China Needs a Strong Leader Like Xi -- but the Rule of Law Like Singapore

Professor Zheng's comments have been adapted by from a recent interview. This piece has been translated into English by GuanchaGlobal.


SINGAPORE -- This year is the 50th anniversary of the founding of Singapore. In that time span, this tiny nation jumped from the Third World to the First World thanks to the policies of the late Lee Kuan Yew. Now, the younger generation is criticizing him. But for me, Lee was truly outstanding because he forged a system of governance that enabled his small city-state to make this leap.

Lee was truly the father of Singapore. Being tossed out of Malaysia and forced to be independent, Singapore's impressive accomplishments were all achieved within only one generation. Singapore climbed from a low-income level with no resources -- even the water had to be imported from Malaysia -- all the way to the high-income level, avoiding the middle income trap where an economy stalls as wages rise. It now has a GDP per capita of $55,000.

There's no another place like the Lion City on the planet. Among the numerous small countries in the world, what other ones have reached such a level of achievement in such a short time frame? It took the small nations of Scandinavia more than a hundred years to develop to their level today.

The core of Lee's success was that he never engaged in empty ideological talk and stuck to what worked practically. He was a realist who always put the national interest first. He pursued his goals with a single-minded focus. As long as he was convinced his policies were for the long-term benefit of the people of Singapore, he stuck with them even under mounting opposition.

The Influence of Lee's Singapore on China

The influence on China from Lee's Singapore came in different stages.

When Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore in 1978, he was pondering how China could benefit from reform and opening up policies. After Deng's southern tour to revitalize reform in 1992, China looked again to Singapore. At first, China was interested in Singapore's economic development. After the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, China was intrigued by Singapore's financial system. When developing the joint Singapore-Suzhou Industrial Park, China looked into expanding similar industrial parks. Later, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city showed China's interest in Singapore's green environment.

There is one particular thing the Chinese have also been very keen, in a discreet manner, to learn from Singapore: How has Singapore, a pre-dominantly Chinese society, constructed a clean government with the rule of law under what has been one-party rule for decades?

"How has Singapore, a pre-dominantly Chinese society, constructed a clean government with the rule of law under a one-party state?"

Over the years, I have been going back and forth often between Singapore and China. My observation is that China still needs to learn about the spirit of Singapore in this respect. Of course, many Chinese officials dismiss Singapore as being too small for its experience to be generally relevant for China. But I believe that is only an excuse.

One can learn good lessons from other nations, big or small. The size of a nation doesn't matter. Smaller nations in fact are not easy to govern. With far less of a buffer than a large state, they can't afford to commit mistakes and must govern with extreme caution and care. Because Singapore has had to balance its course among the many powers in the region, it has had to act with particular prudence. It didn't make any mistake when the Cold War divided East Asia, nor has it taken any misstep since then.

Another thing China needs to further grasp about the Singapore spirit is how the openness of its ruling political party has contributed to its success. The strength of Singapore's People's Action Party basically lies in its willingness to seek out and absorb talent from anywhere. Indeed, China has begun to open up gradually on this front. For example, the recent appointment of the president of Tsinghua University -- an environmental scientist -- as China's Minister of Environmental Protection is very similar to what Singapore has been doing. Many talented officials in the Singaporean government were recruited from the society at-large. It's too rigid to rely solely on the bureaucracy.

On Chinese President Xi Jinping

It is a cruel world we live in. You will be respected only after you have become successful. Many people are going to China these days. The reason is that China has been successful. If you have failed, who cares?

"Having a strongman is a good thing if you know what you're doing. "

Having a strongman is a good thing if you know what you're doing. Among the leaders in China, Mao Zedong in the first generation and Deng Xiaoping in the second generation were both political strongmen like Lee Kuan Yew. However, the people knew that, like Lee, they were not in the game for themselves, their families or their small circles. They devoted themselves to the whole nation with a certain kind of idealism.

Fast forward to the current anti-corruption campaign in China. How many small circles of cronies have been exposed? It is clear that even some in the leadership have lost sight of the big picture and only think of their own families and circles. Look at Zhou Yongkang, the former Politburo member and security chief or Ling Jihua, the advisor to former President Hu Jintao, as well as some "tigers" in the military, for example.

Any leader faces many different views when it comes to the nation's development. The most important thing, in my view, is to have Lee Kuan Yew's quality of commitment. When Lee had decided what was good for the country, he didn't care about anything else. A good leader neither has to boss people around nor follow people by the tail.

Therefore, it's still quite necessary for China to have a strong leader like Xi. His strong position allows him to pay attention to the big picture -- with the aim of taking the whole nation and society to the next level. Three years after the 18th Party Congress, Xi has rolled out a blueprint in the Third and Fourth Plenum. His next challenge is how to implement it.

Power isn't an end in itself. Power comes with responsibility. The more power there is, the heavier the responsibility. For me, Xi is a responsible leader.

"If Xi could follow Lee and transform his strong position into a system, that would be a respectable achievement."

My hope is that he can follow Lee Kuan Yew, whom he met, and transform his strong position into a system. That would be a respectable achievement. Last year, the Fourth Plenum focused on the rule of law. This is the way to go.

Xi's most important task is implementation, implementation, implementation.

On the "Four Comprehensives" of Xi's Reform

Xi recently revealed a list of political goals for China -- the so-called "Four Comprehensives." I believe that it would be much clearer to see the picture if we look at them in reverse order as follows: 1) Strictly govern the Party; 2) Govern the nation according to law; 3) Deepen reform; and 4) Build a moderately prosperous society.

A moderately prosperous society was a goal first raised by Deng. To build this goal comprehensively is to emphasize the concept of the middle class. Chinese society today is still dominated by the top and the bottom with a weaker middle class. Yet, all developed nations in the world have a strong middle class. This is the best metric to measure a government's performance. With a higher ratio of the middle class, it means the arrival of a consumer society. With that, the society will become stable and economic development will be sustainable. China has yet to achieve this.

A very successful aspect of Lee's rule was his grasp of the role of the "crucial minority" -- or learned elites who can guide society. In 1978, Lee told Deng, who was visiting Singapore, that China would definitely become successful in the future. Lee's reasoning was that most Singaporeans were descendants of illiterate and poor Chinese coming from Fujian and Guangdong while the "progeny of the scholars, mandarins and literati" stayed in the mainland. Consequently, Singapore had to build its own governing class from scratch. So, whatever the Singaporeans could do, China could do or could do even better because of the talent pool of scholars and mandarins that already exists.

All the successful Asian nations have grasped the role of guiding elites. Japan's Meiji Revolution was one example. South Korea was like that too. China also needs to cultivate this crucial minority when building up the country. Without that, it would be bad for the whole nation. It's important to get the crucial minority on board first. The next phase is to take small steps towards governing the nation according to law. With the rule of law, China could push forward in deepening reform and reach its goal of middle class prosperity.

China's Anti-corruption Campaign and Rule of Law

Some important questions need to be addressed in China to take these next steps toward rule of law. Under one-party rule, what should the legal system be like? How can the judiciary maintain its independence? What is the constitutional structure like? How can it be achieved?

Intellectuals in China are always tempted to go to either extreme. On the one hand, some believe that everything is fine and China's system is even better than the West. On the other hand, some think China's current system is at a dead end and must become just like the West. This is a division between the left and the right. But one must look at reality and see what is practically possible. After all, when Hong Kong was still under British rule, the independence of the judiciary was well established despite the absence of elections. Singapore, on the other hand, has had one dominating party, but the strong rule of law is intact.

The rule of law consists of two parts. One is the legislature -- controlled by the ruling party. The other is the judiciary -- handled independently by professionals beyond political control.

The current anti-corruption campaign under Xi can be compared to two historical periods, one Chinese and one Western. In Chinese history, it's similar to the anti-corruption drive during the founding days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In the Western context, many countries also experienced a similar process in their development. For example, the United States in late 19th and early 20th century also launched massive anti-corruption campaigns. While the economy might have to suffer an adjustment in the short term, it is beneficial in the long term.

This historical moment presents a rare window of opportunity for China. If Xi had not launched the anti-corruption campaign now, it would have been impossible to do so in 10 years time. By then the vested interest groups would have become too powerful. If the economic oligarchy becomes a political one, China will become the Russia of yesterday. China must grasp the opportunity Xi has opened and see through the fight against corruption until the end.