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Singapore-China Relations Forum

Sun, 15 Aug 2010 17:26:57 +0800 | Filed under local

I guess very few NUS people know of this, despite the banners all over the place. But Prof Wang Gungwu's name caught my eye; I had some impression of him from his commentaries, back in the days when I used to read the newspapers regularly.

But, now that I come to think of it, there were many things working against me going there.

I almost didn't get the invite (it was an invite-only event), as I had procrastinated over the registration - you had to write quite a few words to get the invite, which is quite a problem given that I hadn't written anything serious/academic for the past 2 years. I tried my luck anyway 2 days after the deadline, and thankfully, I managed to get a place. (Probably goes to show the demand for the event.)

Even then, on the day itself, I was late as I spent some time trying to find Shaw Foundation building, and then realising that the venue was the Shaw Foundation Alumni House instead - how clever of me. I still managed to gain entrance, though.

Back to the event itself. Some observations about the speakers:

Some things to think about:

  1. There were quite a few below-tertiary participants. It's good that the younger generation is interested in such issues. There was also a noticeable native Chinese attendance - not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

  2. The year 1978 gets bandied about a lot. It actually refers to the year that Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and met MM Lee. Interestingly, according to Dr Bo, the trip was not well-documented on the Chinese side - officially, or in Deng's biographies; the most important, detailed account comes from Singapore, especially that of MM Lee.

  3. China's size makes for significant non-homogeneity in the economic status/living conditions and (most importantly, for business-minded people) administrative rules/policies/procedures, and even language - think about the Sichuan dialect, or Cantonese in Guangdong.

  4. Dr Bo mentioned an idea by Samuel Huntington (of Clash of the Civilizations fame - not Clash of the Titans!) - that it doesn't matter whether a government is authoritarian or democratic; what matters is whether it does its job - that is, to govern. (In a private note from Dr Bo, this is mentioned in Political Order in Changing Societies)

  5. He spoke of the evolution of succession models - from the two-front model (Mao on one, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao on the other), to a generational one (from Deng to Jiang Zemin). Presently, he speculates that a more democratic, but still generational, succession will take place - that is, instead of having leaders or a "core" chosen by a single person (eg. Deng), it would be chosen by a larger group of people (I presume the Politburo). It's interesting to note that power is now being diluted and spread among more people, as opposed to the early years, where sole figures were "paramount" - think of Mao and Deng.

  6. In addition, Dr Bo also explained why we should be describing China's economic rise as a re-emergence, from a reformist/modernization perspective (as opposed to a historical one that would presumably stretch back to the Ming period). The first wave occurred in 1978 on the back of a reformist wave following Mao's death (1976), but this was stonewalled after the Tiananmen incident; the second wave started after Deng's Southern Tour in 1992 - also when the Suzhou park was started.

  7. Interestingly, Dr Bo attributed the term "Four Asian Dragons" to Deng - I wonder how true that is.

  8. Prof Wang thinks that China still has a few decades to become a world power, much less a superpower. As Mrs Teo pointed out, China has many domestic issues to grapple with, such as food supply (lack of arable land), income disparity. That is probably why China has been reluctant to take initiative on the world stage (in the same sense the US does).

  9. One of the panelists mentioned that China is the largest producer of wind turbines in the world. He notes that Chinese manufacturers are able to produce 90% quality products at 50% value, and are very fast (presumably he meant time-to-market). By the time GE opened its wind turbine plant, the Chinese market was already filled with local manufacturers.

  10. There was also some discussion about the rising tension between China and the US - most recently, the Spratlys dispute, after Hilary Clinton's remark. Prof Wang echoed my thoughts, linking this further back to the Shangri-La conference, where top Chinese military brass snubbed the Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates.

Below are some notes from my conversation with Prof Wang. They are not reproduced verbatim.

Q: In many ways, the Sino-Singapore relationship is very asymmetrical. Singapore has much more to gain from China, then China has. Right now, Singapore seems to be filling a niche, a space, but China is improving everyday; do you see a day where Singapore stops being relevant?

A: Oh, not at all. Singapore plays a very important role through Asean. Its playing a part in maintaining multilateral ties in this region. China very much wants peace and stability.

Q: From history, we find that there have been countries who, while rapidly ascending to the world stage, resorted to arms, or felt a need to flex their military muscles - eg. Nazi Germany; Japan, after the Meiji Restoration; and to some extent, the USA, who built up her forces and secured her place as an unrivaled superpower as a result of WWII. Do you think history will repeat itself?

A: A lot of people like to use this argument. But what have they gained? Self-destruction. The Chinese are not stupid, they are learning from history.

Q: Agreeably, the Chinese leadership may be wise and possess foresight - but what about rising nationalism and a high perception of China from the ground, most prominently, the netizens?

A: That is up to China's leaders to manage. It's never easy to be a leader. On one hand, you need to think long-term, growth, but you also have to manage the people's calls.

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