Understanding China
Jude Wanniski
February 24, 1999


Memo To: Website fans, browsers, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Interview with Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew

Following is a memo from my colleague Peter Signorelli, commenting on William Safire's column of February 22, which was built around an interview with Singapore's Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. His opinion of Safire's analysis is low, as is mine, but the transcript of the interview itself is one of the most illuminating we have seen on understanding China.

From Peter Signorelli....

NYTimes columnist, William Safire, is a vociferous promoter of a hard line U.S. approach toward China. Safire's columns on foreign policy often reveal his commitment to old Cold War-era concepts. His most recent column, "Danger: Chinese Tinderbox," NYTimes 2-22-99, contains excerpts from a much longer interview he conducted with Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The full interview ranges over topics such as the mechanisms for change in China, mounting social dislocation and unrest in China, the role of Singapore as an economic and political model, the alleged democratic shortcomings of "dictatorial" Singapore, with Safire casting it all in the framework of a one-dimensional focus on "democracy." Minister Lee's responses to questions regarding the process of change in China are especially informed and illuminating, and I recommend that you read the entire interview, which is on-line at [www.nytimes.com/library/opinion/#safire]

Lee acknowledges that China's coastal cities may be likened to a tinderbox, in that the transformations China is undergoing do bring dislocation, discomfort, and even dismay at times. But what threatens to transform mere grievances into something far more volatile is the corrosive effect of graft and the revulsion it provokes among Chinese. Safire, throughout the interview, advances the "they-must-change" mantra as the conceptual model for U.S. policy toward China. Lee advises him that "it has to be a gradual process...you say ‘well, let's change them'....I don't think they can change their ways. And if they did they would run very serious risks of internal unrest that may abort the whole process" (a la Russia).

It is obvious that Lee's perspectives are shaped by real events in the region, not an ideological bias, and that he understands the dynamics of socio-economic transformation on a level Safire simply cannot grasp. Safire comes across as an ideologue, hammering away at the same Cold War-era theme -- undemocratic China is a menace. U.S. policy ought not forsake democratic development for the mere stability an iron-fisted rule brings in China. But, Safire's premise is thoroughly ideological and therefore faulty, as Lee demonstrates, with an especially insightful example of what has replaced the USSR.

Yes, China is beset with social problems, and in some areas deep social unrest is bubbling up. But, Lee points out, this is inevitable with sudden changes. There will be unequal growth. And it will be compounded by the problems of graft and corruption. In China, though, the regime allows some escape valves at the lower levels, allowing villages to elect their own leaders, for example, (and with fewer official restrictions on various forms of entrepreneurial economic activities). In Russia, however, a Mafia runs the country, in a way so disastrous that one can make the case that Russia was better off in the post-Stalin USSR than it is today. The point is central to the debate regarding China's development. Russia followed a western-imposed strategy of "shock therapy," of tearing down the old structures before any new ones had been built, which explains why the country is such a mess today.

That lesson has not been lost on the Chinese, nor on Minister Lee. He of course looks to a China that is better governed, less brutal, with less brutish methods of government. But it has to be a process that is gradual, with the supporting environment able to accept and not be carried away by the changes, wanting too much too soon.

"They [the Chinese leadership] do not know where they are heading," Lee advises. But he invokes the hope that they will make this transition from a one-party, totally dominated and controlled society into a more loose, open, normal kind of society, like Taiwan, like Hong Kong within a generation. However, the U.S. cannot dictate the pace of change in China, and such meddling is a threat to the stability of the region. The China-bashing faction in the U.S. is gearing up a new campaign against the "China menace," as we see in yesterday's NYTimes hysterically anti-China op-ed piece by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb. Minister Lee's remarks are well worth reading as his perspective brings a healthy, more nuanced dimension for examination of U.S. policy toward China.