from Asia Unbound

Japan’s Opportunity in the Post-Corona World

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Tokyo, Japan, May 14, 2020. Akio Kon/Pool via REUTERS

May 19, 2020

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Tokyo, Japan, May 14, 2020. Akio Kon/Pool via REUTERS
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This post is part of an Asia Unbound series of voices from Asia on the COVID-19 crisis, and on its implications for Asia and for Asian views of the United States. The post is authored by Nobumasa Akiyama, a professor of International Politics in the School of International and Public Policy at Hitotsubashi University. This is the eleventh post in this series, the first can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, the seventh here, the eighth here, the ninth here, and the tenth here.

Contemporary international society has been built upon globalization, which is driven by the quantitative, qualitative, and temporal acceleration of the borderless flow of people, goods, money, and information. Though it is usually seen as beneficial, the spread of COVID-19 has revealed its risks. It took only a few months after the first case was reported in Wuhan, China for the world to reach a crisis point with more than 100,000 deaths worldwide, and the breakdown of the globalized supply chain has also negatively affected economies around the world. While the world plunged into this emergency, medieval-style battles for procuring ventilators and personal protective equipment erupted.

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Right or wrong, an idealistic notion that a crisis of global scale should be dealt with through international cooperation rings hollow in a situation where the very nature of the sovereign state is exposed in this way. Ultimately, a nation pursues its own national interests first and foremost (such as in the pursuit of “America First”) and its people prioritize their own safety and security above cooperation with others. COVID-19 has brought to light how fragile international cooperation was. The power of the sovereign state grows. The movement of people and goods will probably be stagnant for some time to come. However, in the longer term, as the threat perception of pandemic is fading, there will be a resurgence of globalization driven by the flow of information and finance, as well as technology including big data, AI, and robotics, which would provide more resilience within societies against pandemics.

The question is under what principles will global governance in the post-Corona era come to exist? Instead of seeing the current crisis as a battle between authoritarianism and liberal democracy, perhaps a better frame is to consider how governance must evolve to meet the reality of a far more vulnerable world. This pandemic has revealed the need for a serious conversation on how to protect individual rights even as governments seek to manage and trace the behavior of people for the sake of the public health. New technologies, especially information technology and data science, offer governments new tools, but these technologies must be used in service to democratic norms and principles.

In the fight against COVID-19, societies across the globe are on the verge of losing many core liberal values. People have lost their serenity, and society’s moral values, such as mobility among social classes, tolerance of racial diversity, or fairness are being challenged.

Among them, individual rights may well be the biggest casualty in this fight. People have allowed their rights to be somewhat curtailed or their privacy to be compromised by the government or others in exchange for safety. China’s responses to COVID-19 so far seem to have demonstrated the willingness of a population to conform to an authoritarian regime as a means of achieving social resilience and managing the public health crisis. This is where China’s pandemic response has been worrisome to many in the international community.

As the World Health Organization emphasized, contact tracing is an important element of the fight against COVID-19. In many countries, people’s health information is collected, analyzed and held by the government or certain companies on the grounds of managing the crisis.  Based on analysis of that data, the healthy and unhealthy are identified, with the former allowed freedom of action and the latter being subjected to mandatory segregation and restrictions on behavior.  The “Green Code” in Wuhan is one of the first social implementations of such an application of bio-surveillance. The “Green Code” is a de facto travel permit by bio-surveillance, and it is generated by an application from internet giants Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings based on basic information about a user’s travel history and health, as well as data on the people they come into contact with.  China’s exhaustive measures against COVID-19 reveal that the future of the bio-surveillance society is not a pipe dream.

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To be sure, this novel coronavirus has also prompted citizens in a variety of democracies to value their safety over personal freedoms. To varying degrees, citizens were asked to give up their right to privacy for the sake of public health, and the success of some is attributed to how technology was used to share personal data with the government. The South Korean government mandated that all those who were confirmed as infected by the virus were tracked by an app on their mobile phone as well as by their credit card use. Phones and credit cards were tagged to national identity numbers, and all information was made available on the website of national health authorities.  Other countries, including Taiwan and Singapore, adopted similar mechanisms to contain the spread of infection. Taiwan, which has so far been the most successful in containing COVID-19, has been extensively utilizing data and information technology to manage the public health crisis.

In addition, many countries have closed their borders. As the global economy begins to recover, however, it will be necessary to manage the risk of spreading COVID-19 while allowing for international travel. As a means of resolving this dilemma, the idea of a global health authentication system, or an “immunity passport,” is being floated. However, such a system would mean sharing personal health data with many governments, including those that might not be respectful of privacy or civil rights.

Currently, Japan has taken a different approach, one that has been far less intrusive into personal privacy rights. Although the government of Japan declared a state of emergency, social distancing has been urged rather than enforced. Cooperation by Japanese citizens is voluntary, and there has been no effort to monitor citizen behavior via smartphones or other technology. Indeed, the Japanese government seemed very aware of the need to temper the restriction of civil rights and economic activity during this public health crisis. Legally and politically, there is no appetite in Japan for any mandatory enforcement of government personal data policy. This has long been the case. For example, the government’s efforts to establish a national identity system for social security and tax purposes, the My Number system, has only been accepted by 14 percent of the population. It is unlikely that Japanese citizens would accept a policy that allowed their government to track their behavior on their smartphones.

Now the liberal order is at the crossroads, Japan must address the standardization of personal data management and sharing if it is to continue to embrace a globalized world. Leaders in Tokyo must thus consider how to translate their own experience at home during the COVID-19 crisis into a global agenda for health data sharing. In the post-COVID world, it will become far more difficult to discern what the trade-off will be between safety and rights, and yet the Japanese people would want to avoid a governance model based on data surveillance. If compromising democratic values at home was anathema, then compromising rights abroad will also be problematic.  

International rules and mechanisms for the storage and management of data (especially biometric data/bio information) that respect the rights of individuals are sorely needed. At the G-20 Summit in Osaka in June 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged governments to begin to work together to build an overarching framework for promoting digital economy and securing the flow of data across national borders. He underscored the concept of building trust in the free flow of data, and to accomplish this, proposed rules for enhanced data protection.  

Japan has been criticized in the past for building systems that only apply to the realities in Japan. Now is the time to consider whether the COVID-19 response offers insight into how democratic values can be respected even as governments attempt to collect data necessary for the public health. Reconsidering how the “Osaka Track” proposal could help to establish rules and mechanisms that would facilitate international cooperation for proper use of biometric data/bio information in pandemic management would serve our health needs. Beyond that, however, it would begin to build a framework for governance that will take into consideration safety and resilience as well as individual rights and welfare, with the spirit of liberal internationalism in the twenty-first century that suits the challenges of our era.

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