George Yeo in Global Times, 16 June 2021, where the title is “China is a democracy by Lincoln’s definition: former Singaporean FM”
Editor’s Note: As tensions between China and the West continue to heat up, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has become the target of myriad attacks of the US-led Western countries. George Yeo, former Singaporean minister of foreign affairs, thinks this is because many in the West perceive China as a threat to American dominance in the world. Yet Yeo believes the nature of China’s rise is very different from that of the US – and hopefully Americans will eventually realize this. What does Yeo think of the development the CPC over the past 100 years? What are its challenges in the future? Why is China constantly being labeled as conducting “wolf warrior diplomacy?” Yeo shared his insights with Global Times (GT) reporters Li Aixin and Bai Yunyi.
GT: Over the past two years, China’s diplomatic style has been considered by some as becoming increasingly tough. Some analysts even pin labels such as “wolf warrior diplomacy” on it. As a diplomatic professional, how do you view the phenomenon?
Yeo：I’m not surprised that Chinese diplomats and spokespersons are being forced to reply to Western criticisms in a feisty way. Not all these criticisms are reasonable. Some of them are completely unreasonable. If nothing else, for China’s own domestic audience, it is important for Chinese diplomats and spokespersons to reply in a sharp and robust manner. Although I think sometimes a more effective way to reply is to be ironic, and it’s not a bad thing to smile more, even when you’re giving a very serious reply.
This label, “wolf warrior,” is a very “clever” label put by Western critics of China. China is put on the defensive. They criticize you, and the moment you criticize back in the same tone, you are a “wolf warrior.” Chinese people are trying to behave like Westerners. I ask some of my Western friends, do you think Western diplomats and Western commentators are also “wolf warriors?” They don’t like to reply to this question. In a way, China is giving back what it is being given.
But it is not necessarily in China’s own interest. Sometimes it is better to be more humble, to be more elegant, like the way Chinese people are to other Chinese people.
Rhetoric by itself is superficial. The key is winning the argument not only by words, but also by deeds. Say, Hong Kong, or Xinjiang. In the end, it’s a battle of the actual reality on the ground. And people who have experience of this reality, people who know the facts, are speaking up and telling the world what really is happening. It’s important for China to meet some of these criticisms and put more effort in laying out the facts.
The criticisms from the West are mounting, it’s a part of a larger strategy to put China on the defensive, to win over more allies against China, and to reduce China’s threat to Western dominance of the world.
China is not a threat to America, but China is certainly a threat to American dominance in the world, just by growing and becoming more influential. There is a concerted effort to put China down.
GT: As early as 2019, you raised the issue that the China-US rivalry will persist, fueling swings between “cold war and cold peace.” Could you elaborate on “cold peace?”
Yeo: A Cold War is like that between the US and the Soviet Union. It was marked by complete economic decoupling, and was accompanied by ideological warfare on many fronts and proxy conflicts. We are certainly not in the state of a Cold War between China and the US. I would describe the current situation as a kind of a “cold peace.” There is more competition than cooperation, more suspicion than trust. A certain degree of technological decoupling is inevitable. But, by and large, the US and China are still very closely integrated at many levels. It is a peace which is getting colder. And there is a danger that we may move in the direction of Cold War. I hope we will not because it can then become very dangerous.
GT: What do you think of the possibility of an outbreak of a military conflict between China and the US? If it occurs, how might Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries cope with this situation?
Yeo: A military conflict between the US and China can engulf the whole world and be a huge setback to humanity. We need wisdom on both sides. Conflicts are natural. What worries me, in particular, is the way the Taiwan card is being played by the US. Henry Kissinger has reminded the Americans that US acceptance of Taiwan as part of China is the basis of US-China relations. This is not a card. This is the bedrock. If you start playing with the bedrock, you can bring down the whole structure of relations between two very big and important countries.
Unfortunately, Congress has its own mind. And in the US, passions can be easily aroused. Sometimes the politics can overwhelm the administration. For example, if in the South China Sea or East China Sea, where the two navies and air forces are in close proximity, an accident happens and a few dozen American and Chinese servicemen die. Immediately on both sides there will be great anger and a great desire to escalate. China can keep the temperature under control. But, in the US, it may quickly go out of control. The problem will suddenly become much bigger. It is a possibility which China must carefully factor into its calculation.
For many countries in the world, especially for countries in Southeast Asia, China and the US are like father and mother to us. Whom do you love more? Father or mother? Children don’t like to be asked this question. I can imagine how every country in Southeast Asia feels about this dilemma. Frankly, no one wants to be involved. Everyone prefers to keep on the side and keep quiet.
GT: In your opinion, how likely is it for China to become a superpower equal to the US?
Yeo: China’s economy will overtake the US. In terms of PPP (purchasing price parity), China’s economy is already significantly bigger than that of the US. But in terms of per capita income, China is way behind the US and the US will continue to be the most advanced country in the world for a long time, because of its wealth, technology, stock of capital (not just in the US but worldwide), its financial system, and so on.
But already, China is viewed as a threat to a lot of people because of its sheer size and because of the unity of the Chinese people. If China were like India, divided by language, religion, caste, I don’t think the US will be worried at all. You can be from Northeast China, Xinjiang or Guangdong, you can speak different dialects and have different accents, but you are Chinese especially for the Han people. The Han Chinese believe that they are all Yan Huang Zisun (descendants of Yan and Huang, ancient Chinese emperors). They believe in a common literature, in common heroes, and in a common history. That enables China to be united and extremely productive when it is united.
Does it mean that China wants to be a super power the way the Soviet Union was or the way the US is – wanting to pass judgment in other countries or wanting to export its governing system and its philosophy to others?
China is too old and wise to ever want such a thing. China will never want to be super power, because it knows such an ambition depletes you and would bring troubles upon yourself. Let’s be good neighbors, good friends, try and help each other. That is Chinese approach.
It’s a very different mentality from that of the West, which has a missionary tradition. The Americans, without embarrassment, call themselves an exceptional power with a manifest destiny, which is to spread its values to the whole world. That’s how it sees itself. The Soviet Union had the same self-conception. China, I don’t believe, will ever have such an instinct. It is certainly not in its history. It’s certainly not in its interest.
It is true that the US is used to being dominant everywhere in the world. I don’t think China wants to take over the US position as the world’s big brother. I think China is happy for the US to remain big brother so long as its own interests are not badly affected. There will be some inevitable conflict between the US and China and this will go on for many years. But one day the US will realize that China’s nature is different from the nature of the US. And because the natures are different, there is a greater possibility of coexistence and cooperation. China should persist, because this will decide war and peace in the world.
China will become a great power and be very influential. This will be a threat to the Western liberal system. There are many countries in the third world who are not Western and are also finding their way to the future. Western countries tell them that there’s only one way to the future, that the Western way is the only way. Now they see China has a different way.
To that extent, the fact of China’s success will challenge a conventional wisdom – that the only way is the Western way. Does it mean that the Western way is bad? There are many good things in the Western liberal system. We should learn from the good things and try to incorporate them into our own system. This is not a zero-sum game.
GT: What do you think are the similarities between China and Singapore in terms of national governance models? In which fields can the two learn from each other?
Yeo: Singapore has a very different history. It was established as a trading post of the British East India company. Our legal systems, administrative systems, political systems, are all derived from the British model. But 3/4 of the people of Singapore are Chinese, they share common cultural characteristics with the Chinese people in China. I compare Singapore and China in this way – China is a big tree. Singapore is a tiny bonsai. They have similar genetics with common cultural genes. At one level, the political systems are very different. But at another level, they look strangely similar.
One obvious comparison is the Communist Party of China and the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore, which has been governing Singapore since 1959. People are surprised that the PAP has been able to govern Singapore through election after election, staying in power and looking after the welfare of Singaporeans. It is not a communist party, it’s a democratic party, but its organizational structure has Leninist roots.
I know China is very intrigued with the PAP. When I was a minister in the Singapore government, as minister for health, for trade and industry, I received so many Chinese delegations studying about internet regulation, health care subsidies, free trade agreements… so many things. No other major country takes such a close interest in us. We do share many things in common. We do find it advantageous to share our experiences, good and bad, with China.
GT: The West has long criticized political models in some Asian countries and believes there is no real democracy in East and Southeast Asia. Do you think the US-style democratic system is suitable for East and Southeast Asian countries? Why?
Yeo: My view of democracy goes back to the essence of democracy, to the Greek origin of what democracy is – which is the people as master. Abraham Lincoln talked about government of the people, by the people, for the people. By this definition, China is a democracy.
But the debate of a democracy in the West is not about its essence, but by the way it is implemented. In Western system, voting is very important. The separation of powers, the executive judiciary… these are very important considerations in Western democratic forms.
China’s philosophy about the moral basis of centralized governance goes back to Confucius and Laozi. How to govern is always at the center of Chinese philosophical thought. China will find its own way toward achieving the democratic idea.
The best democracy is the one which is for the people, of the people and by the people, according to its history and culture. Even in Western democracy, there are wide variations. US federal system is not direct democracy. In the UK, you don’t vote for the prime minister, you vote for members of parliament. In Singapore and Australia, there’s compulsory voting. If you have compulsory voting in the US, the politics will change dramatically. So it is not as if there is one Western system. There is a multiplicity of Western systems.
What is democracy? In the end, we go back to its essence – governance of the people, by the people for the people. We go back beneath the structures and the systems. You can have the best structure and systems. You can still have a democracy controlled by a small group of people who are very wealthy. Or you can be like the Swiss, which is a confederation, where many decisions are taken at the level of the canton through referendums. This is very different from European democracy.
It is impossible for a US-style democratic system to work for East and Southeast Asian countries.
It is very difficult for the rest of us to understand why so many Americans do not want firearms to be banned. How can you have a society where everyone can own a gun? But don’t forget the US was a frontier society until relatively recently and settlers needed guns at the frontier to protect themselves against all kinds of things. This is a part of America history and tradition.
But Asian societies are very different. If you have the kind of Western debate in Asia, if people lose face, they don’t go out and say let’s have a drink together afterward. No, they will remember and they want to take revenge. Take ASEAN meetings for example, we never vote, we always find consensus. If we can’t agree, we’ll find a way to delay a decision. We will put pressure but never force a vote. Voting is not a magic solution. Can you imagine if we make decisions by voting in a family? Small things, yes. Big things, we never do that. It will break up the family.
Even in Japan, which has the trappings of a Western system, the way Japanese democracy operates is very Japanese. It goes back to their own historical traditions. The idea of factions within the LDP is openly recognized and accepted. You have a chief, you follow the chief, you stay loyal to the chief and Japanese democracy continues taking that into account. This is an inheritance from the daimyo system. When a member of parliament retires, the son or daughter takes over. And people accept it.
China is an old civilization with 5,000 years of history. But China as a republic is very young. China only became a republic in 1911. How does China find consensus? In the old days you had the Chaoting (imperial government). But once you become a republic, how do you choose successors？
We have the Communist Party who represents the entire population. But even within the Communist Party there are millions of members, there are many layers. At the bottom you have elections at the village level. But beyond that, constant discussion and debate about who are better able to lead.
The problem in Chinese society has always been corruption. If corruption exists, whatever system you have, you no longer govern in the interest of common people. President Xi, by reversing the trend of corruption in China, has done Chinese society a very great favor.
This is to me is his single greatest achievement. If China can continue to control corruption, its future will be very bright.
But if you look at the history of corruption in China, it is a problem because China is a vast country and there are many layers of government. What goes on at the bottom, the central government may not know for a long time until something big happens.
But today there is hope that with data analytics, you may be able to solve the problem of corruption being covered up at the lower levels. Whatever intermediate levels do, the information can still go to the central government directly. The central government cannot monitor every village, every town, every city. China is too big. But you can have computer systems to tell you whether a town or a city is healthy. The data analytics can enable the central government to discover or uncover the problems at the bottom. And local leaders will then be more careful.
GT: Generally speaking, which do you think is more efficient in good governance, open one- party system or multi-party system?
Yeo: There is no simple answer to this question. I would say the most important factor is not the structure or the system. It is the moral quality of the people and their leaders.
GT: What are your predictions about the persistence of the Communist Party of China? Why do you think is CPC’s biggest challenge?
Yeo: This year China celebrates the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the CPC. The Communist Party was established as a result of China being in great disarray, when ordinary people suffered from terrible hardships, when China was ravaged by imperial powers. There were many ideas about how China should go forward, and most attempts at reform failed.
Looking back is always easy. Looking forward is always very difficult. China has got to look forward. To me, what is important in this 100th anniversary is to look back and learn and, learning from the past, keep going forward, to find a path that does not exist today. You can learn from other countries, but China’s path will be a unique path to the future. The most important quality to have is modesty. With modesty, one is always learning and avoids unnecessary mistakes. In the I Ching, out of the 64 hexagrams, only one is without any negative aspect, and that is “qian” (谦).
A NOTE from a PAL in the Antipodes, June 2021: