How Deng and his heirs misunderstood Singapore

February 3, 2019

How Deng and his heirs misunderstood Singapore


Image result for deng xiaoping and lee kuan yew

As official China celebrates the four decades of “reform and opening” that began in late 1978 to early 1979, it is instructive to recall the role Singapore played in this process. The fulsome eulogies for Lee Kuan Yew offered by Chinese officials in 2015, beginning with Xi Jinping himself (who has been noticeably less enthusiastic in his praise for Deng Xiaoping given China’s top leader’s “family feud” over who deserves the most credit for the reforms), are just the most obvious indication that Lee and the “Singapore model” more generally have played (quite literally) an oversized role in China’s rapid transition from Maoism to “Market-Leninism”. Appropriately, Lee was honoured late last year as one of the foreigners who helped China most in its reform process.

Image result for deng xiaoping and lee kuan yew

Ezra Vogel’s his monumental 2011 biography of Deng

In November 1978 Deng, newly installed as China’s paramount leader, visited Singapore. Ostensibly the trip was part of a diplomatic campaign by China against what it considered a growing threat from Soviet-backed Vietnam. But in Singapore, Deng instead became obsessed with the city-state’s purported transformation from a backwater fishing village to a leading global city under Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party’s (PAP) rule.

Image result for deng xiaoping deng's biography by ezra vogel

In his welcoming remarks, Lee stressed that Singapore’s ethnic Chinese citizens were the sons and daughters of uneducated, landless peasants from Southern China, leading Lee to suggest, as former Foreign minister George Yeo has recently phrased it, if Singapore with its “poorly-educated coolies could make good, how much better mainland China could be if the right policies were adopted.” Deng showed great respect for Lee (going so far as to not smoke in the presence of the fastidious Lee despite the Singapore leader providing him with a spittoon in a well-ventilated room) as he had inherited a broken system that he was quickly trying to fix. In his comments Deng endorsed the (exaggerated) story of Singapore’s miraculous metamorphosis.

Crucially, Deng and Lee developed a special relationship during Deng’s short visit. Both were anti-colonial leaders at the forefront of their countries’ revolutionary movements and committed to political order over chaos. Ezra Vogel, in his monumental 2011 biography of Deng, comments that:

“Deng admired what Lee had accomplished in Singapore, and Lee admired how Deng was dealing with problems in China. Before Deng’s visit to Singapore, the Chinese press had referred to Singaporeans as the ‘running dogs of American imperialism.’ A few weeks after Deng visited Singapore, however, this description of Singapore disappeared from the Chinese press. Instead, Singapore was described as a place worth studying .…. Deng found orderly Singapore an appealing model for reform, and he was ready to send people there to learn about city planning, public management, and controlling corruption.”

Unlike other Chinese party leaders and academics who, as Kai Yang and Stephan Ortmann have shown, were looking at a variety of potential models such as Sweden (seen then to represent a “‘third way’ between Communism and capitalism” and symbolising “the ideals of social equity and harmony”), Deng was single-mindedly focused on Singapore, a fascination that was initially quite idiosyncratic. He was searching for a model that both legitimated party rule and was adaptable to the country’s rapid industrialisation. Deng’s articulation of the “Four Cardinal Principles” in 1979 showed that he still adhered to party orthodoxy in regard to repressing political dissent and reaffirming the party’s monopoly on power. But Deng was also concerned with how the party could guide China through state-led capitalist growth. In this regard, Deng left little doubt his thinking was closer to Lee’s than Karl Marx’s.

Yet the example of Singapore became central to the Chinese regime’s efforts to legitimise authoritarian rule only after collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European state socialist satellite states and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Deng’s endorsement of Singapore as a model during his early 1992 “southern tour”, undertaken to restart the reform process, led to an outbreak of “Singapore fever” and an obsession with learning from Singapore among Chinese governing elite and academics. In quick follow up to Deng’s praise, a high level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delegation was sent to Singapore, which quickly produced by book about the city-state that was distributed to all party branches. Hundreds of official trips followed, with Singapore setting up various programs to accommodate the influx of Chinese visitors such as the “Mayor’s Class” at Nanyang Technological University, attended by thousands of mid-level mainland officials.

An authoritarian path to modernity

It has been difficult for China to find examples of a successful combination of centralised authoritarian rule with effective and corruption-free government in a modern society anywhere else in today’s world besides Singapore. Besides the tiny sultanate of Brunei, Singapore is the only high-income country with a non-democratic regime in East Asia and arguably the only clear case globally, as oil-dependent absolute monarchies are rich but not “modern” in most understandings of the term. China’s observers also tend to see Singapore as “Chinese” and Confucian-influenced (ignoring its distinctive national identity and multi-ethnic character), making it seem more culturally appropriate for emulation.

Although Singapore remains a stand-alone example of high income, non-petroleum reliant “authoritarian modernism”, there is historical precedent for the attempt to remain authoritarian while successfully modernising in East Asia. Framed this way, Singapore is much less a “lonely” example of authoritarian modernity than it is a continuation of a historical trend. The “Prussian path” of German authoritarian-led development was followed by Meiji reformers and this model was later diffused throughout East Asia. Singapore is a particularly important example of this phenomenon not only because it wanted to “learn from Japan” (a government campaign in the early 1980s in which Japan had served as an ideological device used to maintain political control and manage social change that accompanied the upgrading of the country’s economy) and constructed a reactionary culturalist discourse (the “Asian values” debate of the 1990s) to help justify continued electoral authoritarian rule, but also because it became the chief model for Deng’s post-Maoist developmentalist leadership.

The chief “lesson” Chinese experts have derived from Singapore’s fight against corruption is the importance of a committed leadership. But this analysis ignores the significance of the rule of law in Singapore, despite its being a tool to “constrain dissent” and increase the PAP’s “discretionary political power”. Theoretically, the PAP is not above the law, while the CCP claims primacy over any laws (euphemistically called “rule by law”), with China’s top judge recently denouncing judicial independence as a “false Western ideal”. By viewing determined leadership as the main lesson from Singapore, while at the same time rejecting an effective and independent legal system which was key to the city-state’s success in combating corruption, the Chinese leadership has picked “lessons” that confirm their own policy style while ignoring others that could potentially raise critical questions about it.

In many important ways, from country size to political “DNA” (i.e. the legacies of totalitarianism in post-Mao China compared to Westminster-style parliamentary institutions in Singapore), the two nations are simply too different to allow for any meaningful policy transfer. Moreover, Chinese observers have largely seen what they want to see: a one-party state ruled by wise leaders and built on Confucian principles which is successful and legitimate.

Rather, the key significance of the Singapore model for China has been primarily as a form of ideological confirmation, as it has provided an alternative telos for China as it modernises. Singapore shows what China can become: a highly modern but still one-party state undertaking carefully calibrated reforms. Thus, small though it is, Singapore has played an outsized role in reinforcing the CCP’s leadership’s belief that it can avoid the “modernisation trap” and remain resiliently authoritarian during modernisation and even after it successfully modernises.

Growing out of the “Singapore model”

But more recently China seems to have moved away from adopting Singapore’s “soft authoritarian” style of rule. A recent book by David Shambaugh claims that gradualist political reforms by Xi Jinping’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, albeit within a continued authoritarian framework, were “intended to open up the system with carefully limited political reforms,” seeking to “manage political change rather than resist it.” By contrast, Xi’s recent widespread crackdown on dissent has undermining hopes of further, however constrained, political liberalisation. Shambaugh regrets that Singapore’s semi-competitive system, with a dominant party legitimised through limited but significant popular participation, and whose power is constrained by the rule of law, is no longer considered relevant by the Chinese leadership.

Thus, China seems to be moving further away from rather than toward the Singapore model. At the same time, as China takes a more aggressive stance in its foreign policy, particularly the South China Sea, and becomes more confident of its own political and developmental success, its interest in Singapore, which has staked out an independent foreign policy that has sometimes angered the mainland, has declined. After many years in which  officials offered a codified version of the “Singapore story” to Chinese observers, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently described the island state as little more than a “bonsai tree model of what China is” that might be “intriguing to scrutinise” but from which is hard for a gigantic country like China to draw lessons. Seemingly consigned to a historical period of conservative reformism in China, the “Singapore model” now appears to represent a path not taken by the mainland’s hard-line leadership.

This essay draws extensively from the author’s Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia (Palgrave 2019)


This is What Inequality Looks Like

8 thoughts on “How Deng and his heirs misunderstood Singapore

  1. Prussian-style, Bismarckian-style rule ?
    I’m reminded of Barrington Moore’s book The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

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  3. Xi Jinping consolidation of power is justified because corruption and reckless growth could not be tackled effectively especially when China tries to make the leap to moderately high income economy.

    But the same convenient tool will prove ineffective eventually as China grow even bigger if it cannot build a system of rule of law administered distributively. Authoritarianism is just not very good when things get very very big – ask any Ceo of a global MNC.

  4. Recently I saw an interview of one of the health ministers from a country which I will not name. He said that he was a CEO of a private hospital that bought a sophisticated medical equipment for US 500,000. But his ministry bought the same equipment for US 2,500,000. He left it to the viewers to work out yhe rest of yhe maths.
    How many Least Developed Countries and Developing Countries should be Developed
    Countries by now.
    That is the story of Singapore.

  5. If Deng really thought of Singapore as a possible model for China then he was more stupid than I imagined him to be. The differences between the two entities are too obvious to require explanation. Leaving aside the nearly 1 billion Chinese that had only a generation to evolve from a Sick Man of Asia into a regional power (in the late 1970s), China had to devote enormous human and natural resources for national defence, while the so-called “”Asian tigers” were largely vassal states of the US. Even “non-aligned” states in Southeast Asia were politically slanted towards the West, unless they wanted to court destabilisation or outright invasion. Moreover, the PRC had to endure trade and technological embargo from the beginning of its existence. The embargo has continued till this very day.

    Some might argue that, for whatever reasons, the last 40 years have seen tremendous growth because of China’s “reform and opening up.” This mantra is often repeated but seldom thought over carefully. Was it Deng who opened up China or was it due to the Mao-Nixon rapprochement? No nation in its right mind want to close itself from other countries: China’s “closure” to the West was due its containment by the West. The US finally decided to engage China because it wanted to use China as an ally to destroy the Soviet Union, which finally did collapse.

    Secondly, was China’s post 1978 progress due to Deng’s genius, or was it largely because of the strong foundation laid by Mao Zedong’s administration? It took some 40 years for an American paper, the Washington Post, to print an alternative narrative to China’s rapid development, though writers like Li MingQi, Han Dongping, and some Western authors had published the truth long ago.

    The Post’s article pointed out that “the foundations of China’s rapid growth (can be traced) back to its rural collectives, known as the People’s Communes, which spurred a green revolution in agriculture in the 1970s. Its author, Eisenmen, also refuted the “three widely accepted myths about the Reform and Opening Up narrative”:

    Myth No. 1: Low commune productivity led farmers to abandon collective agriculture and return to household farming.

    …. national, provincial and county-level data on grain and pig production reveal that sizable and sustained increases in agricultural productivity began after the 1970 Northern Districts Agricultural Conference. Under Premier Zhou Enlai’s leadership, this six-week gathering initiated extensive reforms of the collective remuneration and agricultural research and extension systems that made the commune far more productive in the 1970s than it was in the previous decade….

    Myth No. 2: The government allowed rural markets and private enterprises only after Reform and Opening Up.

    After 1961, private household production, small-scale animal husbandry and cottage industries, and rural markets (赶集), collectively known as the Three Small Freedoms (三自), were legal and commonplace throughout the Chinese countryside. Rural markets were an important outlet for excess sideline production (except grain), which was households’ primary source of vegetables, protein, and cash….

    Myth No. 3: Reform and Opening Up launched an ethos of development that industrialized rural China.

    Under Dazhai, cadres used Mao’s collectivist ideology to create a national ethic of self-sacrifice for national development. After 1970, a worker’s industriousness, expertise and willingness to sacrifice for the collective became key determinants of his or her redness.

    Rather than cash payments, communes used “workpoints”to disguise the extraction of household resources to support investments in tractors, fertilizer, hybrid seeds, irrigation networks and other “production costs” (生产费用). Between 1976 and 1979, rural investment averaged more than 7 billion RMB annually…..

    …..but by 1982 it had fallen to below 5 billion RMB. By 1986, investment in agriculture was at the lowest point since 1949 and, notes economist Nicholas Lardy, can “clearly be ruled out as a source of growth acceleration….(end quotation).


    Besides the 3 myths, the current “reform and opening up narrative” also ignored the massive failures that reduced the life span of millions of people between 1979 and 2004. This was caused, as Amartya Sen noted, by the elimination of universal health insurance ( actually, in the case of migrants, due to the abolishing of the peoples’ communes). During those years, said Sen, “India steadily reduced the gap between itself and China in terms of life expectancy. There was a 14-year gap to begin with; it fell to six or seven years.”

    Under the Mao administration, average life expectancy increased from around 30-35years to 65-69 years by the late 1970s, whereas under Deng’s neoliberal policies, average life expectancy from 1978 to 2018 improved by only around 10 years. Of course, other causes such as grossly overworked peasants, suicides of suddenly disenfranchised women and left-behind elderly (as peasants were forced to become migrant labourers) were also partly responsible for the drastically reduced average life expectancies. And we haven’t yet discussed the awful consequences of the one-child policy.

    • I don’t think Deng was stupid or that he wanted to copy the Singapore model lock, stock and barrel. I think he liked the idea of an authoritarian one-party state with socialist policies and capitalistic market mechanisms. He like the general cleanliness and little corruption. I don’t think he’s dumb enough to replicate Singapore. And he was realistic enough to do it in bite sizes – the coastal cities were of manageable sizes and more comparable to Singapore.

      Even Malaysia is much bigger than Singapore for replication. But if you do it in Penang or Johor Bahru, then it is not that far fetched.

  6. I think that China saw Singapore as a City State and modeled its cities based on the Singapore experience. The large cities in China do reflect some of the successful aspects of Singapore. I understand that India too has been busy studying Singapore with the view to build their new urban areas based on the successful aspects of Singapore. The new suburban development in India do reflect the Singapore experience.

  7. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Always learn from other if you want results. And by the way the person who helps you on your request is more than willing to help you because he knows that by passing his success story around his skills will be further sharpened

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