Was Lee Kuan Yew an Inspiration or a Race Traitor? Chinese Can’t Agree

When Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, passed away at the ripe age of 91 on March 23, the elderly statesman was as controversial in death as in life—and nowhere was the debate more vigorous than in China. While state media was full of praise, with government-owned China Central Television (CCTV) running tributes on loop during the day, calling Lee’s governance of Singapore a “miracle” and burnishing his credentials as an “old friend of the Chinese people.” But the Chinese blogosphere, which often provides a counterpoint to the official line, was not so sure. For many ordinary Chinese netizens, Lee was a paradox that defied easy categorization. An ethnic Chinese proud of his heritage, Lee also had a thoroughly British education and forced his people to learn English; an unapologetic pragmatist with an authoritarian bent, Lee also emphasized rule of law and clean government; an oracle of China’s astronomical rise on the world stage, Lee also called for more U.S. involvement in Asia to guard against a rising China.

China and Singapore have had a close, but at-times awkward, bilateral relationship since Lee first visited China during the last years of late Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s reign. Lee was a sworn enemy of communists in his own country in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and Beijing had branded him a “running dog” of the West. But in 1978, Deng Xiaoping, then on the verge of becoming China’s paramount leader, went to Singapore and was apparently impressed with the city-state’s fast development and fastidious management under one-party rule. The pragmatic Lee developed a rapport with the equally pragmatic Deng. Soon after China embarked on its economic reforms in 1979, the Communist Party began to send Chinese officials to Singapore on a regular basis to learn from its experience, and when China started to allow its citizens to travel for leisure in the 2000’s, Singapore was among their first destinations, leaving visitors to marvel at its clean streets and high living standards.

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Lee Hsien Loong on What Singapore Can—and Can’t—Teach China

As one of the Four Asian Tigers, Singapore is known for its strong economy and orderly society. The city-state, with its population of 5.3 million people, is listed by the World Bank as fourth in the world in terms of per capita income. As a...

As a result, many Chinese, from high officials to ordinary people, find much to emulate from Lee’s Singapore. But there’s disagreement about what China needs to learn from Singapore, and why. Under current President Xi Jinping, the Chinese central government is gravitating towards a Singaporean model that combines a free-market economy with one-party rule. In the wake of Lee’s death, Global Times, a state-owned newspaper, identified four watchwords of Lee’s legacy—“stability, orderliness, lack of graft, and rule of law”—that could also easily describe Xi’s domestic agenda.

But more liberal-minded Chinese, like lawyer Tao Jingzhou, believed that the secret ingredient to Singapore’s success was Lee’s Western outlook and a legal system bequeathed by British colonists. Columnist Liu Shengjun wrote that Singapore’s stability and efficiency are built on “Lee’s authoritarian charisma,” which has limited appeal in China’s consensus-driven government.

Then there are Chinese vocal nationalists and leftists, who have offered much harsher post-mortem assessments of Lee. Since he was an embodiment of state-led capitalism that many Chinese leftists despise, some nationalists and Maoists condemned Lee’s legacy and attacked China’s state-owned media, including CCTV, for their flowery tributes. Vindictive essays detailing Lee’s offenses against communists circulated on Chinese social media among leftist circles after his death, calling him a “fascist pawn of imperialism.” Since more than 74 percent of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, including Lee and most of its senior leadership, some Chinese tend to think of Singapore as a nation of long-lost cousins that should, one way or another, rotate close within China’s orbit. Hardcore Chinese nationalists loathe the idea that Lee instead vouchsafed Singapore’s own national interests, which sometimes brought the country closer to the United States than to China.

Lu Qi, a nationalist scholar, took the vitriol a step further when he called Lee a hanjian—that is, a traitor to the Chinese nation—because Lee “embarked on a large de-Sinicization campaign in Singapore, and most ethnic Chinese Singaporeans could not speak Chinese.” Guo Songmin, a former magazine editor, accused Lee of turning Singapore into a republic of “bananas,” another pejorative used against Asians who have adopted Western culture because they are “yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” and wrote that Lee “infected overseas Chinese everywhere with cultural schizophrenia.” Other nationalists have called Lee an “opportunist” that “milked both China and the U.S. for his own interests.”

At the end of the day, whether his personal politics was aligned with China’s is beside the point; Lee’s brand of “soft authoritarianism” is undoubtedly attractive to Chinese leaders. Beijing wants to keep down dissent and rein in the media, just as Lee did, while expanding the economy and lifting standards of living, which on a per capita basis still rate far below Singapore’s dizzying statistics. On March 23, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Chinese leaders, likely including President Xi Jinping, would travel to Singapore for Lee’s funeral. Singaporeans, particularly the younger generation, might have grown much more ambivalent about Lee’s paternalistic approach to governance and resent the lack of freedom of expression that characterizes their daily lives. But those remain precisely the methods that China’s leadership is most eager to learn and master.