Has China outgrown its need for Singapore as a role model?
Thousands of Chinese officials have trained in the city state, but domestic programmes have caught up as Beijing gains confidence in its own development model, analysts say
A “key pillar” propping up China and Singapore’s strained bilateral relationship, the Lion City’s role as a top overseas training ground for Chinese officials, appears to be shifting.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s notable absence from Beijing’s biggest diplomatic event of the year last week, viewed by observers as a deliberate snub by China, cast a fresh spotlight on tensions stemming from a diplomatic spat over the South China Sea last summer.
But just a day later, a senior Communist Party leader called on Lee during a visit to Singapore for a bilateral forum on leadership development. Politburo member Zhao Leji, who’s in charge of party personnel matters, and Lee affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship” between their two countries and agreed that human resource development had become an important area of bilateral cooperation.
The Singapore-China Forum on Leadership, first proposed by a senior Singapore minister in 2008 during a visit to Beijing, is viewed by Singaporean officials as a “key pillar” in bilateral relations.
“The ability to have deep, wide-ranging and substantive discussions on such issues of national interest reflects the high degree of mutual trust between Singapore and China, as well as the depth, breadth and strength of our bilateral ties,” Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, Teo Chee Hean, told the sixth such forum in his keynote address on May 16, The Straits Times reported.
But experts told the South China Morning Post the number of Chinese officials sent to Singapore and other countries for training had fallen in recent years, as domestic training programmes caught up and China exhibited more confidence in its own development model.
During a visit to the city state in 1978, late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping called for China to learn from the Singapore experience. But it was not until 1992, when Deng demanded on his famed “southern tour” to Guangdong that China learn from Singapore’s “good social discipline and order” that Chinese officials started eagerly looking to Singapore for inspiration.
It has now been a top overseas training ground for Chinese officials for more than two decades. Since the 1990s, about 50,000 Chinese officials and cadres had studied subjects such as urban management, social governance and public administration in Singapore, Singaporean President Tony Tan Keng Yam said during a visit to China in 2015.
The best-known training programmes for Chinese officials include those provided by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which began as early as 1992, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS), which Zhao visited last week.
The two Chinese-language master’s degree programmes in public administration and managerial economics at NTU’s Nanyang Centre for Public Administration (NCPA) have come to be known as the “mayors’ class” due to the high number of Chinese mayors and mayoral contenders enrolled in them.
About 1,400 Chinese officials had graduated from the “mayors’ class”, NCPA director Professor Liu Hong said. The school also provided short-term programmes that had trained more than 15,000 government officials from China and Southeast Asian countries, with the majority of them from China, he said.
The overseas training of Chinese officials is overseen by Zhao’s Organisation Department, a powerful “human resources” department that holds all the files of the party’s 88 million members and vets senior bureaucratic appointments.
Zhao, an ally of President Xi Jinping, is seen as a contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s innermost core of power, at its five-yearly leadership reshuffle this autumn.
Zhao’s predecessor, Vice-President Li Yuanchao, visited NUS in 2010 during his time as head of the Organisation Department. He was quoted by Singaporean media as saying “we made Singapore the top choice for the overseas training of officials not only because Singapore and China enjoy a good relationship ... but also because Singapore’s experience of development serves as a special reference for China”, citing the two countries’ many similarities.
Singapore’s stable, paternalistic one-party rule has long been a model for Beijing, which admires the city state for its rapid economic success while preserving the ruling party’s political control, social order and limits on freedom of speech and the media.
Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese elite politics who taught at NUS and recently founded a consultancy in New Zealand, said the Communist Party chose Singapore to train its officials because it seemed “a more desirable role model for China to follow because of its one-party authoritarian rule with a rapid economic growth”.
Bo taught several classes of officials from Guangdong province in 2010 and 2011 about the way Singapore’s government managed social problems but said they were not very interested in the course itself, and preferred to discuss China’s elite politics.
“But this was when China was still looking for a role model to follow,” he said. “I think China is now trying to become a role model for the rest of the world. Nobody else is a good enough model any more. The China model is the way to go.”
Professor Zhu Lijia from the Chinese Academy of Governance, a top training school for government officials in Beijing, said the overseas training of Chinese officials in countries such as Singapore and the United States had peaked between 2007 and 2012 and that numbers had declined in recent years.
“As China’s social and economic development advances, top institutions in China have also improved their training quality and international vision to be on a par with their overseas counterparts, including those in Singapore,” he said, adding that the number of officials receiving overseas training would continue to decline and that such programmes might even be “gradually cancelled”.
NTU’s Liu said there had been “some decline in terms of Chinese officials attending master’s and training programmes over the last few years, but not substantially”. He added that the programmes now attracted a more diverse student cohort, “expanding beyond government officials to include more professionals such as university management and state-owned enterprises”.
Liu, who is co-authoring a paper based on surveys of more 1,400 mid-level cadres who graduated from the “mayors’ class” between 1995 and 2016, also challenged the notion that the most plausible rationale for China’s desire to learn from Singapore was political.
He said the study found “the most appealing characteristics of the ‘Singapore model’ lie in practical governance lessons including meritocracy, clean and efficient governance, and the rule of law, rather than ideologies such as authoritarianism and one-party rule.”