Throughout its history, China has seen itself as the centre of the world. The name of the country, literally translated, is “Central Kingdom”. So it may surprise many to learn that a tiny state-city, Singapore, has exerted outsized intellectual influence on Chinese leaders since the late 1970s.
By all accounts, the remarkable success achieved under the late Singaporean leader, Lee Kuan Yew, should make most of his counterparts in developing countries envious. But for the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), the so-called “Singapore model”, loosely defined as dynamic authoritarian capitalism, holds special allure. From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, all Chinese leaders thought that they could copy some aspects of Lee’s development and political strategies to make China prosperous and prolong the rule of the CPC.
The Chinese leader who most accurately grasped the essence of Lee’s statecraft is the late Deng. As a late-moderniser in a hurry, Deng was most eager to get hold of the keys to rapid economic development in a country that had missed out on the first “East Asian Miracle” — the dizzying industrialisation of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s. In Lee’s Singapore, Deng saw two crucial ingredients at work: a market-based economy closely integrated with the West and a strategic alliance with the United States.
From his own bitter experience as a follower of Mao Zedong, whose rabid revolutionary zeal brought nothing but calamities to China, Deng knew that China could never become a prosperous country without embracing both capitalism as an economic system and the US as a strategic partner. Deng’s insight has since been validated completely. His policy of opening up to the West and aligning China with the US against the Soviet Union in the 1970s made it possible for China to embark on its economic modernisation.
Deng’s immediate successors, lacking the great man’s strategic instincts, nevertheless tried to learn from the Singaporean experience in small ways. However, as engineers, both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who governed China from 1992 to 2012, focused mostly on social policies, such as housing, urban management and mandatory retirement savings, for which Singapore is widely admired around the world.
Although the Chinese government experimented with individual elements of some of these policies, by and large, the Singapore model has played a very minor role in influencing the thinking of Chinese elites since the 1990s. As a result, astute observers of China would find one glaring disconnect: while the Chinese government has often professed its desire to learn from Singapore and has reportedly sent more than 20,000 officials to the city-state to see how it is managed, one finds little evidence, except for the auctioning of automobile licence plates in congested cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, that China has actually adopted any of Singapore’s sensible public policies. For instance, instead of copying Singapore’s public housing policy, China has adopted Hong Kong’s disastrous version, which has driven housing prices sky high and made local governments dependent on revenue from land sales. Its fragmented, pay-as-you-go pension system bears no trace of Singapore’s much-praised system of fully funded individual accounts.
The revival of the Singapore model’s influence really began with the rise of the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. Unlike his two predecessors, who could afford to coast on the powerful modernisation momentum created by Deng, Xi faces a much more challenging environment: deceleration of economic growth, catastrophic environmental degradation, record levels of inequality, pervasive corruption and incipient strategic antagonism with the US.
If, for Deng, the attraction of Lee’s Singapore emanated from its economic success, for Xi, the allure lies in the longevity of its dominant ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP) founded by Lee. Deng’s historical mission was to bring China out of its economic backwardness through modernisation. Xi’s is to save the CPC’s rule from the rot spreading inside the party.
If there is one thing Xi has tried to learn from Singapore, it has to be its success in curbing corruption among the ruling elites. Of many things the late Lee is lauded for around the world, perhaps his most frequently mentioned accomplishment is keeping corruption in the government to a minimum. According to the authoritative corruption perception survey published by Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-governmental organisation specialising in corruption research, Singapore ranked seventh on the list of countries with the least public-sector corruption in 2014. To compare: the US ranked 17, India 85 and China 100 (out of the 175 countries ranked).
Although we have no evidence to show what exactly shaped Xi’s anti-corruption strategy, it is reasonable to speculate that, in Lee’s Singapore, Xi sees the two key ingredients for an effective anti-strategy solution — the unwavering commitment of a top leader with unchallenged authority and unrelenting pressure from the top. Thus, in the two and a half years since he rose to the top, Xi has centred his political strategy on an anti-corruption drive, which has sent thousands of corrupt officials, including some of his rivals, to jail.
Simultaneously, he is also copying another element of the Singapore model — suppression of political dissent. As a result, the curtailing of civil liberties and persecution of human rights activists have reached their worst levels since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.
Unfortunately, unlike Deng, Xi may have got the Singapore model Lee crafted totally wrong. When one looks at how Lee maintained the dominance of his PAP since Singapore’s independence in 1965, it becomes apparent that he relied much less on repression and purge than on democratic competition and rule of law. Competitive, free, but not necessarily fair, elections are held regularly; legalised opposition parties contest in these elections and win a significant portion of the votes (they received 40 per cent of the votes in the last parliamentary elections in 2011). In addition, the judiciary remains largely independent. We can only hope that it is not too late for Xi to reverse course and, following Deng, start copying the correct Singapore model. Instead of putting his faith in iron-fisted rule, he should imitate Lee’s adroit application of useful democratic practices to transform the CPC from a corrupt and self-serving regime into one whose legitimacy will increasingly depend on popular consent, as in the case of the late Lee’s Singapore.
The writer is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the US