09 April 2020

Advantage Asia: Social Cohesion as King in the COVID 19 Era

Social cohesion will be critical in this new world of the COVID 19 crisis. Asia’s case proves that social cohesion is Janus-faced, working in two opposite directions, writes John West.

The COVID 19 crisis is as devastating to societies in Asia as it is elsewhere. And it has a dramatic impact on social life there as it does elsewhere.

Asia: By no means immune to the impact

Take China, where the virus first appeared. According to official reports, there have been over 80,000 cases and more than 3,300 deaths. And when draconian lockdown measures were implemented to contain the virus, there were also widespread reports of human rights abuses.

COVID 19’s rapid spread through Asia has also shown that poorer countries with weak health systems have been unable to cope, leaving many citizens with little or no treatment.

Nations on edge

To be sure, the economic devastation of the COVID 19 crisis is causing massive job losses in countries like India. Most of those who were lifted out of extreme poverty in recent decades have been living in “near-poverty.” They are now bound to slip back into poverty.

There have also been reports of anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia in some countries. At the same time, there have also been instances of in-country regional discrimination within China against residents of Wuhan, as well as reports of restaurants in Hong Kong turning away customers from mainland China.

The importance of social cohesion

While the COVID 19 crisis is causing deep fractures in Asian societies, there is also much evidence of underlying social cohesion coming to the fore.

To survive this once-in-a-lifetime crisis, citizens are accepting restrictions on their democratic freedoms for the greater social good, which would be unthinkable in normal times.

The Chinese practice cynicism

In contrast, Chinese attempts to utilize the Wuhan virus for transparent soft-power games such as exporting face masks and protective equipment have backfired completely.

The presumed act of generosity has been found to be counterfeit or otherwise faulty.

For once, a most timely book

As nations all over the world struggle to analyze and understand the COVID 19 crisis today and for many years to come, the recently published book “Social Cohesion in Asia: Historical Origins, Contemporary Shapes and Future Dynamics” offers more than just fortuitous timing.

It provides many analytical tools and insights, as well as case studies which will help policy makers, scholars, business people and citizens better understand and manage the challenges ahead.

Social cohesion is a quality of societies “that makes them resilient, sustainable and liveable.” And fostering and maintaining social cohesion over the period ahead will be a major challenge.

One reason is that we cannot take the immense goodwill of the moment for granted. Another is that social cohesion will be essential for rebuilding both our societies and economies.

Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Asian Social Cohesion Radar” (Asian Radar) is a key component of the analysis in this book. It provides detailed cross-country empirical analyses of social cohesion in 22 societies in Asia for the period 2004 to 2015.

Three country clusters in Asia

The quantitative analysis of the Asian Radar identifies three broad clusters of Asian societies.

1. The “South Asian Cluster” contains the five least cohesive societies in Asia – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and India.

2. The “Malay-Buddhist” cluster comprises Southeast Asian countries, Bhutan, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. In terms of social cohesion, it is the middle-ranking cluster.

3. The Asian cluster with the most cohesive societies is the “Sinic world” – China, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Asia’s social cohesion: The good and the bad

Perhaps the most troubling conclusion of the analysis is that social cohesion may be “Janus-faced.” On the one hand, it can “function as the glue that holds a society together, allowing for economic progress and an inclusive development policy.”

But, finds the book, “On the other hand, social cohesion can serve as a foundation for authoritarian political systems.”

The cases of China, Singapore, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Myanmar

As always in the case of such books, the most intriguing insights stem from the case studies presented.

For example, the chapter on China argues that the economic reforms initiated since the late 1970s have caused socio-economic problems, notably a widening income gap. Social and economic inequalities, as well as regional disparities have intensified.

In response, the government has made serious attempts to expand its social welfare to promote social cohesion. Fundamentally, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to secure institutional trust from citizens by asserting performance legitimacy — meaning its right to rule is based on the success of its policies.

In contrast, Singapore’s approach is described as the “muscular management of social cohesion.” The ruling party has managed social cohesion by a strong interventionist approach which views race and religion as the primary points of fracture in society. Maintaining a high degree of social cohesion is of indispensable importance to the regime.

In the case of South Korea, the authors argue that there is a triple paradox of social cohesion in play. Korea is one of the most ethnically and culturally homogeneous countries in the world, but exhibits one of Asia’s lowest levels of attachment to the community.

It is also one of Asia’s few liberal democracies. And yet, the country features very weak institutional trust. And while Korea has enjoyed rapid growth and relative equal income distribution, the majority of Koreans believe that their country to be severely unequal, with limited social mobility.

India also suffers a paradox, the coexistence of low social cohesion and stable democracy. The country suffers from high social fragmentation with many ethnic and religious groups, classes and castes, deep inequality as well as different regional identities.

But several factors help provide a balance between low social cohesion and democracy, namely the constitutional design, open elections, inclusive citizenship and catch-all political parties and coalitions that bundle together social groups.

Indonesia is a particularly interesting case with relatively strong social cohesion in a highly diverse society. Strong cohesion comes from common historical experiences, a relatively fruitful nation-building process, indigenous traditions and the successful promotion of a common language.

But today, social cohesion is challenged by growing radicalization and intolerance among the Muslim community, as well as rising economic inequality.

In contrast, the chapter on Myanmar argues that its pluralistic society has been historically constructed around the identity of the Bamar-Buddhist majority. It has led to discrimination against some of the non-Bamar (and non-Buddhist) ethnic minority groups.

Myanmar’s troubled new democracy has resulted in a resurgence of sectarianism and inequalities which threatens the fragile state of social cohesion.


It has long been evident that better understanding all the relevant facets of social cohesion is pivotal. Today, in light of the great social fractures that may be provoked by the COVID 19 crisis, it is more critical than it has ever been.

(This article was first published by the Globalist on April 8, 2020.
Tags: asia, social cohesion, COVID 19, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Asian Social Cohesion Radar

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