ríos

After the disruption of the COVID-19 various debates have erupted trying to explain the differences between the East and the West when confronting and managing this global sanitary crisis. By checking the data, we can see that most East Asian cities could control the pandemic, at least as of this writing. It remains to be seen how this will evolve in each case. Various intellectuals have pointed out that cities and countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong have succeeded in controlling the advancement of the virus due to a large extent, due to its disciplined social structures, hierarchic and even, obedience to authority that finds its roots in Confucianism (Byung-Chul Han, 2020). These theories help us to reflect on our system of values. However, they obviate that each of these above cases mentioned has very different political and social systems. Besides, for example, cities like Hong Kong could not be categorized as “obedient” considering the recent ongoing protests against the extradition law to China as well as its pro-democracy movement. At the same time, the element that these theories point regarding trust in the State is also debatable. The available statistics reflect a significant social dissatisfaction concerning national and local Governments, especially among the youth. Also, in most of the cities and countries mentioned there are non-existing or limited political structures conducive to social change, being authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes; in which civil society does not have the tools to express their dissatisfaction and/or distrust. Not to mention the invisibilities of many collectives of the working-class such as migrant workers.

Similarly, the theory about Confucianism may have been used as an intellectual tool either to demonstrate a sense of cultural superiority or to increase the difference between “them and us”. Thus, people from the East and the West invoke simplistic cultural and racial fundamentals. However, in the daily life of cities with a high population density such as Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, living together with crowds and unbridled consumerism, there is not much left of Confucianism. Apart from some universal values such as the love and respect to parents and siblings or, the fact to give very much respect to hierarchy, seniority and senility, especially in countries such as Japan or Korea.  On the other hand, to provide a concrete example, it also needs to be highlighted the debate around wearing masks which is a big stigma, particularly in the UK and the US. Wearing masks is a habit of public hygiene perceived as an act of responsibility and social coexistence very essential in East Asia. This is related to the sense of the common good that goes beyond individualism. Contrarily, most Western countries and citizens are reluctant to do it. This article does not refer to the scientific and medical judgments regarding the level of efficacy of this measure. It is giving a socio-political approach to this debate, considering that the difference of behaviours reflected in these types of habits indicates a dissociation between the East and the West (Leung, 2020).

Regarding the different realities and results experienced in each country, two explanatory factors pointed out by WHO are the different situations of sanitary systems and the level of the ageing population. This article invites us to reflect on other elements from a socio-political approach, considering that the different East Asian cities are among the most overpopulated in the world. Hence, there exists a particular sense of survival and urban lifestyle in the Asian megacities, which are, first-level capitalistic, highly technological and lacking space and having vast social inequalities. We are referring to cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka or Taipei. There are many nuances to be considered, however, generally there is a relatively high level of education, the citizens are well informed regarding conventional matters of public and national interest and without ways of thinking as traditional as in times of Confucianism. At the same time, in these types of cities, there is a high percentage of the population living in minimal spaces. We can allude to the images of trains during rush hours or “coffin homes.” Another key element would be the recent experience of SARs that left many lessons learnt. For Western countries, that epidemic did not have many consequences and affectations, and it was even perceived as something far away.

Various authors have argued that metropolitan cities such as Tokyo, Shanghai or Hong Kong are pioneering regarding the world of tomorrow, illuminating a new urban existence as a consequence of capitalism but also of a metropolitan conscience because it is more rooted among their populations (Huang Ching-yi, 2004; Jameson, 1992). The same authors highlight the effects of globalization in the spaces of cohabitation and everyday existence. Some factors that make Asian megacities more sensitive to the sense of survival and urbanity are a) the population density, b) the concept of the common good, c) the recent experiences such as the SARs epidemic and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and, d) the lack of State protection to many collectives. Therefore, various measures of social coexistence and responsibility have been interiorized through the years. This is due to a system of values based on the concept of collectivity; and not because of State obedience or discipline, but precisely because, in capitalistic and liberal economic systems and authoritarian regimes, there is a lack of protection from the State.

In short, this article has been an invitation to reflection. The new ways of living in megacities – now are more visualized than ever – have come to stay and to be expanded globally. It seems that we are going to keep learning things from the others, both from the errors and the successes. Also, from the different expressions of solidarity and collectivity present and expressed in different ways around the globe. For all these reasons, it is indispensable to share knowledge and experiences more centred in the cities, for instance, by fostering networks among cities and creating sisterhoods. From a comparative perspective, it is essential to focus on the holistic explanations regarding the different strategies and behaviours adopted. However, let us keep in mind that there are many other unknown factors at this time that will be outlined later. Let us hope that future analyses and debates will help us to prepare for future crises as well as to improve cohabitation, ways of sharing urban spaces, social responsibility and public spirit. However, if simplistic discourses and dividing comparisons between the East and the West keep being nurtured and sustained, many superficial and mistaken conclusions will be drawn from an academic, informative and journalistic level. Besides, it will promote racism that will get stronger and even more radical, with xenophobic discourses based on the simplicity of the classic message: “them and us.”


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