Friday, May 8, 2015

On the British elections

If there's one thing which this week's British elections have highlighted, it's the complete inadequacy of Britain's electoral system.

Just take a look at the results below: the Scottish National Party, with a million and a half votes, has got 56 MPs, while UKIP and the Greens, with almost four million and over one million votes respectively, have only got one MP each (not that I'm unhappy about UKIP getting a bad deal). Meanwhile Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has got 8 MPs, with less than 200.000 votes.

The "first past the post" system makes sense when there are just two parties competing for power. Any more then that, and it becomes completely unfair. It makes it almost impossible for smaller parties with a nationwide appeal to get into parliament, while unduly favouring regional parties whose votes are concentrated in a single area.

Yes, it is nice for every constituency to have its own MP to represent it, but this cannot justify the system's basic unfairness. The truth is that in this and other areas, Britain would benefit from reforming the antiquated system which it has developed over the centuries, and becoming more like a normal European country.

Apart from that, the one good thing to have come out of this election is that divisive provocateur George Galloway losing his seat in Bradford West. After his nasty campaign against Naz Shah, he really deserved it.

2015 UK elections results

Party Seats Gain Loss Net Votes Vote share (%) Change (points)
Conservative 331 38 10 28 11,334,726 36.9% 0.5
Labour 232 23 48 -25 9,347,324 30.4% 1.5
Scottish National Party 56 50 0 50 1,454,436 4.7% 3.1
Liberal Democrat 8 0 49 -49 2,415,862 7.9% -15.2
Democratic Unionist Party 8 1 1 0 184,260 0.6% 0.0
Sinn Fein 4 0 1 -1 176,232 0.6% -0.0
Plaid Cymru 3 0 0 0 181,704 0.6% 0.0
Social Democratic and Labour Party 3 0 0 0 99,809 0.3% -0.1
Ulster Unionist Party 2 2 0 2 114,935 0.4% N/A
UK Independence Party 1 0 1 -1 3,881,099 12.6% 9.6
Green 1 0 0 0 1,156,149 3.8% 2.8
Independent 1 0 2 -2 98,711 0.3% -0.2

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Naxi script

The town of Lijiang, which I have just visited, has served as the cultural center of the Naxi people for centuries. The Naxi are one of South-Western China's many ethnic minorities. The most curious thing about their culture is their alphabet, known as the Dongba script. It is literally made up of pictures. Their script is claimed to be the last truly pictographic writing system still in use anywhere in the world (the Chinese script isn't really pictographic, or at least most of it isn't).

In Lijiang's old city, a big thing is now made of the Naxi script for the benefit of tourists. A lot of shop signs in Lijiang sport the Naxi pictographs above the Chinese characters. A number of syllabaries of Naxi letters can also be seen on the walls of the Old Town, like the one I photographed below. Most of the characters bear an obvious resemblance to their meaning, and some are pretty amusing.

Every Dongba pictograph is accompanied by a Chinese translation underneath.

Of course, just like with a lot of things in China, reality is a bit more complicated than the myth. The Dongba script was developed in the seventh century, and it includes around a thousand pictographs. It was only ever used by the Naxi priests for the recitation of ritual texts, and it is unsuitable to represent the Naxi language on its own. It is in fact supplemented by a phonetic syllabary, the Geba script.

What's more, the Naxi language has never been written very extensively, and nowadays all literate Naxi read and write entirely in Chinese for practical purposes. After the Maoist takeover, the Dongba script was condemned as a sign of religious superstition and discouraged. During the Cultural Revolution, many old manuscripts were destroyed.

A door in Lijiang with the typical Chinese red couplets pasted around it, written in the Dongba pictographs.

Nowadays however, the government encourages the use of the ancient script in Naxi areas, at least symbolically. Government institutions in Naxi villages have signs written in both Chinese and Naxi characters. You can also sometimes see the red couplets the Chinese traditionally paste around their doors with writing in the Naxi language (as in the photo above).

The spoken Naxi language is still used by about 300,000 people (an estimated 100,000 are monolingual), and is in no danger of dying out. On the streets of Lijiang I saw old women wrapped up in traditional clothing who were conversing in a language which definitely wasn't any form of Chinese, and I suppose must have been Naxi.

An inn in Lijiang with Dongba pictographs above the Chinese characters.

A trip to Yunnan

As a veteran of China travel, I am no longer very enthusiastic about going to see the country's most famous tourist attractions. That doesn't mean I am fed up with traveling in China as a whole, just that I am wary of anywhere touted as a "must-see".

During my meanderings through China, the places which have left the deepest impression on me have all been far off the beaten path. Remote and non-touristy provinces like Qinghai and Guizhou have provided me with the most fascinating experiences and the best scenery. On the other hand, celebrated tourists sites like Hangzhou's West Lake or Henan's Shaolin Temple usually prove to be so crowded with visitors and so commercialized that they have lost much of their charm (and were very often overrated to begin with).

That is why I am no particular rush to go and see places like Guilin or Mount Tai, the sort of sites which most Chinese will tell you that you absolutely must go and see. That is also why until last month I was not at all bothered about never having been to Yunnan.

Yunnan is a South-Western province bordering Burma. It is one of China's most popular destinations for both foreign and local tourists, due to its mosaic of ethnic minorities whose traditional culture has partly survived, and its pleasant weather. Towns like Lijiang and Dali have become prime tourist destinations. As such I suspected them to be commercialized and overrated affairs, and never really planned to go there.

Then last month a Chinese friend invited me to go on a one-week trip to Yunnan, having obtained some discounted plane tickets offered by their company. I decided to agree, while keeping my expectations relatively low. If nothing else, it would make for a nice break. While in the province we decided to visit two places, Lijiang and Lugu Lake.


The town of Lijiang, which lies at the foothill of the Himalayas, is the main cultural center of the Naxi ethnic group, who use the last pictographic alphabet in the world (more on that in the next post). It used to be an important stop on the so-called "Tea-Horse Road". This famed trade route connected Bengal with South-Western China through Tibet, and it allowed Chinese tea to be traded for the prized horses of the Tibetan plateau. It really got under way during the Tang Dynasty, and only went into decline in the eighteenth century, over a thousand years later.

One of Lijiang's charming canals
Lijiang is famous for its Old City, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I found the Old City to be extensive and genuinely atmospheric. It is a maze of cobble-stoned alleys criss-crossed by canals, which make it seem a bit like a Chinese Venice. Although the buildings are made of wood and are thus obviously not that old, they have at least been restored in their original style.

The only problem is that Lijiang has gone the same way as many other Chinese tourist sites: it is now so crowded with tourists that it has lost much of the charm which made it famous in the first place. The Old City attracts five million visitors a year, the vast majority of whom are domestic tourists. Young Chinese students and backpackers mix with the inevitable tour groups of older people sporting identical red hats, led by guides squawking useless drivel into loudspeakers.

All the same, I found some of the backstreets and the less crowded parts of the Old City to still be enjoyable, and the hostel we stayed in was also nice. It was arranged around a traditional courtyard, and the rooms were comfortable and cheap. I can see why Lijiang has become a popular destination for alternative young Chinese.

In the evening we went to the Old City's bar street. Nestled away between all the usual Chinese-style bars, with their bands playing covers of old Chinese hits and groups of men playing silly dice games, I found a pub which was clearly oriented towards expats. It had been opened by an Irishman, and there was a Welshman working behind the counter. I got chatting with a young Israeli who was clearly a regular customer. He told me that he had been living in Lijiang for two months already, studying Chinese at a local college. He had moved to China because of his Sichuanese girlfriend, who was currently working in a hotel in Lijiang.

He had relatively dark skin and a beard, and he told me that in Lijiang he was regularly mistaken for an Uighur, and this had turned out not to be a good thing. Once a taxi driver refused to pick him up because he looked like an Uighur, and only relented after realizing that he was actually a foreigner. Uighur extremists were responsible for the terrorist attack carried out last year in Kunming's train station, which is also in Yunnan, and this has probably made people more suspicious (this is no excuse for discrimination of course). 

Lugu Lake

The next day we traveled to Lugu Lake, which straddles the mountainous border between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. The villages around the lake are home to the Mosuo people, another ethnic minority. The Chinese government classifies them as part of the Naxi people, but they consider themselves to be a distinct group. In China they have now acquired a certain fame because of their unusual matriarchal culture, and because of their custom of "walking marriages" (走婚 in Chinese), which many outsiders take to mean "free love".

In Mosuo culture, family lineage is traced through the female line. Children are brought up by the mother and her family, and may not even know who their father is. Once they have come of age, women are allowed a private bedroom within their household, while men are not afforded this advantage. Traditional Mosuo sexual practices are also quite liberal. Marriage as we know it does not exist. Instead there is something which they call tisese (going back and forth), and which the Chinese misleadingly translate as "walking marriage".
Lugu Lake

If a woman is attracted to a man, she can give him permission to visit her. The visit usually takes place in the secrecy of night, and the man will go back home in the morning. Although adults are allowed multiple sexual partners, it should be noted that these relationships, which are based on mutual affection, can last for years, or even a lifetime.

The only way to get to Lugu lake from Lijiang is by taking a minivan which drives for five hours along winding mountain roads. Most of the passengers suffered either from car sickness or from high-altitude symptoms during the ride (for me it was car sickness). The scenery and the culture we were seeing along the way reminded me more and more of Tibet. Tibetan prayer flags were visible in all the villages and rest stations. This makes sense, because the whole area is at the start of the Tibetan Plateau, in that middle area where China proper still hasn't quite turned into Tibet.

Once we got to the lake, we took up residence in a hostel in the village of Luoshui. Although it is not yet overrun with outsiders like Lijiang (I think the difficulties involved in getting there ensure this), Lugu lake is not exactly a piece of untouched paradise either. The area has now become popular with Chinese tourists, who come to experience the lake's natural beauty and the Mosuo people's "exotic" culture. As always, the tourists have a tendency to ruin the authenticity of the unique local culture which they have come looking for. The village we stayed in is one of the most heavily touristy ones, and the two streets adjacent to the lake were made up entirely of hotels and restaurants. The local people live at the back of the village.

A Yak, that archetypal Tibetan animal, tied up next to the Lake.

The hostel where we stayed (the Husi Teahouse) turned out to be pretty dismal. Amazingly it is recommended in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook, which is why we decided to stay there in the first place. Lonely Planet's entry claims that "the English-speaking staff are helpful". I don't know if the staff speak English, since I spoke to them in Chinese, but the last thing one could say is that they were helpful. The rooms and facilities were quite basic, and the common area was filthy (I have written an email to Lonely Planet to complain, and they have actually replied, saying that they will reconsider their recommendation). To compound matters, electricity was turned off in the whole village every day from 9 AM to 7 PM, because work was being done on the area's electricity lines.

Setting the hostel aside, the village was actually quite nice and relaxing. Along the waterfront, groups of young Chinese students visiting from Sichuan mixed with elderly local women wearing traditional robes and carrying Tibetan prayer wheels. There were a couple of stupas, and we saw women walk around them clockwise while chanting prayers, in the Tibetan tradition. The Mosuo are heavily influenced by Tibetan culture, and follow Tibetan Buddhism alongside their own shamanic religion, known as "Daba".

The next day we rented an electric motorbike and drove all the way around the lake (a 70 km. ride). I would have liked to wear a helmet, but helmets were simply unavailable at all the dozens of shops renting scooters to tourists. Apparently the locals just don't think riding an electric scooter (which can reach 60 km/hour) necessitates a helmet. I just did what I could to drive carefully.

At such high altitudes the weather is still quite cold even in late April, and my light jacket was clearly not going to keep me warm, so I bought another jacket of the kind the locals wear. It was stuffed on the inside with sheep wool, which was obviously real because it gave off such a strong smell of sheep that it was unbearable to wear indoors. I don't think I will ever be able to wear it back home.

The scenery we rode through was quite gorgeous. The lake's waters are crystal clear, and it is surrounded by forested mountains on all sides. Although the villages on the Yunnan side were mostly touristy, once we crossed over into Sichuan the atmosphere became less and less commercialized (and the roads got better too. Sichuan is wealthier than Yunnan). Women wearing the colourful clothing of the local minorities were visible everywhere.

We stopped for a meal in the village of Nisai, and made friends with a local young man. He turned out to live in an ancient Mosuo home which is now protected by the government (yes, even in China some old buildings are finally being protected from demolition). He invited us to visit his home, which was quite fascinating. In the courtyard we found two slaughtered pigs which had been kept whole and stored in a dry, airy place, as is the local custom. This way they can stay edible for up to ten years.

On the right is one of the inhabitants of the traditional Mosuo household we visited
The house's courtyard, with Tibetan prayer flags draped across it
Slaughtered pigs stored for future use

The entrance to the home
We were invited into the main living room, which was made of a kind of wood so valuable that it is now illegal to use it for construction. The walls were adorned with Tibetan thangkas and photos of Buddhist figures, among which I spotted a picture of the current Dalai Lama. More proof if needed that the man the government condemns as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" is still happily worshiped in these areas. The family's Mandarin was accented, but intelligible. They spoke to each other in the Mosuo language (a variant of the Naxi language).

We never saw any real evidence of the Mosuo's matriarchal culture, not to mention their "walking weddings". Then again, we were not in the area for very long. It was noticeable that most of the shops were "manned" by women.

In the evening we got back to Luoshui, and went to see a show of traditional dancing put on by the villagers for the benefit of the Chinese tour groups. A young couple from Henan sitting next to us were fascinated by the fact that I could speak Chinese, and became extremely chatty. The dances were simple, but the atmosphere pleasant. The next day we rode the bumpy ride back down to Lijiang, and the following day we took a train to Kunming and then flew back to Beijing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Watch "Under the Dome", the best ever documentary on China's air pollution

Closely connected with the topic of my last post, I now bring you "Under the Dome" (穹顶之下), the groundbreaking documentary on China's air pollution by Chai Jing. Rather similar in style to Al Gore's "an inconvenient truth", it gives you some of the frightening facts about the country's air pollution in an accessible fashion.

After its release, "Under the Dome" got over 100 million views in a single weekend on China's main video-sharing websites, and sales of air purifiers shot up as a result. Although it was obviously made with the cooperation of some government departments and was initially praised by the Minister of Environment, after about a week the video was taken down from all Chinese websites by decree, meaning that most Chinese no longer have easy access to it.

Here is a YouTube version with English subtitles:

Monday, April 6, 2015

New Delhi's air pollution worse than Beijing's

Delhi's Red Fort blanketed in smog.

Beijing's air pollution is unquestionably one of the factors which most affects quality of life in the Chinese capital. The smog which is visible to the naked eye on a majority of days is both unpleasant and harmful. The city's yearly average level of PM 2.5 is estimated to be around 100, many times over what WHO deems to be an "acceptable" level of air pollution. By way of comparison London's average level of PM 2.5 is only 16, and many Londoners see this as a serious problem.

In a public admission of a frankness which is rarely seen in this country, Beijing's mayor Wang Anshun recently stated that air pollution has basically made Beijing unlivable. The air quality is one of the main reasons that in the last few years there has been something of an exodus of foreign expats from Beijing. Tourism has also been affected. The documentary "Under the Dome", which got 100 million views in a single weekend before the government banned it, has now made many ordinary Chinese a lot more worried about the effects of air pollution on their health as well.

Those who live here tend to think of the air pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities as the worst in the world, and I must admit that I also assumed it to be almost unparalleled. It was thus with some surprise that I read today that a WHO survey has declared New Delhi to be the city with the world's worst air pollution.

Apparently Delhi's annual average PM 2.5 level reaches 153, although it is very much concentrated in the winter months. The main culprits of Delhi's air pollution appear to be identical to those in Beijing: the large-scale burning of coal, cars using sub-standard fuel and dust from construction sites. In the winter Delhi's slum dwellers often start fires on the roadside to stay warm, making the air even worse. 

The fact is that severe air pollution in big cities affects many of Asia's "emerging" powers, and is not limited to China. Cities in India, Pakistan and Iran often record worse air pollution than Chinese cities. Beijing's air pollution attracts the most international attention, but this is probably due to the city's cosmopolitanism and prosperity.

China is clearly not alone in its woes, and this does lend some credence to the argument, often heard in the Chinese media, that pollution is just a "natural" result of being a developing country. All the same, this should not excuse the authorities from working towards solutions. Given today's clean production technologies, it should be possible to considerably reduce the air pollution without even affecting economic growth too much. Policies which simply remove the sources of Beijing's air pollution to Hebei province are also not an acceptable solution, since Hebei's 73 million inhabitants have an equal right to clean air as Beijing's jet-setters do.  

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Capitalism with Chinese characteristics

Some of the most insightful books on China that I have read were written by Chinese academics who work in Western countries. Able to draw both on their insider understanding of the Chinese system and on the outside perspective which comes from living abroad, and liberated from censorship, they are sometimes able to provide real insight into the workings of this perplexing country.

I have recently finished one such book: an original and interesting study of China's economy called "Capitalism with Chinese characteristics". It was written a few years ago by Huang Yasheng, a Beijinger who teaches at Harvard. Analyzing China's economy is an arduous task due to the opaqueness and ambiguity inherent in the system. As Huang points out in the introduction, while in the US a study might focus on the effect of a tax raise, a similar study on China might focus on the question of whether China's government really has raised taxes or not.

All the same, Huang's book makes a pretty convincing case in favour of a thesis which, as far as I know, is new: according to him, the economic policies which China followed during the eighties were substantially different from the ones it followed in the nineties and later on, and much more conducive to the Chinese people's general well-being.

Huang claims that during the eighties, the Chinese government was following a clear path towards greater liberalism. Economic reform was focused on the countryside, where enterprising peasants were enabled and encouraged to start their own private businesses. Growth was fueled by the so-called "Township and Village Enterprises" (TVEs), which according to Huang are usually misunderstood by Western observers to have been state-owned enterprises, when in fact they were usually private companies begun by individual peasants. Rural residents were allowed to poll money informally to set up their businesses, or they were enabled to borrow money from the banking system.

Although the protection of property rights in China was sketchy (as it remains today), it was still far better than it had been under Chairman Mao before 1978, and this was sufficient for the Chinese to feel encouraged to take risks and make money. People felt that things were changing for the better, and they had faith in Deng Xiaoping's determination to keep it that way.

After the events of 1989, however, the conservative faction within the government gained the upper hand (especially the so-called "Shanghai clique"), and the country significantly changed course. Most Western scholarship assumes that after 1989 there was just a brief setback in the liberalization of China's economy, knows as the "Tiananmen interlude" (1989-1992), and that after Deng Xiaoping's famous "Southern Tour" China's reform once again picked where it had stopped in 1989.

Huang claims that this is a misunderstanding. In reality, China's policies never again veered in the same virtuous direction as they had done in the eighties. Instead, during the nineties what was created was a model of development based on a clear bias in favour of the cities, state-owned enterprises and foreign investment.

The policy environment became much less favourable to small indigenous entrepreneurs, due to restrictive regulations and policies which made it much harder to get credit from the banks. Instead of following in the path of other East Asian economies like South Korea, China became a "commanding heights" economy in the South American style, with economic growth fueled by imposing infrastructure projects mandated by the government, including all the first-class amenities and skyscrapers in the big cities which are superficially so impressive.

This mode of development has also been able to produce spectacular GDP growth, and it has continued to make the country more prosperous. On the other hand, it has been much less beneficial for the well-being of the Chinese people. Income disparity has become huge, and private incomes have become a smaller proportion of national GDP. Rural residents have become nothing more than a pool of cheap labour for the cities. Huang attempts to demonstrate that the provision of educational and health services in the rural areas suffered as a result of the strong urban bias of the policy makers, and that literacy rates actually declined in the countryside in the early 2000s as a result.

Huang also claims that the few big Chinese companies which are starting to make a name for themselves in the world are either not really private or not really based in Mainland China. For instance Lenovo, China's biggest computer company, has been controlled and run mainly from Hong Kong, out of the reach of the Chinese system, where it had access to world-class financial and judicial institutions. 

Huang repeatedly calls China's current economic system "crony capitalism", and uses a compelling example to prove his point: the case of Beijing's famous (or infamous) "Silk Street". The Silk Street is a large shopping center near Beijing's embassy district, always extremely popular with tour groups. It is notorious for its wide selection of counterfeit designer goods.

Tourists haggling in Beijing's Silk Market

Although I have been there a few times, what I didn't know was the history behind the place: the market was apparently started spontaneously in 1985 by a group of small Beijing traders. By 2004 it was a thriving outdoor market which attracted dozens of thousands of visitors a day. Then the city government suddenly decided to close down the outdoor market and build the nearby indoor market which exists currently. They claimed this was to clamp down on the selling of fake products, but the problem with this explanation is that ten years later they are still selling just as many fakes as before.

The government arbitrarily awarded the right to operate the new market to a private entrepreneur who did not have a stall in the old market. There was no bidding, and no rationale for the decision was ever made known. It is reasonable to suspect that this person did not win the deal just for making the best offer. The original traders were not allowed to keep their stalls, and the valuable right to own a stall in the new market was auctioned off. The bids fetched millions of Yuan. 

In essence, the hundreds of traders who had created the valuable "Silk Street" brand were expropriated out of it, in favour of an entrepreneur with political connections. As Huang points out, this is obviously not any kind of socialism, as the authorities did not retain control of the market themselves, but gave it away to a private businessman. Rather, it is "crony capitalism built on systemic corruption and raw political power", in which property rights are not properly guaranteed by the legal system. 

Huang also dedicates an entire chapter to Shanghai, or rather to attacking Shanghai and all it stands for. He claims that the infatuation of many foreign observers with the city is based on a superficial view. In reality, Shanghai represents all the worst of China's economic system. Contrary to popular perception, it follows policies which are deeply inimical to home-grown innovation and entrepreneurship, but friendly to foreign FDI and state companies. The share of the city's wealth which goes to private households is low even by China's standards. Shanghai's impressive skyscrapers and luxury amenities have actually been heavily subsidized by the rest of the country, especially its more productive parts like Zhejiang and Guangdong.
Huang's indictment of China's system is certainly heartfelt, and based on an enormous amount of research of Chinese statistics which would have been impossible without a deep knowledge of the language and culture. His description of China's ills will chime with anyone who has lived in the country for long.

At the same time I think he has a misplaced faith in what he calls a "virtuous" form of capitalism, one driven by private entrepreneurs which protects property rights, to deliver social equity and fairness on its own. After all this form of capitalism is well established in his country of residence, the United States, but there is relatively little fairness and equality there when compared to other industrialized countries.

I think that a government which redistributes wealth through taxation is a necessity in order to achieve a just and fair society. I also think that, as the 2008 financial crisis has shown, a totally liberalized and unchecked financial system can also distort the economy and cause a lot of harm. All the same, government intervention should take place within a framework of clearly defined rules and rights, which is what is lacking in China.

Shanghai's famous skyline: does this represent all that is wrong with China?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What does Lee Kuan Yew's legacy mean for China?

Lee Kuan Yew (or Li Guang Yao in Mandarin), Singapore's founding father.

These last few days, the Chinese government and media have been falling over themselves to praise the legacy of the recently deceased Singaporean statesman, Lee Kuan Yew.

I don’t find this at all surprising. For one thing, Lee Kuan Yew (who like most Singaporeans is of Chinese descent himself) had cultivated excellent ties with China ever since Deng Xiaoping took power. But more than that, the Singapore he created looks a bit like a dream version of the country which the Beijing elite would like China to become: a society which is prosperous, efficient, respected and at the same time governed with authoritarian and paternal methods which allow for no real dissent.

Lee Kuan Yew is rightly revered for his many achievements. At the same time, he always made it clear that he did not believe in liberal democracy and in allowing dissent to flourish. Here are a few quotes by the father of modern Singapore, which the Guardian dug out the other day: “If you are a troublemaker... it’s our job to politically destroy you... Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.” “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.” Spoken like a true China Daily editorial.

The Singapore Lee created was one where opposition politicians would more often than not find themselves jailed, exiled, or ruined through expensive libel suits which the compliant courts would endorse. And his legacy isn’t dead. The modern and civilized city-state continues to be ruled with authoritarian methods, although things are changing. There is still no separation of powers, the press is muzzled, and dissent is only barely tolerated. 

Elections are held, but the PAP (People’s Action Party) Lee created has yet to lose one. 
Singapore was ranked 150th for freedom of the press in 2014. The legal system is also harsh. The death penalty is still in the books not only for murder, but even for drug dealing, and Singapore is one of the countries with the highest number of executions relative to population. Caning is still used as a punishment for a variety of minor crimes, as two German graffiti artists recently discovered (and we are talking about a kind of caning which can leave scars for life).

One might find it slightly ironic that Beijing should be lavishing such praise on a man who was a convinced anti-communist. During his rule, the communist party (which had quite a following in Singapore) was outlawed and harshly repressed. Another one of Lee's quotes is: ““We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”

But of course none of this would bother those currently in power in Beijing, who have long abandoned any true interest in communist ideology in favour of a belief in stability, economic growth and authoritarianism justified by vague references to traditional Chinese values. In other words, exactly what Lee Kuan Yew advocated (except that he would make reference to “Asian values” rather than specifically Chinese ones, perhaps so as not alienate Indian and Malay Singaporeans). Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials have often been sent on study tours to Singapore, and its model held up as an example.

I would certainly not wish to diminish Lee Kuan Yew’s accomplishments. Under his watch, Singapore went from being a remote colonial outpost to one of the richest societies on earth, well known for its modernity, efficiency and cleanliness. After Singapore separated from Malaysia, he also managed to build a system in which racial tensions between the Chinese and the Malay were contained. Lee Kuan Yew always felt that the end justified the means, and looking at modern Singapore, it is hard not to agree with him to some extent.

At the same time, what worked in Singapore is not going to work in Mainland China. Singapore is a city with 5.5 million people, and the government was clever to turn it into an international financial hub before the rest of Asia was well developed. But what can be done with a city can’t be done with a landmass with 1.4 billion people. 

It is true that paternalistic authoritarianism and harsh laws have turned Singapore into an eminently clean, efficient and safe city. It is also true that Singapore’s government is well known to be honest and incorrupt. However, anyone who lives in China can testify that decades of authoritarian rule based on a rather similar ideology have not really had the same effect there. Corruption remains endemic and systemic, efficiency and safety have only been achieved in some areas of life, and as for cleanliness the less said the better.

It must also be considered that while Singapore is largely a Chinese society, when it achieved independence the elite was British-educated and had a Western outlook in many areas. Lee Kuan Yew (known to friends as Harry Lee) was a case in point. When he took power, 70% of Singaporeans spoke a Chinese dialect at home. However Lee himself had grown up in an affluent household where only English was spoken, had been schooled entirely in English and then went to Cambridge University. He only began to learn Chinese at age 32 (ironically, in 1979 he began a successful campaign to get Singaporeans to speak Mandarin instead of other Chinese dialects/languages). 

The truth is that the legacy of rule of law and civic sense left by the British, a small population of immigrants and an economy based on financial services all make for a recipe which cannot be emulated in China. Better models on which to base China's political system, in my opinion, could be provided by places like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. But those are models which Beijing's bureaucrats are less likely to find attractive.