His word of advice: Try to win over China's next generation
By Jeremy Au Yong
THE key to the relationship between China and the United States may lie right in the Americans' backyard, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew yesterday.
Speaking during a dialogue at the fifth anniversary dinner of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last night, he said that those concerned about whether China will rise peacefully need to worry, not about the current generation of Chinese leaders, but their children and grandchildren - people like the thousands of Chinese students currently studying in the US.
He said: 'I tell my American friends, I won't worry about them (China) today. You've got tens of thousands of Chinese students. You give them a bad time, they will go home and nurse a grievance. But if you accept them, it's a different world.'
In particular, he said that these young Chinese need to feel connected to the world as stakeholders, for example in negotiations on global warming.
'If I were the US, I would spend time to make sure the mindset of the younger generation is not one of hostility, but one of acceptance that you are a stakeholder.'
As for the current generation, he said he was confident they wanted peace after going through events like the Great Leap Forward and a Cultural Revolution gone mad.
'I have no doubt they want a peaceful rise. But their grandchildren? I put this question to them; they said we will tell them. You know grandchildren never listen to their grandparents,' he said to laughter.
The Minister Mentor was responding to a question from a Chinese student of the public policy school.
She had asked him for his impressions of her country, whether he believed in the peaceful rise of China and how the country could convince the rest of the world that it was not a threat.
The topic dominated the 45-minute dialogue, with MM Lee using up nearly half the allotted time carefully spelling out his thoughts on China.
As for how China could convince the world it can rise peacefully, MM Lee suggested starting with a bit of branding.
'I would not use the word 'peaceful rise'. In Chinese it sounds okay, but in English it sounds like you are rising like a mushroom; you scare people. Why not call it a cultural renaissance?'
In the event, the Chinese used the term 'peaceful development'.
Mr Lee also took time to reflect on the changes he saw in China after some 32 visits to the country since 1976.
'The China I visited in 1976 was dilapidated, down, grey, drab, everybody in the same Mao jackets, unlit streets...Now you go to Shanghai...it's widened the roads, they've cleaned up the place, huge, tremendous improvements in their infrastructure.'
And as the country developed, he noted, its relationship with Singapore also changed. China used to ask him for advice in the past, but not anymore.
'Now we're talking at a different level. The relationship is at a more realistic level. You can't ask me with four million people to give advice to 1.3billion people.'
Moving ahead, he noted that China would have to deal with a serious problem of corruption and inequality in society, but also pointed to two strengths he saw in the Chinese way.
First, he said they have put in place a system that gets things done.
He said: 'When they say we will do this, it is done.
'In China, when they tell the party secretary this must be done and you don't do it, you know the next reshuffle you move sideways. So you want to get up to the Politburo, you make sure it's a success.'
The second was the quality of the leaders emerging.
In the past, he said, most of the people he met were revolutionaries, whose sum knowledge consisted of topics like Marxism and Maoism.
Now, he said, he is seeing more who are Western-educated, driven and who are more familiar with the world.
In fact, so fierce is the competition among emerging leaders in China that he would not be in office if he were there, he noted later when answering a question about succession in Singapore.
Referring to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, he said: ' I told Deng Xiaoping at dinner in 1976, if he were in Singapore, I'm quite sure he'd be the leader. But if I were in China, in that greasy pole, halfway down I would be pushed down to the bottom.'