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How the West was lost: JOHN MICKLETHWAIT reveals that the coronavirus is making China powerful again


London and Seoul are roughly the same size – big cities with busy streets, crowded public transport, and fast-paced nightlife. South Korea's capital is home to K-pop music and Oscar-winning Parasite.

Both cities were surprised by the coronavirus earlier this year. Both got along as best they could. The results could hardly have been more different.

London lost 6,000 people. More Londoners died in a four-week streak in April than in the worst four weeks of the lightning bolt. In contrast, barely 20 people died from the virus in Seoul.

Korean politicians reacted much faster than the British – and far smarter. Seoul soon returned to its normal busy self, while London remained – and remains – a ghost town.

While the Korean capital has seen an increase in cases recently, there have been no deaths. The authorities quickly re-imposed some restrictions, closed public spaces and urged companies to reintroduce flexible working.

Troops prepare for a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing on October 1, 2019

Concerned citizens in Seoul have access to an impressive infrastructure to combat Covid: You can have yourself tested at numerous stands in the main streets and have your temperature measured at bus stops.

Many of Asia's other major cities fared far better than London. Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong have also only lost a handful of people.

While China's role in the creation of the virus remains murky at best, even if it lied and covered up, Beijing and Shanghai fared much better than most western cities.

London's total only looks good when you play alongside New York City, which has lost more than 23,000 people.

Is that a fair assessment? Many argue that there is no way we can trust China's statistics or those of other countries.

However, the latest Bloomberg numbers show that mainland China has suffered 3.3 deaths per million of its population. You could increase that number ten times and the death rate would still be 20 times lower than the UK.

One of the great fears about the Covid epidemic is that it will plunge the world into a prolonged recession.

But think of an even more frightening prospect: it will mark a turning point in history when the West hands over supremacy to the East – and China in particular.

Go back five hundred years and China was home to the most powerful empire in the world – with the Ottomans and India a little behind.

PSA deliveries arrive at Bournemouth International Airport from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on May 6th. The Airbus 340 in the livery Thank you NHS for landing in the UK with a shipment of PPE from Malaysia

PSA deliveries arrive at Bournemouth International Airport from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on May 6th. The Airbus 340 in the livery Thank you NHS for landing in the UK with a shipment of PPE from Malaysia

Beijing had over a million people, three times the size of Tudor London, and a network of streets and canals that connect the country. In comparison, the West was a bloody backwater.

The reason for this was that China had the best government in the world, with an imperial civil service selected through written exams, while Europe had only rudimentary state structures.

If Henry VIII had visited Beijing, he would have been treated as an uneducated tribal curiosity.

Then the story swung the other way. The Chinese let their government wither and the "Mandarin" officials continued to be tested in the Confucian classics to the exclusion of modern knowledge.

The West was catching up and its government witnessed a number of revolutions – and the country that led those changes was Britain.

US President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit of Heads of State and Government in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019

US President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit of Heads of State and Government in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019

While the Chinese used gunpowder for fireworks, British soldiers and sailors used it to chase their European rivals out of the water – and then take over a third of the world.

British thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke, as well as British technology, have changed the way we view the state.

When the Chinese Emperor dismissed the British ambassador, Lord George Macartney, in 1792, saying that China had absolutely no need for manufactories in your country, Britain was perhaps the most powerful nation on the planet.

In 1875 it was certainly like that and the writer Anthony Trollope could imagine a dinner party in London at which a crooked financier presented the Emperor of China as a curiosity for his guests.

Waterloo Station as London's streets and train stations remained empty, although the shops had reopened on July 9th

Waterloo Station as London's streets and train stations remained empty, although the shops had reopened on July 9th

In the 20th century, Britain gave in to the United States in terms of power, but it still led many of the ideas that changed government around the world from the welfare state to Thatcherism.

But in the last quarter of a century, Asia has risen again – often using British ideas better than we are.

In a former British colony, Singapore, the first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (referred to by a British Foreign Secretary as "the best bloody English east of Suez") designed a leaner state than Margaret Thatcher had ever achieved – and with much better schools and hospitals .

Other Asian countries, including China, are following suit. Asia's success with Covid was no accident.

The countries are taking the lead in Singapore, recruiting their brightest young people into the public sector – and investing heavily in smart infrastructures too.

Does this all mean we are approaching a Sinocentric century? Not necessarily. The West has reinvented itself once before.

But it makes sense for a sane Briton to ask: what went wrong? And what can we do to fix the problem?

Tanks marched in the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese people's war of resistance against Japanese aggression and the anti-fascist world war. It took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2015

Tanks marched in the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese people's war of resistance against Japanese aggression and the anti-fascist world war. It took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2015

Covid revealed much of what went wrong. True, there has been a lot of self-sacrifice and heroism.

Doctors and nurses comforted people who died under terrible circumstances. The army has built seven new Nightingale hospitals. A team from Oxford University leads the race to find a vaccine against the virus. Overall, however, the numbers brutally show how badly we did it.

It's not just that the UK's death rate – over 600 per million people – is nearly a hundred times that of some Asian countries. We did worse than any other European country except Belgium.

We have the worst death toll in Europe, with more than 41,000 deaths, and the second highest death rate on the continent, twice as high as in France and eight times as high as in Germany.

The UK also has the second highest mortality rate among nursing home residents after Spain.

Some say this is partly due to the high level of obesity among the UK population. And that's a fair point. It is also true that countries measure Covid deaths in different ways.

It's not just that the UK's death rate - over 600 per million people - is nearly a hundred times that of some Asian countries. We did worse than any other European country except Belgium. Pictured clinical staff in an intensive care unit in Cambridge in May

It's not just that the UK's death rate – over 600 per million people – is nearly a hundred times that of some Asian countries. We did worse than any other European country except Belgium. Pictured clinical staff in an intensive care unit in Cambridge in May

But the void is too big to simply overeat or blame the statisticians.

The UK fared worse than other countries, mostly because it was incredibly slow – slow to lock down, slow to run mass tests, slow to close public events, slow to identify a track and trace app, slow to order protective gear, slow to pause visits to Nursing homes are slow to require the wearing of face covers.

While Taiwan and Hong Kong closed their airports to prevent the virus from spreading, Britain landed planes from Wuhan on a daily basis.

The one area where we were quick and determined turned out to be a disaster: hospitals discharged 25,000 people to nursing homes, often without bothering to test them for Covid, and spread the disease to the most vulnerable segment of the population .

Part of the UK's indolence is explainable. It's easier for authoritarian regimes to lock down countries quickly than it is for liberal countries (though that doesn't explain why we fared worse than other democracies).

But this slowness cost lives. There was an odd academic study that questioned how strong the impact of lockdowns was on Covid deaths, but most research around the world (and common sense) is clear: countries that acted quickly, protected their citizens.

Alipay employees are working in the Ant Group Shanghai office building in Shanghai on August 28th when China is back in the office

Alipay employees are working in the Ant Group Shanghai office building in Shanghai on August 28th when China is back in the office

The economy has also been hit hard by the slowness. In the first half of the year, UK GDP contracted 22 percent – twice as much as America and worse than any other major European economy except Spain.

What went wrong? The brutal answer is bad government. There were individual mistakes – and Boris Johnson should take responsibility for many.

This Prime Minister's strength has never been organization. and with Covid, the man he relies on for the organization, Dominic Cummings, destroyed much of the government's credibility by taking a trip north and making that infamous visit to Barnard Castle to "test his eyesight" .

But in general the government machine just wasn't working. The Covid-19 crisis was like a gigantic stress test for government everywhere and the British state hopelessly failed the test. Many of the problems were simple.

For example, lack of preparation. Covid was the third virus in this century after SARS and MERS. The NHS is Europe's largest health organization. However, there was no plan to deal with it.

Then there was the government's short-term fixation: the Ministry of Health devoted much of its attention in February to the question of whether, for example, hospital parking fees should be cut if it should have focused its efforts on long-term strategy to defeat the virus.

People walk in front of the branch of the China Construction Bank (CCB) in Shanghai, east China, Aug. 27. Most of all, maybe the government hasn't learned. Private companies have to learn from their mistakes or go bankrupt

People walk in front of the branch of the China Construction Bank (CCB) in Shanghai, east China, Aug. 27. Most of all, maybe the government hasn't learned. Private companies have to learn from their mistakes or go bankrupt

The next problem was what we called the "not invented syndrome" in our book.

The UK had to ditch contact tracing for a while because Public Health England insisted on using its own tests, which ran out quickly, rather than bringing in tests from private companies or university laboratories as they do in Germany.

The government also insisted on developing its own app rather than getting one from Google or Apple, which in turn created problems and delays.

There was also a lack of common sense. Any business owner can tell you to be careful about buying large quantities of PPE from a Turkish supplier that you have not done business with before. The government went ahead anyway – and the equipment was faulty.

Most of all, maybe the government hasn't learned. Private companies have to learn from their mistakes or go bankrupt.

Government departments just keep stumbling. So the buying problems have continued: lately thousands of masks have had to be scrapped because they didn't have the correct attachments

The effects of bad government go well beyond Covid, of course. This year's A-Level and GCSE results were a fiasco: Gavin Williamson, the unfortunate Secretary of State for Education, was warned that the algorithm would wreak havoc with both his officials and the relevant parliamentary committee, but would continue anyway.

On August 28, drivers passed an Alipay logo next to the Ant Group's Shanghai office building in Shanghai

On August 28, drivers passed an Alipay logo next to the Ant Group's Shanghai office building in Shanghai

The Ministry of Labor and Pensions continues to grapple with a poorly designed universal credit system. The Department of Transportation has put in place a program for "smart highways" to determine that they make driving more dangerous.

Cynics might say it ever was: Government is inherently inefficient. The problem is that, as Asia shows, it doesn't have to be that way. Even a poor Asian country like Vietnam has done far better than Britain (and America, in fact).

Some leftists believe the solution lies in more government. Pump more money into the economy! Hire More Officials! Create new departments! Jeremy Corbyn has even claimed Covid proves he was right all along. Even some Tories speak of national self-sufficiency.

Unfortunately, adding more government is the equivalent of dealing with dry rot in your home by adding another floor. Very few countries that outperformed Britain had larger states. What Britain needs is better government, nothing more. It takes a revolution based on what works.

There are two places Britain can get inspiration from. One is the rest of the world. The inevitable official investigation into Covid should not only focus on who is to blame, but what others have done better as well.

How did New Zealand reduce the number of Covid cases to zero? Why did Vietnam do better than us when it is so much poorer? Why did Germany's decentralized health system protect people better than centralized systems?

The other place we can fall back on is our own story. The Victorians managed to reduce the size of the British government while improving the services that people received.

Many of the schools, hospitals, sewers, and railroad lines that we continue to use are Victorian creations. The reformers achieved this by ending the state sinecures, employing modern technologies (especially the railways), and professionalizing the civil service.

In some cases, reforming the UK could mean more money. For example, the National Health Service had little spare capacity when the virus emerged. There are strong reasons to spend more on the NHS, not only because there may be more viruses on the way, but also because the population is aging.

At the same time, many parts of the government could be slimmed down or rethought. Britain has one of the most bloated legislatures in the world, with 650 MPs and more than 800 colleagues. The United States has only 535 members of Congress: 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.

More power could usefully be shifted from Westminster to local authorities closer to ordinary people. One of the strengths of the Victorians was to resist the tendency to centralize and support innovative mayors like Joseph Chamberlain of Birmingham. Both Conservative Andy Street and Labor Andy Burnham did a good job in Birmingham and Manchester respectively. We need more like them.

Another priority is to reconsider the pay of officials. Right now we have the worst of all worlds. On the legislative side, we pay MPs a relatively low wage compared to the London professions.

This discourages able people from getting into politics and encourages those who get into politics to fumble on their expenses or make money on the side. A smaller legislature would mean you could pay politicians more.

On the administrative side, the public service is characterized by both lousy wages and a culture of jobs for life that has long since disappeared in the private sector. Australia pays senior officials much more than the UK, but it also sets them strict goals that they are likely to achieve.

Singapore discovers talented young people and pays for their university education on the condition that they spend some time in public service.

The best civil servants receive salaries in the millions, but Singapore is ruthless when it comes to getting rid of underperformers, especially in education.

Britain could also experiment with another idea – the national service. For some, this has a 1950s touch to it. But these days the service doesn't have to be military.

Forcing young people from every class to work together, for example a year before they turn 25, would not only provide cheap labor to carry out Johnson's "build, build, build" order. it would help unite the country.

Israel and South Korea have been in national service for decades, while Israel attributes part of its technological success to supplying its military with young people. Sweden recently reintroduced national service, and Emmanuel Macron talks about it too.

For all its horror, the Covid-19 pandemic is an alarm call. It is not too late for Britain to address the public sector's obvious problems. It is not too late to recognize the fact that the West is losing its hegemony. We still have time to repair the damage.

But we don't have that much time – and the eastern world is advancing while we are still wavering. Whatever we do, we cannot afford to hit the snooze button.

  • John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's Wake Up Call is published by Short Books for £ 9.99. To order a copy for £ 7.99 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Shipping costs may apply. Promotional prices valid until September 11th, 2020.

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