China in Lee’s eyes

Luis Rubio

Lee Kuan Yew, the universal statesman who made possible the transformation of a filthy harbor, saturated with corruption and all sorts of vices, into one of the most modern city-states of the world, Singapore, has spent decades observing and analyzing with enormous depth and vision what is happening in the world. Supposedly retired, he is a frequent visitor of presidents and prime ministers in Beijing, Washington, Davos and other capitals where his wisdom is always appreciated and respected. Recently, three academics interviewed him and gathered all this wisdom in a small volume* for ordinary mortals.

His comments on China and its evolution over the future of that nation are particularly valuable. The following is a summary of that part of the book:

Are Chinese leaders serious about displacing the United States as the number 1 power in Asia? In the world? “Of course. Why not? They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world… They have followed the American lead in putting people in space and shooting down satellites with missiles. Theirs is a culture 4,000 years old with 1.3 billion people, many of great talent -a huge and very talented pool to draw from. How could they not aspire to be number 1 in Asia, and in time the world?”

“The concern of America is what kind of world they will face when China is able to contest their preeminence… Many medium and small countries in Asia are also concerned. They are uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries and have misgivings about being treated as vassal states having to send tribute to China as they used to in past centuries. They expect Singaporeans to be more respectful of China as it grows more influential”.

“The Chinese have concluded that their best strategy is to build a strong and prosperous future, and use their huge and increasingly skilled and educated workers to out-sell and out-build all others. They will avoid any action that will sour relations with the U.S. To challenge a stronger and technologically superior power like the U.S. will abort their ‘peaceful rise’”.

“The Chinese have calculated that they need 30 to 40, maybe 50, years of peace and quiet to catch up, build up their system, change it from the communist system to the market system. They must avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. Their competition for power, influence and resources led in the last century to two terrible wars…”

“China will inevitably catch up to the U.S. in absolute GDP. But its creativity may never match America’s, because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas. How else to explain how a country with four times as many people as America -and presumably four times as many talented people- does not come up with technological breakthroughs?”

“China faces enormous economic problems -a disparity in income between the rich coastal cities and the inland provinces, and in income within the coastal cities. They have got to watch that carefully or they might get severe discontent and civil disorder. Technology is going to make their system of governance obsolete. By 2030, 70% or maybe 75% of their people will be in cities, small towns, big towns, mega big towns. They are going to have cell phones, Internet, satellite TV. They are going to be well-informed; they can organize themselves. You cannot govern them the way you are governing them now, where you just placate and monitor a few people, because the numbers will be so large”.

“Straight-line extrapolations from such a remarkable record are not realistic. China has more handicaps going forward and more obstacles to overcome than most observers recognize. Chief among these are their problems of governance: the absence of the rule of law, which in today’s China is closer to the rule of the emperor; a huge county in which little emperors across a vast expanse exercise great local influence; cultural habits that limit imagination and creativity, rewarding conformity; a language that shapes thinking through epigrams and 4,000 years or texts that suggest everything worth saying has already been said, and said better by earlier writers; a language that is exceedingly difficult for foreigners to learn sufficiently to embrace China and be embraced by its society; and severe constraints on its ability to attract and assimilate talent from other societies in the world”.

“China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse. Of that, I am quite sure, and the Chinese intelligentsia also understands that. If you believe that there is going to be a revolution of some sort in China for democracy, you are wrong. Where are the students of Tiananmen now? They are irrelevant. The Chinese people want a revived China”.

“To achieve the modernization of China, her Communist leaders are prepared to try all and every method, except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multi-party system. Their two main reasons are their belief that the Communist Party of China must have a monopoly on power to ensure stability; and their deep fear of instability in a multiparty free-for-all, which would lead to a loss of control by the center over the provinces, with horrendous consequences, like the warlord years of the 1920′s and ’30s.”

Finally, his rosy thoughts on how he expects China to evolve to 2050: “China discovered that to run a modern state it needed the rule of law. It had a comprehensive set of legal codes by 2035 and found that a stable legal system, together with clear administrative rules, actually strengthened central authority. Erring provincial and local governments were brought to book through due process of law, a method more effective than the endless negotiations that had been the practice before. Also, with the rule of law, ordinary citizens are now protected from the arbitrary authority of officials. Business enterprises are also able to plan large long-term investments. The independence of the judiciary took another 20 years to achieve in practice, because historical tradition, which required magistrates, as officers of the emperor, to carry out imperial orders, was deeply embedded in Chinese officialdom”.

In this book Lee says a lot more, not all commendable, about Mexicans, democracy and globalization. Talented and highly intelligent, he has thought about the key issues of the future on which it is imperative to reflect.

*Allison, Blackwill and Wyne: Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, The United States and the World, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2013