The Xi-Ma Meeting: Why Singapore?

 
 

Much has been written already about last Saturday’s Singapore summit between Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party leader, and Ma Ying-jeou, the leader of Taiwan. Not surprisingly, the focus has tended to be on classic who, what, why, and when questions. Less has been said, though, about the where — and that’s too bad, as the way the location and event fit together is plenty interesting to ponder, too.

Pragmatic considerations led to Singapore serving as the site for this first-ever get together between a pair of presidents, one selected and the other elected, who are based on opposite sides of the Taiwan strait. There were also intriguing symbolic factors that made this unique Southeast Asian city the perfect venue for a summit that, due to all the fancy diplomatic footwork that made it possible, was nothing if not unusual. To cite just one unusual feature, each leader had to agree to be called “Mr.” rather than “President” throughout the meeting, a needed bit of rhetorical gymnastics since the Communist Party does not recognize the legitimacy of the government currently run by Mr. Ma, while the Nationalist Party or KMT does not recognize the legitimacy of the government currently run by Mr. Xi.

What made Singapore such a fitting place for this curious meeting, in which Xi and Ma shook hands for more than a minute and then shared a meal — for which the bill, in another outcome of pre-summit negotiation, was split neatly down the middle?

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Let’s start with the pragmatics. Neither leader wanted to be seen as a mere guest in a city that is ultimately run by his counterpart’s political organization. For convenience, an ideal host city would be in the same part of the world as Beijing and Taipei. Finally, the meeting, though long planned, needed to be kept secret, so the venue needed to be able to show up on Xi and Ma’s itineraries in ways that could be explained without reference to their meeting. Singapore checks all three boxes.

In addition, for Xi in particular to feel comfortable, the ideal setting for the meeting would be a city associated with a tradition of tight control of crowds and a high degree of public order. A place where the police could be counted on to minimize the chance of rowdy demonstrations disrupting the smooth flow of ceremonial activities, and where journalists are used to disciplined press conferences. Singapore again fit the bill.

Switching to symbolism, well before the term “Chinese Model” was coined, Singapore’s most famous leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was combining one-party rule with rapid economic growth and making appeals to traditional values while rapidly modernizing urban infrastructure. Lee was, in other words, doing things that Taiwan did late in the last century and China has been doing throughout the first years of this one. Lee’s vision of Singapore as needing to engage with the world beyond Asia while rooting itself in values associated with Confucianism echoed something Ma’s Nationalist Party predecessor Chiang Kai-shek had done as far back as the 1930s. And it presaged things that Xi, like other successors to the anti-Confucian Mao Zedong, would do on the mainland.

Singapore, in other words, has a lot in common with past or present incarnations of both Taiwan and the PRC. So much so that, had that improbable and contradictory city not existed as a site for the recent improbable and contradictory summit, a novelist with a fanciful streak might have conjured up something just like it for a scene that featured the successors of Mao and Chiang sharing a handshake.

Just over 90 years ago, relations between the Nationalists and Communists were strained by the death of Sun Yat-sen, a revered revolutionary who had been admired by and promoted cooperation between members of both organizations. Soon after his March 1925 death, both parties were accusing the other of abandoning the ideals of Sun — a complex figure who was cosmopolitan yet intensely patriotic, socialist yet a critic of Marxist notions of class struggle, a partisan of democracy yet someone who thought a vanguard party sometimes needed a monopoly on power.

A drawing from the time summed up the Communist critique of the Nationalists. It showed a struggle over where a portrait of Sun should be placed. The Communists were presented as insisting that he deserved to be in a “world park” beside pictures of Marx and Lenin, while the Nationalists were derided for wanting to put this forward-looking progressive in the “Confucian temple,” linking him not with true revolutionaries but with a conservative sage. The Nationalists of the day, conversely, insisted that it was the Communists who were being unfaithful to Sun’s ideals. They stressed, for example, that Sun was a great patriot who thought Chinese of all classes should think of one another as kin, while the Communists called on workers to view capitalist compatriots as monsters rather than brethren.

Throughout the next decades, aside from a time of uneasy cooperation from 1937 to 1945 during the war against Japan, it often seemed that the only thing that the Communists and Nationalists agreed about was that Sun, whatever he stood for, had been a great man. Now, they have found some additional common ground. This includes a shared antipathy for the Democratic Progressive Party, the party that seems poised to defeat the Nationalists in the upcoming election to choose Ma’s successor. The DPP wants to reverse the recent trend toward ever tighter economic and cultural ties between Taiwan and the mainland, to the dismay of both Xi and Ma. There is also no longer a divide between the two groups over class struggle, something rarely mentioned by Xi.

Something else the heads of the two parties now seem to be on the same page about is that the best place for Sun’s portrait would be in a metropolis that resembles a thoroughly modernized Confucian temple. A modern urban center where the classics are extolled and harmony and order are celebrated.  A place like, say, Singapore.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.
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