Lee’s insights on world stage worth study

By Graham Allison Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-29 18:08:03

Singapore bid farewell to its founding father and prime minister for its first three decades Lee Kuan Yew on Monday, and world leaders gathered in his funeral to pay tribute. This is an occasion for reflection.

Lee not only raised a poor, notoriously corrupt port city from the bottom rungs of the Third World to a modern First World state in a single generation. He was also one of only two true grand masters of international strategy in the last half century (Henry Kissinger being the other).

Leaders the world over looked to Lee for guidance. Above all the others, China benefited most from the counsel of this wise sage. Chinese President Xi Jinping called him an "old friend of the Chinese people," and for good reason.

No one else outside of China has had such a profound influence on China's rise and restoration. In 1978, before launching far-reaching economic reforms, former leader Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore to consult with Lee and study his Singapore model. Even today, thousands of Chinese officials make the same journey annually for the same reason. Over the course of his career, Lee visited China 33 times.

Now that he has passed away, there has been a flurry of words about him. Much more interesting and instructive are the words of Lee himself. For that reason, my colleague Robert Blackwill and I published a book two years ago entitled Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World, in which we posed to him questions on the most important issues of our time. While the Grand Master had lessons for all leaders, he dispensed particularly sage advice for China and its people.

Asked how China can become No.1, Lee's answer was crystal clear: focus first and foremost on economic performance. As he told many who posed this question, Chinese people's best strategy is "to build a strong and prosperous future, and use their huge and increasingly highly skilled and educated workers to out-sell and out-build all others."

How can China rise peacefully and escape the trap that has seen many rising powers provoke wars that proved their downfall?  According to Lee, China "has the responsibility and self interest to assure its neighbors, and the world at large, that its emergence is benign, not a threat, but a plus for the world."  He urged Chinese leaders to "study how to mitigate the adverse impacts of its growth" and "avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. Their competition for power, influence, and resources led in the last century to two terrible wars." If China can "stay with 'peaceful rise' and just contest for first position economically and technologically," he predicted that "they cannot lose. Economics sets underlying trends. China's growing economic sway will be very difficult to fight."

On another occasion, he noted that "this generation wants a peaceful rise. But the grandchildren? They think that they have already arrived, and if they begin to flex their muscles, we will have a very different China." He went on the recall his conversation with a Chinese leader in his 70s who asked him whether he believed China's claims about "peaceful rise." Lee answered, "yes I do - but with one caveat. Your generation has been through the anti-Japanese war, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, and finally the Open Door policy. You know there are many pitfalls, that for China to go up the escalator without mishaps, internally you need stability, externally you need peace. However, you are inculcating enormous pride and patriotism in your young in a restored China...It is volatile."

Asked what advice he would give to others on how to develop a national economy, Lee recalled, "When I started, the question was how Singapore can make a living against neighbors who have more natural resources, human resources, and bigger space. How did we differentiate ourselves from them? They are not clean systems; we run clean systems. Their rule of law is wonky; we stick to the law. Once we come to an agreement or make a decision, we stick to it. We become reliable and credible to investors. World-class infrastructure, world-class supporting staff, all educated in English. Good communications by air, by sea, by cable, by satellite, and now, over the Internet."

In a dialogue that foreshadowed the fierce anti-corruption campaign Xi has unleashed in China, Lee spoke with passion about the necessity to prevent corruption. Leaders, in his view, must "exercise power as trustees for the people, with an abiding sense of our fiduciary responsibility. When those in office regard the power vested in them as a personal prerogative, they inevitably enrich themselves, promote their families, and favor their friends. The fundamental structures of the modern state are eroded, like the supporting beams of a house after termites have attacked them. Then the people have to pay dearly and long for the sins and crimes of their leaders."

Looking to those who would succeed him, Lee asserted that "our future stability and progress depend on those succeeding us being imbued with this same sense of trusteeship, this awareness that to abuse the authority and power that they are entrusted with is to betray a trust."

When we asked him about Xi just months before he became president, Lee said, "he has iron in his soul…I would put him in Nelson Mandela's class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In a word, he is impressive."

As mentor to every Chinese leader since Deng, and every US president since Richard Nixon, Lee's counsel shaped the future not only of China but of the world.

As we pause to mourn the loss of a great leader, we can be grateful that he has left us so many insights that leaders and citizens in every country can apply to challenges we face today.

The author is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is a co-author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States and the World. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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