SQUEAKY-CLEAN Singapore has become a model for 'constructing spiritual civilisation', a hot topic at the ongoing National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Despite the differences in size and outlook of the two countries, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made no secret of its admiration for how the Singapore leadership has apparently attained both economic progress and moral rectitude.
For reasons including national pride and diplomatic nicety, however, the official media has yet to give a full picture of why the world's longest continuous civilisation and would-be superpower has fallen for the relatively new Southeast Asian island republic.
In a dispatch on Sunday, the semi-official China News Service (CNS) pointed out that Politburo member Li Ruihuan had sought Singapore's advice during an Asian visit late last year.
CNS disclosed that in the city state, Mr Li, who was in charge of ideology and propaganda in the early 1990s, gave 'important views on the simultaneous development of economic construction and social progress'.
At about the same time, Mr Li's successor as chief ideologue, Politburo member Ding Guangen, toured the Lion City's cultural and media facilities.
The official Chinese media quoted Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew as sharing the Singaporean view on the media with Mr Ding.
'The news media should safeguard the national interest, maintain social stability, and develop the values of their own country and people,' Mr Lee reportedly said.
To which Mr Ding replied: 'The Chinese media insists upon serving the people, serving socialism and serving the overall good of the country.' Under instructions from the party propaganda department, which Mr Ding heads, cadres of all levels have since last year been studying internal publications on the Singapore success story including Singapore's Spiritual Civilisation.
The tome, which heaps praise on Singaporean discipline, was put together by Mr Ding's deputy, conservative Xu Weicheng, after his own tour of the city a few years ago.
The CCP's love affair with the Lion City is intriguing given the difficulties China faces in incorporating the Singaporean experience, except for less culturally-rooted skills such as technology and business knowhow. The Singaporean-managed Suzhou Industrial Park is such a smasher that similar facilities have sprouted in areas including backwater Sichuan province.
Culture and politics, however, are a different kettle of fish.
This is despite the large ethnic-Chinese component of the Singapore population and the numerous study-Confucianism campaigns launched by Mr Lee.
Admirers of Singapore can cite, for example, the rule of law and clean government.
The city state's 'soft infrastructure' underpins achievements such as an environment without chewing gum and graffiti. Despite superficial similarities between certain aspects of the two political systems the CCP administration has flunked badly in legal reform and corruption control.
While Beijing is aware of the gulf between the two nations, the CCP leviathan must have felt compelled to turn to tiny Singapore for sorely-needed new ideas.
In the past month, the public has become terminally blase by the leadership's sermons on spiritual civilisation.
While talking to delegates to the CPPCC on Monday, President Jiang Zemin urged the deputies to devote as much attention to 'ideological education and spiritual enlightenment' as to industry and commerce.
In his report to the NPC yesterday, Premier Li Peng recycled Mr Jiang's oft-repeated slogan about 'using scientific theory to arm people; correct editorial opinion to guide people; lofty spirit to mould people; and superior cultural products to encourage people'.
Two conservative CPPCC vice-chairmen, Qian Weichang and Qian Zhengying, are scheduled to expatiate on the imperative of 'purifying the air of society' and 'propagating the leitmotifs of patriotism, collectivism and socialism'.
In addition to production quotas on grain and industry, different provinces and cities have been given targets in the area of fostering spiritual norms.
Apart from flushing out pornography and fake products, local administrations are asked to come up with the requisite number of 'proletarian heroes' and 'models of exalted morality' in the mode of Lei Feng, Mao Zedong's 'undying screw of the revolution'.
The big question: how many among the below-50 sector of the population, who are increasingly hooked on laser discs, stocks and shares, and the information superhighway, will again submit themselves to state-fed homilies? The CNS admitted that even full-time party functionaries were unable to suppress their yawns.
'It's important that you talk about spiritual civilisation in public; when you get down to doing it, it's hardly top priority,' CNS quoted unnamed officials as saying.
Enthusiasm is lowest among intellectuals, many of whom see disturbing parallels between Mr Jiang's spiritual civilisation and Chairman Mao's cultural revolution: both gambits seem geared towards obliging Chinese to toe the line of the helmsman.
There are also voices in the wilderness on giving Chinese culture a facelift.
Writer and liberal guru Wang Meng suggested a bold programme for imbibing Western mores, which include such paraphernalia of American culture as rock and roll music and disco dancing.
'You may have eaten pork,' he said. 'But the flesh that grows out is your own flesh, not pig flesh.' Sinologists, however, have expressed misgivings as to whether Chinese civilisation can be 'improved' by a government programme to learn from either Singapore or America.
No cultural renaissance has ever been ushered into place via the activism of a regime given to social engineering. Great ideas thrive in a climate of vibrant spontaneity that is born of tolerance for dissent and celebration of diversity.