Saturday, April 19, 2014
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President Xi’s Singapore Lessons

NEW YORK – China is at a crucial point today, as it was in 1978, when the market reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping opened its economy to the world – and as it was again in the early 1990’s, when Deng’s famous “southern tour” reaffirmed the country’s development path.

Throughout this time, examples and lessons from other countries have been important. Deng was reportedly substantially influenced by an early visit to Singapore, where accelerated growth and prosperity had come decades earlier. Understanding other developing countries’ successes and shortcomings has been – and remains – an important part of China’s approach to formulating its growth strategy.

Like Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in their first few decades of modern growth, China has been ruled by a single party. Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) remains dominant, though that appears to be changing. The others evolved into multi-party democracies during the middle-income transition. China, too, has now reached this critical last leg of the long march to advanced-country status in terms of economic structure and income levels.

Singapore should continue to be a role model for China, despite its smaller size. The success of both countries reflects many contributing factors, including a skilled and educated group of policymakers supplied by a meritocratic selection system, and a pragmatic, disciplined, experimental, and forward-looking approach to policy.

The other key lesson from Singapore is that single-party rule has retained popular legitimacy by delivering inclusive growth and equality of opportunity in a multi-ethnic society, and by eliminating corruption of all kinds, including cronyism and excessive influence for vested interests. What Singapore’s founder, Lee Kwan Yew, and his colleagues and successors understood is that the combination of single-party rule and corruption is toxic. If you want the benefits of the former, you cannot allow the latter.  

Coherence, long time horizons, appropriate incentives, strong “navigational” skills, and decisiveness are desirable aspects of continuity in governance, especially in a meritocratic system managing complex structural shifts. To protect that and maintain public support for the investments and policies that sustain growth, Singapore needed to prevent corruption from gaining a foothold, and to establish consistency in the application of rules. Lee did that, with the PAP supplying what a full formal system of public accountability would have provided.

China, too, most likely wants to retain, at least for a while, the benefits of single-party rule, and delay the transition to “messier” governance influenced by multiple voices. In fact, a pluralistic system is already evolving under the umbrella of the Chinese Communist Party – a process that may eventually lead to citizens gaining an institutionalized voice in public policy.

For now, however, those representative elements that have been added incrementally are not powerful enough to overcome the growing corruption and excessive influence of vested interests. To maintain single-party legitimacy – and thus the ability to govern – those narrower interests must be overridden in favor of the general interest. That is the challenge that China’s new leadership faces.

If China’s leaders succeed, they can then have a sensible and nuanced debate about the evolving role of the state in their economy, a debate on the merits. Many insiders and external advisers believe that the state’s role must change (not necessarily decline) to create the dynamic innovative economy that is key to navigating the middle-income transition successfully. But there remain many areas in which further debate and choice are needed.

Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore and Mao Zedong and Deng in China gained their peoples’ trust as founders and initial reformers. But that trust dissipates; succeeding generations of leaders do not inherit it completely, and must earn it. That is all the more reason for them to heed the lessons of history.

China’s new leaders should first reassert the Party’s role as defender of the general interest by creating an environment in which narrow interests, seeking to protect their growing influence and wealth, do not taint complex policy choices. They must demonstrate that the Party’s power, legitimacy, and substantial assets are held in trust for the benefit of all Chinese, above all by fostering a pattern of inclusive growth and a system of equal opportunity with a meritocratic foundation. And then they should return to the task of governing in a complex domestic and global environment.

There are times when muddling through – or, in the Chinese version, crossing the river by feeling the stones – is the right governing strategy, and there are times when a bold resetting of values and direction is required. Successful leaders know what time it is.

Feeling the stones may seem like the safest option for China’s next president, Xi Jinping, and China’s other new leaders; in fact, it is the most dangerous. The only safe option is a radical realignment of the Party with the general interest.

The issue, then, is whether the reformers who carry the real spirit of the 1949 revolution will win the battle for equitable and inclusive growth. The optimistic (and I believe realistic) view is that the Chinese people, through a variety of channels, including social media, will weigh in, empowering reformers to push through a progressive agenda.

Time will tell. But it is hard to overstate the outcome’s importance to the rest of the world. Virtually all developing countries – and, increasingly, the advanced countries as well – will be affected one way or another as they, too, struggle to achieve stable and sustainable growth and employment patterns.

Read more from our "China in Transition" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedAbhishek Singh

    An undeniable reality witnessed in Singapore is that, despite protestation that in the light of day is unsubstantiated, what worked for this country was a single party that had the runway to implement meritocratic policy unhindered by political wrangling. Going the other way now with a multi party democracy may be the inevitable course we are on, but we would be very wise to remember that our city-state is rather unique, and it cannot afford to give a new Government a 4 year learning curve (4 years being the usual constitutional term of Government office following a general election). For that reason and in the presence of a largely well educated electorate, we are unlikely to see any major power shifts in the foreseeable future until the opposition builds a deep enough bench of administrative talent, which it is nowhere close to having at present. We are in the end, brutally pragmatic, and wisely so in a city state like Singapore.

  2. CommentedPaul Jefferson

    This article is unrealistically optimistic about China's dictators. Consider that:

    * Power corrupts.
    * Dictators hate relinquishing power.
    * The Internet is censored in China.

    Let's not ignore these realities.

    How are China's greedy, self-enriching dictators going to become as noble and altruistic as this article suggests? It seems more likely that they will instead seek more effective and sophisticated ways to control their citizens.

  3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    We cannot talk about an economic man who is without a nationality. Each economic man is either Chinese, American, Russian, or German, etc.

    Chinese economic men engage in economic activities in accordance with their culture and politics. President Xi's Singapore Lessons is perhaps asking what is impossible.

  4. CommentedVenu Madhav

    Just trying an alternative perspective or view. Comparing China to Singapore, the population is almost 200 times and GDP is at least 9 times bigger; that means the river President Xi has to cross cannot allow him to really feel the stones at any level as it is too deep and wide, and single party systems unfortunately create ample opportunities for fealty that can drive up sycophancy and peer rivalry thus nurturing corruption at various levels, and procrastinating the emergence of truth. Thus, as long as the constitution is fixed on the ideology of inclusive growth, justice regardless of rank of a person,and constant focus on welfare of the society, then they can go a notch-up by legitimizing and allowing either a 2 or at the most 3-party system to balance the focus required at local, national and global levels.

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