Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Singapore a model for Chinese democracy [Sydney Morning Herald]


Each leader of the People’s Republic is remembered by an overarching, guiding ideology.

Mao Zedong left his legacy with Mao Zedong Thought 毛泽东思想; Deng Xiaoping with the Deng Xiaoping theory 邓小平理论. Then came Jiang Zemin and the Three Represents 三个代表 in 2000; and Hu Jintao with Scientific Development outlook 科学发展观 in 2007 that for the first time, saw public diplomacy and soft power . To be leader of 1.3 billion requires more than just clout, it seems an updated grand narrative as calling card in line with the previously intricately marked out stages of development have to be in place. What will Xi Jinping’s be? The West contends China will become more democratic. Will it, must it?

The Sydney Morning Herald is suggesting, along with some others that the Chinese intend to use Singapore as a model for Chinese democracy. They do share some interwoven characteristics, meritocracy, authoritarian capitalism, one-party rule, and Confucian-value systems indoctrinated through textbooks and norms. But they only extend as far as socio-political constructs and institutions go. Culturally however, they are not the same.

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo puts it best –

On why Singapore, a young nation of just over five million people, is of interest to China, an ancient civilisation with 1.3billion people, he says: “For China, Singapore is sometimes seen as a bonsai, but one with genetic similarities.” S’pore is ‘only one bonsai that China looks at’ in the Straits Times, November 1, 2012

In any case, most Chinese I speak to have an answer for this – Singapore is too small to be a model for the whole of China. While there are bits and pieces the Chinese have been gleaning from the island-state, is the Singapore model scalable upwards to 1.3 billion?

The piece in Study Times explains the attraction for China’s leaders. ”Since 1968, the People’s Action Party has won consecutive elections and held state power for a long time, while ensuring that the party’s high efficiency, incorruptibility and vitality leads Singapore in attaining an economic leap forward,” writes Song Xiongwei, a lecturer at the Chinese Academy of Governance. Sydney Morning Herald, October 30 2012

“The Singapore model has been admired by most Chinese leaders and Xi might see Singapore’s success as the dreamed accomplishments of his rule in coming decade,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University. South China Morning Post, October 23, 2012

See also – a rather engaging religious analysis of the Hartcher article here – Singapore’s “Democracy” – The Lessons for Applying the Gospel?

– – –

Singapore a model for Chinese democracy 
by Peter Hartcher
Source – Sydney Morning Herald, published October 30, 2012

Illustration: John Shakespeare. Source – Sydney Morning Herald, 2012

China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, will take power formally in three weeks, yet he’s given no public hint of his plans. But he gave an intriguing glimpse to the Westerner he’s spent more time with than any other.

After a total of 10 days together across a year or so, Xi left the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, with one clear impression. He does not think that China’s political system can continue indefinitely, according to people Biden has briefed.

But while the inheritor of the one-party dictatorship does not think it will last in its current form, neither does he have a clear idea of what should replace it, Biden said.

If Xi (pronounced Shee) is thinking about a roadmap for China’s political future, last week provided a clue of a possible destination – Singapore.

An article in a Chinese magazine called Study Times held up Singapore’s system of pseudo-democracy as a possible model for China.

So what, you might reasonably ask, does that tell us about Xi’s thoughts? The journal is published by the Communist Party’s Central Party School, whose president is Xi himself. It’s the party’s leading policy journal.

”For several years, Xi has led a team investigating the Singapore model and envisaging how it might be applied to China,” reports Jonathan Manthorpe of the Vancouver Sun.

His tyre-kicking included a 2010 meeting with the owner and builder of the Singapore model, Lee Kuan Yew, whose son has been entrusted with the keys and is now taking it for a drive as Prime Minister.

Exactly what is the attraction of a city-state that has been variously described as an illiberal democracy, a liberal authoritarian state and Disneyland with the death penalty?

The piece in Study Times explains the attraction for China’s leaders. ”Since 1968, the People’s Action Party has won consecutive elections and held state power for a long time, while ensuring that the party’s high efficiency, incorruptibility and vitality leads Singapore in attaining an economic leap forward,” writes Song Xiongwei, a lecturer at the Chinese Academy of Governance.

Lee deservedly gets credit for building a thrusting first-world economy from a malarial third-world swamp.

Xi might be looking at Singapore’s past as China’s possible future. A political scientist at China’s Renmin University, Zhang Ming, says: ”The Singapore model has been admired by most Chinese leaders and Xi might see Singapore’s success as the dreamed accomplishments of his rule in coming decade,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Lee Kuan Yew is a shrewd character who created the appearance of a Western-style liberal democracy where, in theory, power is contestable but, in fact, one-party rule is protected. He’s done this by altering a couple of key design details. When an opposition politician criticises a government minister, the minister commonly sues for defamation. Singapore’s helpful courts award such crushing damages that the opposition politician is bankrupted and some have been forced into exile to avoid jail.

Singapore’s media is closely guided by the government. Internet censorship and monitoring is highly developed. And the ruling party maintains a subtly coercive role in managing the value of the typical family’s most valuable asset, the family home.

How? Most citizens buy flats in government-built and government-maintained apartment blocks. Blocks whose residents dare vote for the opposition live under explicit threat of having their essential upgrades put at the bottom of the work program.

Hey presto. A parliamentary democracy where no one is dragged away in the middle of the night by the secret police, yet one where few are brave enough to speak out and even fewer get away with it. Even today, the PAP holds an astonishing 81 out of the 87 seats in parliament.

A more charitable description of Singapore is that it’s a Confucian democracy, with a benign all-knowing patriarch presiding over a meritocratic civil service and a successful government-led capitalist economy.

For China, it’s a potential halfway house between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. Could the governance system of an extended shopping centre with a population of 5 million be successfully applied to a sprawling civilisation of 1.3 billion? It’s an intriguing question.

Whether Xi has yet found an answer of how to reform China’s political system, he is surely asking the right question. Problems are mounting in China and the political system allows the people neither satisfaction nor safety valve.

While the people recognise the rapid rise in national prosperity, they are increasingly dissatisfied with the side effects.

Eighty one per cent of Chinese people agree with the proposition that the ”rich just get richer while the poor get poorer”, according to a study published this month by the Pew Research Centre, a pollster in Washington.

Trust in the value of hard work is eroding. Forty-five per cent of middle-class Chinese disagree with the thought that ”most people can succeed if they are willing to work hard”.

Pew reports: ”In another sign that many do not see a level playing field in Chinese society, there are growing worries about corruption. Half now say corrupt officials are a very big problem, up 11 percentage points since 2008.”

Their concern, presumably, would grow if they were allowed to read the The New York Times investigation into the wealth of the family of the outgoing Premier, Wen Jiabao, whose close relatives are estimated to have controlled assets worth at least $US2.7 billion ($2.6 billion).

The story has been censored in China and denounced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a smear.

And the extended family of Xi himself is estimated by the US financial news service Bloomberg to have $US376 million in assets. Bloomberg says none of these is owned by Xi or his immediate family and says that there is no indication Xi is guilty of any wrongdoing. This story was censored too.

Winston Churchill said that dictators ride tigers they dare not dismount. How daring is Xi Jinping?

In last week’s column I wrote that Paul Keating was central to the creation of APEC. A reader has pointed out that Bob Hawke created the institution of APEC and Keating was instrumental in later adding an annual leaders’ summit.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Collectivism, Confucius, Culture, Democracy, Domestic Growth, Economics, Education, Government & Policy, Influence, Mapping Feelings, New Leadership, Overseas Chinese, Peaceful Development, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Singapore, Strategy, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Xi Jinping, , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. Godfree Roberts says:

    Maybe not the whole Singapore model, but I expect we’ll see Singapore-style press liberalization once China is reunited.
    Also, have a look at Lee Kwan Yew’s take on Xi Jinping after their meeing: http://inpraiseofchina.blogspot.com/2012/08/xi-jinping-hero-for-china.html

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