There can be no government without people’s trust
On October 18, 2020, the news media throughout Japan announced the landslide victory of Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s, center-left Labor Party, which secured an overwhelming majority of seats in the national elections. Since assuming the office of Prime Minister in 2017, Adern has steered New Zealand’s coalition government through various crises and natural disasters, including the Christchurch shooting massacre, the Mt. White eruption, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The high marks that New Zealanders gave her administration for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic are generally thought to have led to the landslide victory of her party this past election. As of October 17, New Zealand, which has a population of about 4.88 million, has reported 1900 cases of infection and 25 deaths due to COVID-19. Even as the second wave of infections surges now in Europe, Adern has succeeded in containing its spread in urban areas through a series of small-scale lockdowns.
In spring of this year, even as the world stood helpless before the ferocious onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, the government of Taiwan led by President Tsai Ing-wen acted quickly to restrict travel with China, control sea and airport access, systematically distribute masks to the people, and take other measures to prevent panic in the nation. The key to the success of Taiwan’s efforts to fight the pandemic were the leadership shown by Vice President Chen Chien-jen, himself an expert in public health, and “Digital Minister” Audrey Tang’s work in gathering, analyzing, managing, and distributing information about the pandemic. Despite the fact that Taiwan, which has a population of about 23.57 million, never implemented strict lockdowns, as of October 16 it has reported only 535 cases of infection, with the number of deaths due to COVID-19 holding steady at 7. Taiwan’s epidemic prevention system, including its deft deployment of Internet technology, served as a model for New Zealand’s policies in this crisis as well. President Tsai’s popularity rose to over 70% in the polls, testifying to the Taiwanese people’s enthusiastic approval of her policies and actions.
In May this year, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc in Europe, I had an opportunity to hear on BBC World News a speech given by Nicola Sturgeon, the First minister of Scotland. Throughout her speech, there was no dire countenance to stir anxiety in the citizens of Scotland, nor were there any head-scratching neologisms or histrionics to cause perplexity in her audience. Instead, in English which a foreigner like myself could easily understand, she looked straight into the camera and described the situation surrounding the spread of the virus in Scotland, explaining specifically how each person should act in the face of this crisis, quietly describing the efforts her government was currently undertaking, and appealing to the people that at times such as these, cooperation was paramount to overcome hardship. She spoke about how the elderly as well as children should live their life amid the pandemic, saying words to this effect: “In times of hardship, we tend to seek the company of others, but now we are being asked to keep our distance from them. Because we’re in the situation that we are, it’s all the more important to find other means of communicating with each other” and “Right now, we are being buffeted by the storm winds of a terrific crisis. I can’t tell you when we’ll reach dry land. Right now, I need help from all of you.” However, she concludes, “I have faith that we will most certainly be victorious over our current hardships and I thank you all for your cooperation.”
As a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland cannot be said to have dealt successfully with battling COVID-19. Nonetheless, in contrast to the declining popularity of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Sturgeon is gathering ever more support among her people despite the whole nation’s still being mired in the pandemic. Her current popularity has even led to a resurgence in the Scottish independence movement.
The governments of New Zealand, Taiwan, and Scotland have in common a number of points: they faced the threat of the pandemic without concealing the dangers, correctly informed the people at regular intervals, implemented measures to allay fear and panic instead of merely calling for restrictions, established clear priorities amid this unprecedented crisis, and made executive decisions as befits a government. Newsweek Japan described the key to Taiwan’s success in the battle against COVID-19 as consisting in the trifecta of “Speed, transparency, and trust in the government.” Taiwan shares these characteristics with both New Zealand and Scotland.
How does Japan measure up to these countries? The anti-pandemic measures taken in our country may not rate equally with those of Taiwan or New Zealand but have been far more successful than those of Scotland. Nevertheless, only 34% of Japanese citizens surveyed in early June in a Gallup poll of 19 nations thought that the government’s anti-pandemic measures were effective, the lowest ratings earned by any of the 19 nations surveyed. In contrast, a poll of 6000 people in total from Japan, the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden, and France conducted by Kekst CNC in mid-July revealed that then Prime Minister Abe’s handling of the pandemic was rated lowest among the six nations, with Japan having the largest proportion of people reporting anxiety about the economic outlook. When a tally of the responses assessing the performance of each country’s leader by their own people as “Effective or ineffective in battling the crisis,” Germany’s Chancellor Merkel emerged as the most highly rated head of state with 42 points, followed by Sweden’s Prime Minister Lofven with 0 points, France’s president Macron with -11 points, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson with -12 points, the US President Donald Trump with -21 points, and in last place, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe with -34 points. Of the six nations surveyed by Kekst CNC, Japan had the lowest number of COVID-19 patients. Moreover, there was no stringent lockdown, and after the national emergency declaration was officially lifted, the government pursued a clear policy of prioritizing economic recovery. So, what, then, might explain this underwhelming assessment by the Japanese people of their own government?
I believe the reason lies in the conspicuous absence in the Japanese government of the speed, transparency and people’s trust that were key to Taiwan’s success in containing the pandemic. Tourist dollars brought to Japan by Chinese visitors, the imminent state visit by China’s President, Xi Jinping, and plans for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games stymied early action by Japan’s government against the threat posed by COVID-19. Despite the apparent deference paid to “expert opinion,” minutes were not even taken at the meetings held by expert committees. The progress of these discussions was not made public, and abrupt announcements of policy changes sowed unnecessary confusion in a public already in turmoil. Having promised 300,000 yen per person in subsidies to the needy, they suddenly lowered the figure to 100,000 yen; and receiving public backlash for their abrupt request to close all schools, the government deflected criticism with the excuse that the final decision rested with the regional governments; and so on, betraying in spades their lack of clear purpose.
When all of society confronts a crisis of enormous proportions, whether the political leadership and bureaucracy can steer a safe course through the perils that threaten the nation depends, in the first place, on whether they had enjoyed people’s trust in times of peace. Politicians who lie brazenly, pretending ignorance of failure or malfeasance and the bureaucrats who cover for them by disposing of the records they are mandated to preserve cannot gain the trust of the citizenry. Indeed, in the past several years, such behavior has escalated from the shredding of inconvenient records to not taking any records at all if the content of those records was thought to be compromising to those named in them. Thus, in the throes of the present crisis, the people are all to inclined to suspect dishonesty in anything politicians say, thinking that their leaders are somehow milking profits from the hardships and sacrifices they are being asked to endure.
The specter of dishonesty and the lack of effective strategies breed panic. Danger still lurks underfoot, as it were, threatening to convulse the stable tenor of our lives. Yet in these unprecedented circumstances, there is no guarantee that our efforts shall prevail. The trust of the people is absolutely needed to confront failure without panic so as to find the way forward, if only by trial and error. It is surely in such times as these that there is a need for true leadership.
Confucius, on being asked by his disciple, Zigong, what the requisites of politics were, replied, “Sufficiency of food, sufficiency of arms, and the people’s trust.” Pressed for his views on what should be done if these conditions could not be met, Confucius replied, “Part with your arms, then your food. Death is the common lot of all humanity, but without the people’s trust the state topples and falls.”
Unlike in Confucius’ times, in modern Japan the people elect their politicians. We are the ones, then, who are choosing the very people whom we distrust. In the end, the responsibility for the politicians’ lies, the bureaucrats’ brazen disavowal of accountability come to rest on our own doorstep for having failed to elect trustworthy leaders. The coronavirus panic has exposed to the clear light of day the decay of government, both national and local, that until now had lain hidden from sight. It has awakened us to the realization that populism is not just an American or British thing and opened our eyes to the seriousness of its threat to citizens’ lives.
I am concerned that as we relax our vigilance against infection, the problems of government that the pandemic brought to the surface will be allowed to slip furtively back into the dark depths they inhabited. Now is not the time to be smugly reflecting on our propensity to kick what we wish to ignore into the tall grass, yielding to the facile temptation to think that once ashore, we need pray no more. To me, our current predicament resounds in my ears with all the ominous rumble of a collapsing Tower of Babel. The coronavirus pandemic came like a punishment visited upon us by heaven. But perhaps the opportunity it holds out for us to learn something new, correct our errors, and pave our way to a new future is a heavenly boon in disguise.