With the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and one of the most influential Asian politicians, leaders and media outlets all over the world have put in their two cents on his legacy. In the Western world, analysis of his influence is generally mixed; the Washington Post, for example, led off its piece by calling Lee “the democratic world’s favorite dictator.” But in China, where Lee’s mix of authoritarian governance and economic reform proved hugely influential, reflections are far more glowing.
China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 23 saying that “the Chinese side deeply mourns the loss of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.” The statement praised Lee as “a uniquely influential statesman in Asia and a strategist embodying oriental values and international vision.”
For China, that high praise might actually be underestimating Lee’s importance. After the death of Mao Zedong, Beijing’s leaders knew that Maoist philosophy was not the way forward for China – but they were loath to adopt Western alternatives such as democracy and a free market economy. In Lee’s Singapore, Chinese leaders found an alternative path, a path they could sell as being uniquely suited for Asian (or “oriental,” as China’s FM put it) values. That choice, to combine economic reforms with authoritarianism, shaped China as we know it today.
Jin Canrong of Renmin University told China Daily that Lee’s greatest contribution to China was “sharing Singapore’s successful experience in governance.” In his biography of Deng Xiaoping, Ezra Vogel wrote that China’s great reformed was inspired by the example of Lee’s Singapore. Xi Jinping himself has said that China’s modernization process has been undeniably shaped by the “tens of thousands of Chinese officials” who went to Singapore to study Lee’s model. Lee himself visited China over 30 times and met with Chinese leaders from Mao to Xi Jinping, offering advice.
Perhaps Lee’s greatest legacy for China was inspiring not simply Deng’s economic reforms, but the very idea that reform and adaptation is a never-ending, essential process. As Lee put it in a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Singapore embraces practicality rather than ideology: “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.” That pragmatic stance is echoed in Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
Lee’s embrace of experimental reform is alive and well today in Xi and company’s emphasis on “comprehensively deepening reform.” In particular, China hopes to follow in the one area where its reforms veered away from Lee’s model – Singapore is known as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, while corruption in China has grown so great that leaders see it as an existential threat to Party rule. Legal analysts interviewed by the Wall Street Journal say the Singaporean model is providing a blueprint for legal reforms in China today.
However, in their zeal for practical reforms, both Lee and China kept to one baseline – the idea that democracy (at least as defined by the West) is incompatible with ‘Asian values.’ Lee’s comment that China would “collapse” if it became a liberal democracy echoes similar themes popular among Chinese officials and state-run media.
Given Lee’s influence on China, it’s no wonder that Western leaders turned to him for advice on how to deal with Beijing. From Henry Kissinger to Tony Blair, Lee advised politicians for decades. Scholars even recently gathered together Lee’s advice for how to navigate the turbulent period as China becomes a peer competitor with the U.S., creating the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (published just two years ago).
Lee realized far earlier than most that China’s rise would necessitate a shift in the international order. “It’s not possible to pretend that [China] is just another big player,” Lee said in 1993. “This is the biggest player in the history of man.” Such language delighted leaders in Beijing eager to believe in the unique power of China’s history and culture and the inevitability of China’s rise. For years, Chinese leaders trusted Lee to explain their country. As China Daily put it, “When China encountered resistance in the international arena, Lee played an important role in mediating and interpreting for China.”
To observers in the West, Lee’s words now seem prescient – one wonders how history might have changed if Washington, for example, had taken Lee’s advice to heart 20 years ago. With Lee gone, both China and the West will have to figure out how to deal with each other without his guidance.