Our Brexit Brain Trust (which has all sorts of interesting discussions all the time on various mainly UK and EU political matters that are often over my pay grade). An article in Unherd titled Does the CCP Control Extinction Rebellion? turned into a fundamental discussion of the role of the state in the West versus China and Japan. This observation from David kicked off the debate:
The answer appears to be “no”, but this seems to be a well-researched and well-sourced investigation of the Chinese buying good ecology opinions. Yes of course others do the same sort of thing, but it’s interesting to see Chinese soft power (if that is what it is) at work.
This led to observations by PlutoniumKun, who first and second hand keeps tabs on new in China, of of how the Chinese government exercises influence and control…that like corporate funders of NGOs, they have understandings of how groups and people are supposed to behave, but are more willing to make a public example of someone who steps out of line, like billionaire Jack Ma or more recently tennis player Peng Shuai.
Clive, who spent some of his childhood in Japan and reads Japanese, pointed out the difficulty of understanding what people in China think about their government:
Worry not, I’ve spent what feels like a lifetime trying to get a straight answer out of Japanese people I know about what they think of their government(s) — which is lot less of a loaded and potentially problematic question than asking a Chinese person what they think of their government — and only in a couple of instances have I received anything back that I could really process…
Which makes me wonder, and wonder is all I can do because of lack of recent first-hand first-person exposure, if that’s what a lot in Asia think of their government. I don’t think those in Asia really see politics as the same thing that, say, a British person, sees it. For one thing, in the U.K. politics is separate from economics. Of course, they interact. There’s a lot over overlap. But in Japan (and I suspect China too), politics is a subdivision of business. When presented with a political problem, every Japanese person I’ve ever spoken too responds with a business or economic slant on what the answer might be and what the issues in play are. Then again, perhaps that is just a handy deflection to avoid anything too like wandering around in a potential minefield.
Based on my shorter experience with the Japanese, I asked:
But isn’t that in part due to the high social cohesion in Japan? I know the younger generation is famously more selfish and not caring for the elderly as well, but aren’t some things like seriously degrading public services like the subways and the shinkasen and health care off the table, so “politics” is largely limited to business? Yes, rural service has been cut but that’s been in the context of rural depopulation and so can be rationalized as not really a fall per se but a necessary rationalization of the system.
Put it another way, aren’t issues like public services and social safety nets political? How can they be business?
Again from Clive:
This is an important difference in perceptions.
In the west, certainly in the Anglosphere, for so long and so gradually have we been subject to atomisation that we’re now also suffering from Stockholm Syndrome — we can’t imagine anything outside of that exists or could exists.
But talk to people who’ve not been so systematically inculturated in that way and you become aware that there’s so many other support networks which are possible. Family (who won’t respond to a plea for assistance with nothing more than warm words and sympathy, if that, but with real substance), the workplace (which won’t throw you out the door in the blink of an eye but try to help you stay employed or if not will genuinely try to place you elsewhere), faith groups and churches (all British Muslims I know say they give their required 10% of income to their mosques, I’ve no reason to doubt this and in turn, the mosques support their communities, I’ve seen their accounts, some have £100M+ in the bank and make multi-million annual disbursements for housing, welfare, employment, healthcare and teaching), circles of friends who don’t only meet up for coffee now and then, neighbourhoods which organise and get support in return even if only an investment in time, but often as not funding from inhabitants etc. etc. etc.
It’s hard to even postulate such things without seeming, such are our prevailing norms, like you’re a naive child. But in Japan and elsewhere, as you say, such social cohesion is at least alive, if not in perhaps such rude health as it used to be.
But in the west, we have nothing, or pretty much nothing. All we have is the state. So we inevitably have an entirely different expectations of the state — and I’d argue unhealthy and unrealistic ones. Because we have nowhere else to turn and no one else to rely on, we are totally dependent on what has become a monopoly supplier. Dependency on a single source of anything is never a good idea. Even if it is impeccably altruistic, it can’t be unfailing perfect. If it fails us and we’ve nothing else to fall back on, we’ve no other options and are in a predicament. And altruism is hard to maintain — the tendency to slip into exploitation or coercion is almost inevitable.
We don’t have a choice though, other than to keep lowering out bucket into the well marked “the state”. Because there are no other wells to put our buckets of needs into. As the other wells have dried up, or been poisoned, we lower our buckets more and more into the one remaining well, drawing out less and less sustenance each time (everyone else, or almost everyone, has the same problem).
This just isn’t the case in Japan. In no area of life does the state act as sole supplier. Healthcare, social security, public transport, housing and the like are hybrid models. There’s some state provision, but healthcare isn’t free at the point of delivery, clinicians are privately employed in their own practices or healthcare providers, unemployment assistance relies on some private savings or help from family to generate even a subsistence allowance, rail and bus services a patchwork of private companies which get some state subsidies but none (save a tiny handful) are public ownership, there’s no social housing (developers are expected to provide some cheap but tiny micro apartments at low, or low-ish, cost).
Private capital is intrinsically involved in all of these. It doesn’t even enter these debate that the state should assume complete responsibility in any of these areas. It would be an anathema and if it were to happen would signal that the social contract had failed or, if it hadn’t failed, would be incapacitated because the state would be rendering it dissolved by impinging on it to such a degree.
Shorter, “public-private partnership” isn’t a dirty word (or dirty phrase). So the question always becomes, what is the interface to, and what is the scope of business in, the essentials of society? Never have I encountered any desire in the Japanese to strong-arm business out of the equation. One can infer that this is because there is still an element of trust in business to fulfil its societal obligations. Implicit in that is that it’s a two way street. The people believe that business should make their fair-shares contribution. But that is bivalent, using the word in its engineering sense, with, in turn, extending the courtesy (I use that word deliberately) to business to make its inputs. It’s a give and take situation. Inherent in a give and take relationship is that you must always allow and facilitate the other party, or groups, to do the giving. So it’s perfectly natural, for a Japanese person, when considering a matter, to ask “what, I wonder, will business be giving here?”. Not, stressing the point as it’s a subtly, “what, I wonder could or should business be giving here?”
Unfortunately, this deep cognitive capture reflects the success of the long-standing program in the US to inculcate pro-business attitudes, meaning the right of companies to pursue profit and not be encumbered by social obligations. That was made explicit by Milton Friedman making up out of whole cloth an idea most assuredly not enshrined in law, that companies supposedly exist to serve shareholders. In fact, equity ownership is a residual claim: creditors, suppliers, the tax man, payments to workers, regulatory fees and fines all come ahead in the payment hierarchy.
Japan never bought into that model. Entrepreneurs are revered not for getting rich but for creating jobs. The most powerful companies in Japan, their trading companies and their banks, were explicitly not to be very profitable because it was well understood that their profits would come at the expense of commercial activity.
And now it is hard to fathom how to counter such deep indoctrination, particularly as it has become even more intense as inequality has exploded.