Asad-Ul Iqbal Latif. Between Rising Powers: China, Singapore and India. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007.
Tiananmen Square is named ground. The Square is the figurative centre of China’s literal centre; it is what a journalist calls “China’s state cathedral”. Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace—the main gate leading from the centre of power to the rest of China and thence the world—is the symbolic space where the emperor could make spiritual contact with his subjects. The spiritualism emanated by power transcended the rise and fall of not just dynasties but ideologies. Tainanmen, which had been a site of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, was the arena where Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of a new China in 1949. He had the area outside Tiananmen levelled, rebuilding the square into a grander version of Moscow’s Red Square, which he might have had in mind. Tiananmen was where Mao met Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. But if the Square was where the ruler met the masses, it was also where the masses met their ruler. In the post-Mao China of 1978-79, thousands recorded their protests on a stretch of blank wall called “Democracy Wall” to the west of Tiananmen Square. Deng put a stop to this expression of discontent when people began to attack the Communist Party and system. Wei Jinsheng, a dissident who had demanded democracy as the “fifth modernization” to complete Deng’s Four Modernizations, was punished severely. Initially, Deng had appeared to believe that economic reforms could not survive without a free discussion of problems and solutions. This idea, which had blossomed during the Prague Spring of 1968, had been adopted by Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hu Yaobang and had been advanced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. However, as inflation, corruption and nepotism accompanied China’s reforms, the anger of workers, students and intellectuals was sidelined in Beijing’s quest to preserve political stability at all costs. When Chinese television announced Hu’s death on 15 April 1989, popular mourning over his demise became a channel for the expression of repressed demands for political change, in a replay of the demonstrations at the funeral of Zhou Enlai in 1976. China was in ferment.
On the international front, although the Berlin Wall had several months left to fall, the winds of glasnost (openness) released by Gorbachev in 1985 were travelling well. The explosive situation in Eastern Europe, with the Round Table Talks in Poland and the liberalization of the Hungarian Communist Party, offered political parallels that the intelligentsia found impossible to miss in restive China. The year 1989 was also a year of anniversaries: the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, and the 40th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic itself. In another anniversarial irony, Gorbachev himself visited Beijing in May 1989, the first visit by such a senior Soviet figure in the 30 years since Khruschev had come to parley with Mao in 1959. Gorbachev’s car was cheered by students in an unequivocal message to the Chinese authorities.
They were concerned already. Towards the end of April, Deng had referred to the international context in which trouble was brewing among the Beijing students, who increasingly were being seen as conspirators and rebels. Deng is said to have told party members: “These people have come under the influence and encouragement of Yugoslavian, Polish, Hungarian and Russian elements who [agitate for] liberalization, who urge them to rise up and create turmoil. They will cause the country and the Chinese people to have no future. We must take measures and act quickly, without losing any time.” Party General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang thought otherwise, but he soon would be sidelined as well. In a passionate attempt to get the students to call off their protests, Zhao appeared in Tiananmen Square on the morning of 19 May, and pleaded with the crowd: “We have come too late… We demonstrated and lay across railroad tracks when we were young, too, and took no thought for the future. But I have to ask you to think carefully about the future.” He was too late because the previous night, a Politburo Standing Committee meeting hastily had been called to endorse martial law. Zhao had cast the only dissenting vote before meeting the students in Tiananmen and making his exit to de facto house arrest, in which he would spend his remaining years.
Martial law was imposed on Beijing on 20 May. But the students did not retreat from their challenge to central authority, in which workers had joined them; and protests had spread to other cities, including Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou. A replica of the Statue of Liberty named the Goddess of Democracy heretically appeared in Tiananmen Square, although the youthful rebels also sang the Internationale and thought of themselves as patriotic heirs of the May Fourth Movement. The Square had come into its own as the interface between the ruled and the rulers. The protesters refused to retreat; violence escalated near Tiananmen; and a hardline faction, which had emerged victorious from divisions in the Beijing leadership over how to handle the challenge mounting outside, decided to use force to end what it saw as a counterrevolutionary plot against the nation. The world watched how China after Mao would deal with the legacy of both its imperial and communist pasts on the named ground that again had turned into a staging post of China’s future.
The Tiananmen Crackdown
On 4 June 1989, Tiananmen kept its rendezvous with history. Who was responsible, and how far, for ordering the crackdown is a point of contention, and the numbers of those killed and injured vary considerably in different accounts. The scale of casualties was modest by the yardstick of lives that had been snuffed out by the Great Leap Forward or thrown to the winds by the Cultural Revolution. However, judged by the expectations that China’s re-engagement with the world had roused, Tiananmen marked no less than the closing of a chapter of history. Condemnation arose from around the world.
On the international Left, Trotskyists declared themselves vindicated by the latest expression of obdurate Stalinist continuities from Berlin in 1953 to Budapest in 1956 to Prague in 1968 to suppressed spring in Beijing now. There were other lines of descent as well, inherited from running street battles of dissent. Tiananmen in 1989 took up from the burning May of 1968, when the spontaneous daring of young societies had rocked the brooding power of old states. On the international Right, those who had averred that economic change could not lead to political liberalization in the land of socialism with Chinese characteristics found themselves vindicated as well. On that basis, conservatives such as Senator Jesse Helms and Max Kampelman, head of Freedom House, called for sanctions. The Chinese state had shown its claws, and had drawn fresh blood. China had re-entered the world all right, via Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace through which imperial power once gazed at its realm, imperturbable in a timeless Mandate of Heaven. The world had changed, but China had not. So much for the world engaging China, the voices of condemnation argued. Engagement was nothing else but appeasement. And appeasement had a recent history: it had led to a world war. This must not happen again.
Although less condemnatory than popular sentiment, official reactions were telling as well. The United States and the European Union announced an embargo on the sale of weapons to China. Washington froze high-level official exchanges with Beijing, imposed a number of economic sanctions, and suspended several trade and investment programmes. At the Group of Seven summit in Houston in 1990, Western nations called for renewed political and economic reforms in China, particularly in the disputed field of human rights. Tiananmen disrupted the U.S.-China trade relationship, with American investors’ interest in China dropping dramatically.
But what suffered most was China’s image, which changed from that of a reformist ally of the West to a threat to global peace and American interests. Tiananmen provided grounds for arguments against trade liberalization with China since access to world markets only would serve to empower the Chinese leaders at home and embolden them abroad. Tiananmen, a mere incident in the ancient lexicon of China’s rulers, became a massacre in the register of contemporary world affairs. China’s new symbol was 19-year-old Wang Weilin confronting a column of tanks, forcing them to swerve, and making them come to a halt. Soon after Tiananmen, recalcitrant regimes fell in Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. So did the Berlin Wall, ending German socialism and reunifying Germany. These transformations of once apparently impregnable systems threw into sharper relief the precarious position of Market-Leninism in the international system. When the transformations climaxed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the political divide in the international system was crystal clear. Equally clear, however, was the fact that the Soviet Union had disappeared into history whereas China remained sovereign and united, if defiant—and also a primary factor in the international system. Of course, that primacy made China the natural potential challenger to the United States in post-Cold War Asia.
Singapore steered clear of both Chinese understatements and the global outpouring of angst over the abiding significance of Tiananmen. On 5 June 1989, Lee issued a statement saying that his Cabinet colleagues and he were “shocked, horrified and saddened by this disastrous turn of events”. The firepower and violence caused many deaths and casualties and were “totally disproportionate to the resistance unarmed civilians offered”. Although Singapore did not condemn the Chinese leadership, it warned that a China where large sections of the people, including the best-educated, were “at odds with the government means trouble, with people resentful, reforms stalled, and economy stagnant”. Given its size, such a China could create problems for itself and its Asian neighbours. “We hope wiser counsels will prevail to pursue conciliation, so that the Chinese people can resume the progress which the open-door policies have brought them.”
In the aftermath of Tiananmen, five linked motifs mapped Singapore’s attitude to China. The first was a defence, not of the military means adopted to put down the protests, but of Beijing’s refusal to allow the protests to topple the political system. Secondly, Lee articulated this position on the basis of a long view of Chinese history in which the state saw its primary role as preserving stability and keeping society safe from the threat of chaos. Thirdly, the state’s stabilizing role required a hierarchical respect for authority that the protesters unforgivably had breached by mocking their leaders. Fourthly, underscoring his reading of the Chinese mind even before Tiananmen, Lee played down both the utility and the ability of Western-inspired ideals of democracy and human rights to move China, a far more appropriate political framework being the Chinese ordering of reality in which national history and culture loomed large. Consequently, Singapore viewed Tiananmen, not as a part of the trajectory of democratization that had overthrown communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but as an aspect of China’s own political and social evolution. Fifthly, Lee reiterated post-Tiananmen China’s continuing national interest in staying engaged with the world—this reminder also being a way of saying that the world should not punish Beijing by isolating it. At stake down the road was nothing less than the circumstances in which Hong Kong’s return to China, agreed on with the British in 1984, would occur. Tiananmen had tarnished China’s reputation, but what mattered was that international manoeuvrings should not exploit the shock felt by Chinese in the British-ruled territory to derail its beneficial re-incorporation into China on schedule by 1997.
In a word, Singapore’s response to Tiananmen confirmed and extended its strategy of getting the great powers to integrate Beijing into the global order by requiring it to conduct its international relations by international rules, but not to demand as well that it give up its autonomy to manage its domestic affairs. The culturalist assumptions in Singapore’s response drew criticism from those in the West and elsewhere who saw the city-state acting as an apologist for a China that had revealed its true political face within a mere decade of apparently softening economic reforms; the memory of Singapore’s response would add grist to the mill of those who would criticize it for its role in enunciating Asian values in the 1990s. However, Singapore well could argue that, in its response to Tiananmen, it was being consistent in extending to Beijing what all nations, including itself, enjoyed by virtue of their sovereignty: their right to manage their domestic affairs so long as the consequences did not threaten other nations. The Tiananmen crackdown did not threaten the international system. Needless to add, this stance endeared Singapore to China—and advanced the city-state’s own engagement with it—at a time when Beijing was a target of intense international opprobrium.
Lee presented Singapore’s position on Tiananmen in a series of media interviews and on public occasions, the essence of the message appearing in his memoirs as well. He was clear that, in spite of his and Singaporeans’ disquiet over the use of tanks against civilians, Deng’s refusal to give in to the protesters had saved China. “A veteran of war and revolution, he saw the student demonstrators at Tiananmen as a danger that threatened to throw China back into turmoil and chaos, prostrate for another 100 years… But for him the People’s Republic of China would have collapsed as the Soviet Union did.” Zhao Ziyang, by contrast, had not shown “that toughness needed in the leader of a China on the verge of luan (chaos). Orderly protesters had been allowed to become defiant rebels. If not firmly dealt with, they could have triggered off similar disorder throughout the vast country. Tiananmen is not London’s Trafalgar Square”. Nor was Chinese history British, American or Indian history. “History and culture decides the evolution of societies… In China there is no such thing as a mass, peaceful resistance or dissident movement as in India. That’s a different culture,” Lee observed. “(In) China, when a dynasty falls, it is always by revolution. The Chinese word for revolution is ‘qi yi’, the arising of righteousness. In other words, the ruler is unjust, wicked, cruel, oppressive. Therefore the people arise in righteousness. That will be a disaster for China. It means maybe back to warlordism because it’s such a big country,” he noted in a possible reference to the Republican Revolution of 1911 that had overthrown the Qing dynasty but had triggered a process marred by the warlordism of the pre-communist era. What the students forgot was that they were in that China. There, Deng had “fought with his life to defeat the warlords”.
Recalling the context that had moulded Deng, Lee cited the scale of his encounter with history. Deng took part in the epic Long March, where 90,000 began the journey and fewer than 10,000 arrived in Yenan a year later. Deng’s thinking was “framed and frozen” by the millions in China who had died fighting the Japanese. When the Japanese advanced across the Yellow River, the dykes were broken to flood the area and stop the invaders. That led to the Henan famine of 1938 in which six to eight million people died. But the Japanese were stopped. The Deng who had helped to stop them commanded the communist armies that crossed the Yangtze and chased Chiang Kai-shek’s armies to Taiwan. “Are 100,000 students going to dispute his right to govern China? You must see it in that historic perspective, and you know nobody but nobody will change him.”
Looking further back into history, Lee placed Deng’s revolutionary credentials for governing China, earned in the thick of battles that settled the fate of hundreds of millions, firmly within an earlier imperial tradition in which the ruler’s personal prestige embodied the inviolability of the system. It was one thing for the students to demand reform to improve the system, in which case one faction or the other of the party could have adopted their demands without destroying the entire political structure. But it was another thing when the historical youngsters attacked Li Peng: then, it was not possible for any faction to defend them because that was not the way in which even an anti-Li faction would go about getting rid of a premier. And when the students ridiculed Deng and compared him unfavourably with Mao, “I felt in my bones that they had tempted providence, and that they were doomed”. Lee dwelt on this point on another occasion in which he criticized the students for having attacked Deng personally. “The day they came out with a slogan ‘Down with Deng’ and they have a ditty, a doggerel in Chinese which I read and I heard on the radio, I said, ‘It’s finished.’ You cannot mock a great leader in an Asian Confucian society. If he allows himself to be mocked, he is finished. There can be only one emperor in China, and Deng understands that.” Lee’s public interventions embody the strands of Singapore’s stance mentioned earlier: its defence of Beijing’s refusal to allow the political system to be toppled; its understanding of the Chinese leadership’s historical self-perception as society’s guardian against chaos; and its disapproval of the students’ dreadful misreading of China’s social milieu when they exceeded permissible forms of protest by defying cultural norms of authority in their personal attack on leaders.
The emphasis on Chinese exceptionalism also informed Lee’s terse disapproval of attempts to link Tiananmen with post-communist Eastern Europe. “To quote Eastern Europe as examples of how Communist regimes have broken down because they were not democratically elected in simplistic,” he said. The Europeans had revolted because they were “miserable and impoverished”. Communist governments had been imposed by an occupying Red Army in 1945 on those countries, which had a history and tradition of elections and liberal governance. “They reverted to tradition”, a case in point being Czechoslovakia, where democrats and patriots had fought the Nazis and had stood up to the communists. Also, Chinese leaders were different from Soviet leaders, who “aspire to be Europeans and are troubled when condemned as failures by European standards. The Chinese do not have such aspirations. They are happy to be Chinese, to be Asians not Europeans”. Unlike Gorbachev, who had put glasnost before perestroika, or economic restructuring, Deng “believed in restructuring before opening up”; glasnost could wait. The Chinese leader understood that unless the forces of change were released in a controlled way, the system would collapse. “He saved the country from an implosion like the Soviet Union.” On the theoretical point about the economic need for liberal democracy, Lee was adamant. “You can have a successful free market or capitalist economy without a democratically elected government,” he said, pointing to South Korea’s and Taiwan’s record under martial law. “I do not accept the simplistic view that you must have liberal democracy on top of free enterprise in a free-market to succeed.” In any case, it was futile of anyone to coerce Beijing into a different form of governance. No country could or would “fight the battles of the Chinese people to establish the kind of government they want. That struggle has to be by Chinese people themselves who will have to pay the price. If it costs lives it will have to be Chinese lives.” As for economic sanctions, they would hurt China’s government and people, but they would not force the Chinese to give up or share power. Lee appeared to be saying that the political status quo in post-Tiananmen China was a fait accompli.
However, what he did not say was that this status quo was destined to last forever. Mindful of the brake—temporary, as it turned out to be—that the Tiananmen eruption had placed on Deng’s economic reforms, Lee had a message for Beijing as well: do not let a political setback derail economic change. “The Chinese people will not revert to contented isolation. TV is a great destroyer of icons.” The Chinese knew that “they are not the centre of the world, the Middle Kingdom”. Television, foreign businessmen and tourists in China, visitors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere, and letters from friends and relatives had shown the Chinese how the rest of the world worked and lived. The Chinese wanted a change in their lives. “If China’s policies do not give them the prospect of catching up with Taiwan or Hongkong, then I think something dramatic can happen.” Reiterating one of the key tenets of Singapore’s own political culture, Lee declared that, in the longer run, “a government’s right to govern depends upon being able to give its people a better life”. The Long March veterans, in their 70s and 80s, had earned their unchallengeable right to govern China through their role in the anti-Japan war and the civil war. However, when a new generation of leaders took over, their legitimacy would depend on their ability to improve the lives of the people. That would require them to free the economy and plug into the trade and investment flows generated by the free-market economies of Japan and the West. “If they do not, the outcome may be as dramatic as the events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. We shall know the outcome in 5, at the outside, 10 years,” Lee said in February 1990. The key point remained: “Tiananmen has not altered China’s potential as the biggest economic player in the region, and indeed in the world.”
Although Lee’s support for China was contingent on it continuing with economic reforms, there was no doubt over where Singapore stood on the question of Tiananmen. What happened on the Square on that fateful day in June did not detract from the wider logic of China’s integration into the global order, which would benefit both the country and the world. Singapore’s attempt to prevent the Tiananmen killings from diverting international attention away from the larger picture was an intrinsic part of its own engagement of China.
Yet, this danger of diversion was playing out in a territory whose impending return to China was an aspect of China’s return to the world. Hong Kong’s reunification with China was under pressure.
Hong Kong’s Return to China
The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 provided the framework of Hong Kong’s return to China on 1 July 1997. Article 3(5) states: “The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law.” Article 4 adds: “The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China declare that, during the transitional period between the date of the entry into force of this Joint Declaration and 30 June 1997, the Government of the United Kingdom will be responsible for the administration of Hong Kong with the object of maintaining and preserving its economic prosperity and social stability; and that the Government of the People’s Republic of China will give its cooperation in this connection.” These and other provisions of the Joint Declaration reflected Beijing’s agreement to preserve Hong Kong’s capitalist way of life for 50 years and give it a high degree of autonomy under a special one country, two systems formula that acknowledged a thriving Hong Kong’s importance to reforming China. “One country, two systems” meant precisely what it said. Hong Kong being different from the mainland, China was different from Hong Kong. There was no suggestion that China would gravitate politically towards Hong Kong. The intentions contained in the Declaration were codified in the Basic Law of 1990, meant to serve as the territory’s post-1997 constitution.
In between came Tiananmen. One million Hong Kong residents took to the streets in protest, the stock and property markets collapsed, and a tide of emigration lasting five years revealed the extent of anxiety over the territory’s approaching reversion to China. Political leaders in Hong Kong decided to hasten the pace of building democracy, with the executive and legislative councillors agreeing in July 1989 that at least half the legislature should be elected directly by 1995 and the entire body and the chief executive by 2003. Hong Kong Governor David Wilson urged London to restore full British nationality to Hong Kong citizens, including the right to live in Britain, so as to provide an escape route should 1997 and beyond prove calamitous. In early July 1989, a parliamentary foreign affairs report urged full democracy for the territory before 1997 so as to help it preserve a high degree of autonomy later. In early July as well, the Hong Kong government said that it would draft a Bill of Rights, which was done in March 1990 and went into effect a year later.
But in what mattered—the drafting of the Basic Law—London’s attempts only moderately were successful with a Beijing extremely wary of what was happening in Hong Kong under transition. “For every safeguard demanded in Hong Kong’s name, Beijing inserted a provision to enhance its own interests” although the Hong Kong government remained committed to the principle of convergence, known popularly as the “through train” on which colonial Hong Kong would make its transition to being a Special Administrative Region of China.
But then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 on the back of the dissolution of communist rule in Eastern Europe, a geopolitical momentum that “evidently emboldened London to strengthen its management of Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule”. Suzanne Pepper believes that Britain might not have embarked on its reform programme without “the massive shift in opinion against China after Tiananmen and, more importantly, in the global balance of power that followed the Soviet Union’s demise”.
The strengthening of British management took shape with the appointment in 1992 of the Conservative politician Christopher Patten as Hong Kong’s last colonial Governor. He went about introducing electoral reforms that essentially were meant to make an enlarged franchise a fait accompli before the handover. The changes were resisted by Beijing for being inconsistent with the political shape of Hong Kong envisaged in the Joint Declaration. Patten has justified his reforms on the basis that Hong Kong was a “Chinese city with British characteristics, not like any other Chinese city”; a city whose six-million people produced a gross domestic product that was more than a fifth that of 1.2 billion-strong China; that Hong Kong was “the only example of a free society which was being handed over to a society which had, to put it mildly, a different notion of freedom”; and that, in spite of Hong Kong’s reputation as an economic city, “you can’t make a distinction between economic man or woman and political man or woman”. Patten argued: “What I felt very strongly when I read about Asia, when I met Asians, when I governed an Asian city, was that the things that I believed constituted a decent society were pretty much the same in Asia as they would be in Europe or North America. I found the relativist approach to values offensive.”
China found not only offensive but decidedly subversive attempts by a departing colonialist, no product of Hong Kong democracy, to bequeath on the colony a political system that the British had not introduced during almost 150 years of undemocratic rule. The eventual abolition of the Legislative Council formed on the basis of Patten’s expanded electorate signified Beijing’s determination to dismantle what it saw as a political edifice mischievously constructed by a departing colonial power. In any case, Britain was Hong Kong’s past and China was its future: that was the view taken in Beijing.
But matters were not as simple as that. Modern-day Hong Kong had been built on the enterprise and initiative of Chinese who had fled communism for the economic freedoms of the British colony. Most Hongkongers did not identify themselves with either Britain or China: they identified themselves with Hong Kong so long as it remained a land of economic opportunity. The majority of them might have no particular fascination for London’s belated attempt to introduce democracy—an attempt, in fact, whose popularity was never tested in a referendum—but they had no passion either for living under a system where the tanks of Tiananmen might crush one day the economic freedom to which they were accustomed in the colony. Hong Kong was a fragile social creation sustained by its people’s, and foreign investors’, confidence in its economic future. If Britain’s attempts to politicize the island before abandoning it were a threat to its economic well-being, so would be China’s refusal to acknowledge that Hong Kong’s value depended on the territory’s appeal to its notoriously fleet-footed residents. Hongkongers, by deciding to stay or to quit, could make or unmake the economic destiny of an island whose return to China was important for Beijing because the territory’s millions showed what more than one billion Chinese were capable of achieving economically. It was the residents of Hong Kong who mattered. Neither last-minute political improvisations in London nor time-honoured political reflexes in Beijing did. Hong Kong’s political future admittedly lay in China, but its economic future primarily lay within itself. In a word, Hong Kong could be broken both by London and by Beijing. Beijing, as the incoming power, owed it to Hong Kong to sustain its success and to itself to preserve the city’s value to China’s reforms. The key lay in the relationship between the people of Hong Kong and China.
This understanding of the Hong Kong Chinese psyche, where a pragmatic political culture and a gypsy-like cult of mobility accompanied the collective worship of Mammon, guided Singapore’s response to Hong Kong’s insecurities following Tiananmen. “Your right as a Hongkonger is to continue to make a reasonable living as a law-abiding resident of Hongkong. If they don’t give you the living that you have been accustomed to, then you have to leave,” Lee Kuan Yew declared. Six weeks after Tiananmen, Singapore offered to give 25,000 Hong Kong families Approval In-Principle (AIP) permanent residence, the AIP being valid for five years and extendable for another five. After a year, double the intended number of AIPs was granted. The point about this scheme was that those selected did not need to move to Singapore until they felt the need to do so, thus giving them an exit strategy without drawing them away at a time when Hong Kong was passing through great uncertainty. Thus, although 50,000 AIPs were granted, only 8,500 moved to Singapore by 1997. As for companies shifting some of their operations to Singapore to keep staff threatening to leave, Singapore did not encourage the trend but it did not refuse to accept them because “we think by doing this we are helping the main operation to continue in Hongkong”.
While emphasizing Hong Kong residents’ right to argue with China over economics, Lee was adamant that they should not argue about politics. Speaking of the leaders in Beijing, he said: “My guess is that when it comes to the crunch, they will not do anything which will threaten or negate Hongkong’s usefulness to them economically. Politically, it’s different. They are not prepared to have Hongkong become a model of what China ought to be.” Beijing was prepared to let Hong Kong continue to make money and benefit China so long as the territory did not constitute a problem for the mainland, “including the problem of how Chinese in China see themselves and their government”. If Chinese on the mainland saw Hong Kong’s success as resulting from a one-man-one-vote system livened by political debate, they would want the same kind of democratically-elected legislature and government themselves, this being “total anathema” to the communists in Beijing. When the Chinese agreed to a one country, two systems formula, they agreed to a system for Hong Kong that basically was the same as under the British, with a few changes. “They did not envisage a democratically elected government in Hongkong, one totally different from theirs.” Indeed, even a fully-democratic legislature in the territory standing up to Beijing would not ensure that the formula for returning to China would work because post-1997 Hong Kong would be subordinate to Chinese sovereignty. “Your separate way of life and different way of doing things will only continue if you don’t challenge their way of doing things in China.” Patten’s proposals “slip into the blank spaces of the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration”, but what was far more important than the fate of his reforms was the fate of Hong Kong. It was a mistake to believe that “the economy would look after itself” merely if the territory’s residents protected democracy and human rights in an “irreversibly democracy-minded” Hong Kong being handed over to China. Politically, British-emboldened Hong Kong was no match for China, and those who thought otherwise were deluding themselves. But once this reality was understood in the territory, it was possible for its residents to talk economics with China—which, in fact, was what they had done with the British. Singapore’s approach to Hong Kong was based on the unsentimental realpolitik of business.
In his memoirs, published after the territory had reverted to Chinese rule without the collapse that some had feared, Lee sums up his views on Hong Kong’s future. It cannot be just another Chinese city, because then it will be of no value to the mainland. What make the city useful are its institutions, management expertise, sophisticated financial markets, rule of law, a cosmopolitan lifestyle and its use of English as the language of business. Admittedly, Hongkongers need to work with Chinese officials produced by a different social, economic and political system, but the city must retain the characteristics that “made it an indispensable intermediary between China and the world, as during British rule”. Calling Hong Kong people a “special sub-group of the Chinese nation”, Lee hopes for convergence with the mainland over the remaining years to 2047, when “they meet in one country, one system”. That would take two more generations. “If the changes that have taken place in the one generation since Chairman Mao died continue at the same pace, the convergence should not be too uncomfortable.”
That this attitude—evident in Singapore’s reaction to the unfolding crisis in Hong Kong and encapsulated by Lee later—upheld China’s sovereign right to maintain Hong Kong’s political contours in terms of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law is obvious; Singapore’s position was of a piece with its objection to the Tiananmen protests causing political instability that would ruin China’s economic reforms. However, what the city-state’s response to Hong Kong underscored was a nuanced appraisal of the colonial city’s role in China. Even as Singapore acknowledged Beijing’s upper hand in Hong’s Kong’s political affairs, a hand that it would be futile for the departing British and their local supporters to resist, Singapore suggested that it would be unwise for Beijing to think that because it had the stronger hand it politics it could play this hand as it chose in the economic realm. If the legal and social institutions that made Hong Kong thrive under the British were destroyed, the city would cease to have value to the mainland, causing its return to China to be little more than an historical transition resonating with nationalist pride but a pyrrhic economic victory. Hence, even as Lee advised Hong Kong residents to put their economic interests ahead of political demands that would subvert their relations with Beijing, his message to Beijing was to treat Hong Kong as the economic prize that it was. Indeed, it might be said that there were intimations of the Singapore system in his subtle message that authoritarian was legitimate, but only if it produced the economic goods that citizens wanted. Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong therefore would be judged, not by itself, but by whether it succeeded in preserving the economic confidence and enterprising zeal that had made Hong Kong one of the Asian Tigers.
Lee could afford to make this distinction and still be received warmly in Beijing because, unlike Western leaders arguing to keep Hong Kong vibrant economically, soft-authoritarian Singapore’s political motives were not suspect in China. But the premium that Singapore put on Beijing’s need to handle sensitively Hong Kong’s talented and instinctively mobile professional class was unambiguous. In engaging China, Singapore was careful to make a distinction between market economics and Leninist politics, giving each its due. Over Hong Kong, when Singapore argued that the territory’s residents should keep economics separate from politics, its simultaneous message to Beijing was that it, too, should keep its political right to guide Hong Kong’s destiny separate from the economic space that the city needed in order to thrive.