Insights from a Chinese grand master

China is remembering the 110th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese political leader who has largely been credited with setting the country on its path of economic reform and modernisation after decades of Maoist madness.

Deng had a foreign mentor. His name is Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore and one of the few surviving elder statesmen from the cold war era. Lee has also provided counsel to every US president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama.

One of the biggest questions that confront Australia and the rest of the world is the rise of China. Will China replace the US as the dominant power in the world? Is it possible for the country to continue to grow at such a fast pace? Will China ever become democratic?

Thanks to Harvard scholars Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill, who interviewed Lee Kuan Yew extensively last year about the future of China, we can tap into the experience and insight of the grand master. The interviews were captured in Allison and Blackwill’s book, The Grand master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World and give a fascinating insight into China’s future.

Lee is confident that it is only a matter of time before China displaces the US as the most powerful country in the world. “They have the manpower to do things cheaper in any part of the world economically. Their influence can only grow and grow beyond the capabilities of America,” he says.

The former Singaporean Prime Minister says the chances of something going wrong in China are about one in five. Lee believes China’s strategy of becoming the number one country in the world is largely an economic one.

“The Chinese have concluded that their best strategy is to build a strong and prosperous future, and use their huge and increasingly highly skilled and educated workers to outsell and outbuild others,” he says. Beijing does not want to repeat the mistakes of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, and understands that it cannot match the military power of the US.

“I believe the Chinese leadership has learnt if you compete with America in armaments, you will lose. You will bankrupt yourself. So, avoid it, keep your head down, and smile, for 40 or 50 years,” he told the Harvard professors.

Though Lee is generally upbeat about China’s economic prospects, he has a unique takes on the hurdles in front of the country. Lee, a Cambridge-educated barrister, believes the country’s notoriously difficult language will be the biggest hurdle to attract and integrate talent from other countries.

Lee’s belief in China’s inability to attract international talent due to its language barrier has been shaped by his experience in running Singapore. When he was the prime minister, he implemented and enforced vigorously an English-first policy in Singapore, including shutting the only Chinese language university in South East Asia.

He deliberately turned his back on the Chinese language to make Singapore an internationally competitive place so it could attract and assimilate talent from other societies in the world. Lee believes it is next to impossible to engineer a similar cultural change in China, a country with 5,000 years of history.

“We could do that in a small city-state with strong leadership. While I once advised a Chinese leader to make English the first language of China, clearly that is not realistic for such a great, confident country and culture. But it is a serious handicap,” he says.

China’s governance system, which has been marked by tight control, is under increasing pressure from the onslaught of technology. The proliferation of smartphones, social media, the internet, and satellite TV will result in Chinese citizens being more informed.

Lee says it won’t be possible to govern them the way they are governed now, because their numbers will be so large.

One of the biggest questions for foreign policymakers is whether China’s rise will be peaceful? On this point, Lee has no clear answer and says Singapore is not sure. Many Southeast Asian countries are suspicious of a rising China, which has been taking a hardline approach in territorial disputes in the region.

“They [ASEAN countries] 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,” he says.

Conventional political theory suggests that a rising middle class will bring about democratisation. And will China follow the same path? Lee feels strongly that China is not going to become a liberal democracy. “If it did, it would collapse,” he said, “where are the students of Tiananmen now? They are irrelevant. The Chinese people want a revived China.”

Lee, a well-known defender of so-called Asian values, does not believe it is possible to impose on foreign standards that are alien to China’s own history and past. “So to ask China to become a democracy, when in its 5,000 years of recorded history it never counted heads,” he said, “all rulers ruled by right of being the emperor, and if you disagree, you chop off heads, not count heads.”

In essence, Lee thinks China will continue to grow and surpass the US in absolute size, but cannot match it in creativity and innovation. Beijing will become more assertive but it is unlikely to challenge America’s military supremacy, at least for another 50 years.

For a man who has managed to turn a third-world country into a first-world country in a single generation, and who survived and prospered in a hostile regional environment, his advice is worth listening to.