Monday, December 20, 2010


Dec 18, 2010

From big chill to warm ties

Once they were political foes. Today they are learning from each other. Insight takes a look at the growing relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Action Party in a year that marks the 20th anniversary of China-Singapore diplomatic ties.

By Cai Haoxiang

ON A cool autumn day in September, a People's Action Party (PAP) delegation witnessed direct democracy the communist way.

More than 100 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres in Donghua village, Hutang town, in Jiangsu province filed in in orderly fashion to deposit their votes in the ballot box under the hammer and sickle logo.

The event was to elect one out of two candidates to be the village's party secretary.
The solemn scene struck Hong Kah GRC MP Ang Mong Seng, who was a member of the 46-strong delegation.

'We always thought that they appoint leadership directly. But we saw a transparent selection process, with candidates giving a short speech, asking for questions, and then the cadres voting,' he says.

The polling also struck PAP's then head of external relations Lee Yi Shyan, who led the Jiangsu trip with PAP's first organising secretary Khaw Boon Wan.

Says Mr Lee: 'We talked among ourselves. Should we have some form of elections for our residents' committees (RC) too?'

But he concedes that holding elections for Singapore's grassroots leaders would be difficult as there are not enough candidates for the wholly voluntary job in Singapore. By comparison, in China, 30 graduates would compete for the paid position of RC chairman.

Intensifying ties

THE Jiangsu trip, which spawned these musings among PAP leaders, was significant as it marked a state of heightened relations between PAP and CCP in a year of events celebrating the 20th anniversary of bilateral relations between Singapore and China.

The trip sought to raise PAP's interaction with CCP from government-to-government to party-to-party, says Mr Khaw in an e-mail interview.

The Health Minister notes that PAP's key interest is to nurture and strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

'China is growing rapidly and will be a mega player in the world. We are therefore interested in CCP because CCP leaders form and run the government in China.'

The trip came about because of a visit in April by Mr Li Yuanchao, Minister of the CCP's powerful Central Organisation Department that controls personnel appointments.

Since it opened up in 1978, China has been studying the economic and political systems of countries around the world, including Singapore's.

Chinese officials have routinely visited Singapore on study trips since the 1990s. But as they discovered, Singapore's civil servants could help them only up to a certain extent.

As Mr Lee, who is Minister of State for Manpower and Trade and Industry, explains: 'The CCP was looking for its mirror image, its real counterpart.'

Civil servants could tell them about team dynamics and economic models, but came up short when the Chinese officials asked about Singapore's overarching ideological approach in governance.

'So Mr Li proposed that we should intensify our party-to-party meetings and have annual meetings,' says Mr Lee.

The resulting Jiangsu trip took six days, and the PAP delegation learnt about China's political system, witnessed a village election and visited the Chinese version of Singapore's community centres.

Marine Parade GRC MP Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, one of two minority race members on the trip, recalls being quizzed by Chinese officials on how Singapore maintains racial harmony. He told them about the Community Engagement Programme and other activities which help to bond community groups together.

On what he took away, he says: 'I was impressed by the patriotism and nationalistic fervour of the Chinese, as well as how CCP extends its sphere of influence to all stakeholders like businesses, villages and organisations.

'Our system is different but the trip reinforced the importance of making ourselves relevant to all our stakeholders.'

From foes to friends

PAP's Jiangsu trip would have been unthinkable 40 years ago, when relations were antagonistic between Singapore and China.

Up to 1970, Singapore had no diplomatic contact with China as it was regarded as 'reactionary to the communist social order'. CCP propaganda condemned Singapore authorities for 'armed suppression of Singapore people'.

The CCP also exported revolution to the region through its support of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), which by 1960 had lost its armed insurgency in Malaya and retreated to southern Thailand, where it renewed its armed struggle until 1989.

In 1969, China gave the MCP facilities in Hunan in southern China to set up a radio station called the Voice of Malayan Revolution.

The MCP's propaganda broadcasts called on ethnic Chinese in the region, including Singaporean Chinese, to sustain the Chinese communist revolution and overthrow the Malaysian and Singapore governments.

It was only in 1971 when the first contact was made through 'ping-pong diplomacy' - a 14-member Singapore table tennis contingent was invited to play a series of matches in a Beijing tournament.

The breakthrough

THE breakthrough in bilateral relations came in 1978 when then Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping made an official visit to Singapore.

Then Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew raised the issue of radio broadcasts from China. To his surprise, Mr Deng listened and asked for his advice.

China was then jostling with the Soviet Union for influence in the region, and wanted South-east Asian countries to be on its side. Vietnam had fallen into the Soviet orbit and was about to invade the Beijing-friendly Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

MM Lee noted that China would not receive much support from South-east Asia, because of suspicions aroused by China's radio broadcasts appealing to ethnic Chinese in the region.

The broadcasts were making the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia uneasy, MM Lee said, and he advised Mr Deng to stop the radio broadcasts.

Mr Deng replied that he would think about it. Two years later, in 1980, the radio broadcasts stopped.

The relationship between Singapore and China warmed up in the 1980s and 1990s, when MM Lee visited China almost every year.

'Because we had started from antagonistic positions, we needed time and deeper interaction to develop a relationship of confidence with China,' MM Lee wrote in his memoirs From Third World To First.

Another move by Mr Deng, who rose to be China's paramount leader, eventually led to PAP establishing ties with CCP.

A paper by Chinese academics Jiang Shuxian and Sheng Lijun, published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, noted that at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, CCP had ties only with fewer than 10 communist parties.

But Mr Deng, they noted, made a fundamental policy shift that made the party more flexible when dealing with parties of different ideological orientations. Outreach to parties around the world followed. By 1992, CCP had established relations with more than 400 political parties in about 140 countries.

PAP-CCP relations began in 1992, soon after the establishment of bilateral relations in 1990, according to Henan Normal University's Professor Sun Jing- feng.

The recent intensification of party- to-party ties, he says, is the result of a combination of close bilateral relations, this year's 20th anniversary celebrations, historical and cultural similarities and the CCP policy towards other parties of 'transcending ideological differences through mutual cooperation'.

He notes that party-to-party ties are 'more agile' and can result in broader discussions as both sides are unencumbered by operational matters of trade and culture.

Prof Sun, who just wrote a book examining PAP's longevity in power, cites a string of visits by party officials between both countries in the last 10 years.

In Singapore this year, Vice-President Xi Jinping's November visit capped a year of high-level exchanges between both sides. Mr Xi is the sixth highest ranking member of the CCP as secretary of the Central Secretariat and president of the Central Party School, and is tipped to be China's next president in 2012.

A total of 22,000 Chinese officials have been in Singapore on study trips to learn PAP's technical, management and philosophical know-how in nation building and party renewal.

Prof Sun says CCP can learn from PAP's strengths in clean government and combating corruption, noting that these values were originally in CCP's founding philosophy but fell by the wayside during its long rule.

As for the other way round, he believes PAP can learn from CCP's strengths in theory building, party organisation and talent nurturing.

'PAP talent is often 'dropped into battle' while CCP leaders go through a steady training process from the grassroots and have rich work experience,' the scholar says.

Taking a long historical view, Professor Lu Yuanli of Shenzhen University's Centre for Singapore Studies notes that it was through the influence of the leftists in its early years that PAP absorbed the CCP's 'mass line' of reaching out to trade unions, students, youth and women.

Giving an example of the PAP's 'mass line', he cited a July 2008 article published in China's Southern Daily headlined in Chinese: 'Lee: Without Getting People's Hearts, You Won't Get Votes.'

It described how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conducted a Meet-the-People session in 'a simple and barely furnished room' in his Teck Ghee ward in Ang Mo Kio GRC and how at one point, he had to take out a handkerchief to wipe his perspiration.

Prof Lu says: 'We must have the spirit of doing things for the people without personal profit. Otherwise, in the absence of political competition and the lack of the rights for people to speak out, an original intention to 'recognise the people as master' degenerates into 'being the master of the people'.'

What CCP can learn from PAP, he contends, is the combination of British parliamentary democracy, the mass line, and the idea of letting meritorious performers implement unpopular policies for the good of the country.

But there are limits to what China can learn. Mr Xiang Huaicheng, former Chinese finance minister and former CCP Central Committee member, says bluntly: 'China is too big, Singapore is too small. You are a city state; we cannot transplant what you do wholesale to China.'
He notes that CCP sends cadres to the US on a bigger scale than to Singapore, and its cadres receive training in Japan and England as well.

'But the most important thing we can learn from Singapore is its strict management spirit. I think this is a necessity for our cadres to go out and see what other people are doing.

'You can talk to the cadre for half the day when you are in China, but he doesn't get you, he doesn't believe you. When he goes to Singapore, he wakes up. We are talking about values training, not concrete training,' says Mr Xiang, who was in Singapore last month on a Nanyang Technological University-Lien Foundation fellowship.

The ultimate value in party- to-party ties, which might not result in tangible accomplishments, lies in old-fashioned guanxi, or relationship building.

When he went to Jiangsu province in his party capacity, says Mr Lee Yi Shyan, he met party vice-secretaries and vice-governors whom he had never met in the 15 years that he knew the Jiangsu government.

The 'harmonisation' department, or tongzhanbu, is one such new department he met which coordinates the ideology guiding various social and business organisations.

'I'll hesitate to say that they are pulling the strings, because if you were in China and your Constitution says the party shall lead, then it is incumbent on you to figure out how to build consensus among different groups,' he says.

Mr Khaw says that in the Jiangsu trip, he caught up with old friends and met, for the first time, senior cadres in the Jiangsu party who do not hold formal government positions.

'Some day, some of them will move up to Beijing to take on even more senior positions. It is always useful to have friends in senior positions,' he says.

Meanwhile, the mutual learning goes on. During the Jiangsu trip, Dr Faishal saw how keen the Chinese were in learning from the PAP. 'But when Mr Khaw told the Chinese that the PAP is here to learn, smiles lit up the faces of Chinese officials,' he recalls.

'PAP absent everywhere, present everywhere'

Mr Lee Yi Shyan was head of PAP's external relations sub-committee from 2008 to this year. The committee hosts visits by foreign delegations. Here are excerpts from an interview with him.

By Cai Haoxiang

What is the proportion of party visits to PAP HQ from China?

About 80 per cent of party visits come from China, the other 20 per cent from all over the world - Malaysia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, South Africa. Every year, about 50 party delegations visit the PAP HQ in Bedok.

Why are the Chinese looking at the PAP model?

In Minister of the Central Organisation Department Li Yuanchao's words, both CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and PAP have ruled continuously for 50 years or more.
CCP has its own reasons for its longevity but it wants to know why PAP can 'make it' every five years when elections are called.

We are an Asian society, a majority Chinese society, and somehow have assimilated Chinese culture with Western practices.

They think that if we can succeed, maybe it is a road forward for them. Each time, a more senior leader comes, pointing to the strength of our organisation, our involvement with people, our understanding of the frontline issues... Mr Li is senior enough to send signals.

What questions do the Chinese usually raise with the PAP?
Generally the questions are about how we develop our leadership, how we spot and groom talent for renewal, how we stamp out corruption, what kind of training we conduct, how we organise ourselves, what kind of components do we have, youth wing, women's wing, and how we reach out to different groups in society.

But I think their underlying interest is to figure out what China should do to make their party relevant so they have the legitimacy to rule the country.

What answers did you give them?
We share our experience and practices. For instance, they are quite impressed by the fact that we have Meet-the-People sessions and go to heartland events, have many community functions over the weekends and evenings, and ordinary residents of the constituency can tell us problems and shake hands with us.

In their system they have many layers of government, it is very hard for central government officials to go down to the grassroots level.

They have a system of xiang shang bao gao (reporting to the top) but we have a system of xiang shang bao gao xiang xia fu zhe (reporting to the top and being responsible for the bottom).

What do you think the CCP takes away from the PAP's organisation and structure?
They were very amazed that PAP is absent everywhere but present everywhere.

In China, the Communist Party will typically have a very dominant or prominent building in every city. But in Singapore, you cannot find the party building.

Even our party headquarters is a modest structure co-located with a childcare kindergarten. But they realise that the party's manifesto and value system are operationalised in every part of the Government and society.

For instance, you can see this in the concept of financial prudence, in saving, no budget deficit for a sustained period, not spending more than we are earning, building up our nest egg for the future.

What lessons did the PAP draw from the CCP during the Jiangsu visit?
One big lesson is that we are trying to solve very similar problems in society.

We visited their residential committee, what we call an RC (residents' committee) in the Singapore context. The party secretary was discussing concerns and requests from his residents.

The topic was how to help the ageing population, whether they could build lifts. They said funding was an issue and discussed how to and whom they should ask for so much money.

I think we have a different organisation, a different system. We know that we are solving the problems of a society, we're getting in touch with the grassroots, but we don't hardwire it, say that it must be the party that should do it, or via the Constitution to say that the PAP should lead the country.

The bottom line is really that if the party is not in touch with the majority, the grassroots any more, then it will risk being irrelevant.

To be relevant and to be able to continue to have the mandate to lead, you must be in touch with the ground and work for the interests of the majority of the people.

The CCP faces a lot of internal challenges in the sense that while it has brought economic benefits and social progress to the country, it faces issues of uneven growth, a small part of the party abusing power, corruption, nepotism.

In some specific locations, this had actually discredited the party, such that people start to question its authority to lead.

What do you expect to see as a result of this heightened relationship with CCP?
Government-to-government ties are already significant but party-to party ties symbolise a deeper level of engagement.

It's just like friends. If I know you superficially, you won't be telling me, in my home, my brother is not studying very well, is there anything you can do to help me?

Previously, we can talk about the Monetary Authority of Singapore in managing reserves, or the Central Provident Fund in building a social security system. This is government at the executive level.

But now, we talk about how we decide what Singapore should be in the next two years, what's the structure... These are things that cannot be answered at the operational level.

We don't pretend that the things that we do here will be perfectly relevant to them but the facts speak for themselves, in the sense that we have 50 years of self rule and party rule and the PAP remains relevant.

So we ourselves want to be in touch with the ground and hope that our renewal will contribute to the sustained growth of Singapore.

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