Former Singapore FM George Yeo on CCP’s centenary: The Chinese revolution continues

George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, shares his thoughts on China’s evolution with Lianhe Zaobao on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. He sees the milestone as just a pitstop in the long journey of the Chinese nation. Fresh thinking and innovation will be needed as the country progresses. Equally important, developing a “broad-minded and big-hearted nationalism” which is humble and learns from others will keep China on the path of being a great nation. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
A banner marking the centenary of the Chinese Community Party is seen at a subway station in Shanghai, China on 28 June 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
A banner marking the centenary of the Chinese Community Party is seen at a subway station in Shanghai, China on 28 June 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Interviewer (I): Can you share with us your perception of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its 100-year history? 

George Yeo (GY): When we talk about the CCP, we have to talk about the Chinese revolution. The Chinese revolution, to me, is the greatest revolution in human history. The reason is because China has been unified for over 2,000 years. And the Chinese people are the most homogeneous people by far in the whole world. 

For example, if you look at European literature, you can easily identify ten, 15, 20 separate literatures in Europe — the English, the French, German, Russian, Nordic, Italian, Spanish, and so on. Chinese literature is one because of a common writing system. The result is a deep culture or one ocean, whereas in Europe, there are many connected lakes — big but very different from China. So when the Chinese people decided to overturn the imperial system and turn China into a republic, it was an enormous effort. 

A milestone in an ongoing journey

Politically it happened in 1911 during the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命), but in the end, the revolution is in the minds of the people. And to overturn that long history is an extremely enormous, extremely difficult task. I've been watching Juexing Niandai (《觉醒年代》, a drama tracing China’s revolutionary history from 1915 to 1921). It covers the debates in China after the Xinhai Revolution, the New Culture Movement (新文化运动), the May Fourth Movement (五四运动) and finally, the creation of the CCP. So the CCP cannot be viewed outside the Chinese revolution. And while today we commemorate, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the CCP, we are just marking a milestone in the journey of the Chinese nation as a republic. As a civilisation, China has a very long history. But as a republic, it has a short history. And therefore to move forward, to find a way to the future, requires a lot of experimentation.

My view is if you look at the Chinese revolution, from 1911 all the way until the Cultural Revolution, that entire period was a continuing revolution in the thinking of the Chinese people. In 1911, there was no more Qing dynasty, but even then, there was Yuan Shikai and there were two attempts to bring back the monarchy. In people's minds, China as a republic had no precedent. Sun Yat-sen adopted Western ideas. To the three branches of government — legislative, judicial, executive — he added two more, kaoshi (考试, examination) and jiancha (监察, control). Thus today in the Republic of China constitution, we have five branches of government. My Taiwanese friends tell me, even in Taiwan, they don’t work very well.

Performers rehearse before the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
Performers rehearse before the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

But for a big country like China, the idea that "one man, one vote" is a magical solution to the future, it's a dream. In the end, you need a practical response that somehow harnesses the creativity, the energy and the unity of the Chinese people.

Land reform a key policy change

One of the most important aspects of the revolution was land. In Imperial China, the problem was always land concentration. In the beginning of a dynasty, the taxes were light, the imperial treasury was rich. At the end of a dynasty, the taxes were heavy, but the government had no money. And this was because of the concentration of property and privilege, ultimately reflected in the concentration of land ownership. A very important aspect of the Chinese revolution related to land. The role played by the CCP in the land reform in China was critical.

The revolution could not succeed in the city. It had to begin in the countryside, where land was a big issue. Chiang Kai-shek did not carry out land reform in China. But when he went to Taiwan in 1949, he immediately instituted land reform in Taiwan, and agriculture in Taiwan took off, beginning Taiwan's economic development. In China, it only took place after 1949. 

When I visited my mother's ancestral home in Chao’an, Chaozhou in 1983, my maternal grandparents were still alive. In the house I saw a ladder going up to an attic. I asked my grandfather what was up there. He said it was just a storeroom. They used to have some old documents, but during the Cultural Revolution, they burnt everything.

What it meant was many people, even at that time, were hoping that they could claim back land and properties. Many kept documentary proof. During the Cultural Revolution, if you were found with that documentary proof, you would be in trouble. So even though the Cultural Revolution was mad, and did horrible things to millions of people, it had one powerful impact — it cleared the land of all private ownership. After that, property was fully in the collective. 

A motorist sits on a motorcycle in front of apartment buildings in a residential area in Beijing, China, on 28 May 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
A motorist sits on a motorcycle in front of apartment buildings in a residential area in Beijing, China on 28 May 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Now when China wants to build a new zone, a new city, a tunnel, a bridge, a harbour, it can do it quickly. It can do it in a way that other countries cannot do because of private property rights. You've got to have consultation, buy over private property, go through litigation... It's complicated, time-consuming and politically difficult. A key achievement of the CCP, which made possible China today, was re-possessing land — retaking the land and putting it in the hands of the collective.

And if we look into the future, today in Chinese cities, everywhere you see land speculation. A lot of people buy three, four properties, hoping that property prices will go up. And they become rich. But when there is property speculation on a large scale, ordinary people suffer, which is a problem in Hong Kong today. This revolution in the thinking about land must continue into the future. To make sure that land is to be used well, that land should not be bought and sold for speculative purposes, ignoring the welfare and interests of ordinary people. 

Change in status of women 

Another key aspect is the position of women. Before 1911, you had the imperial court. Before the Qin dynasty, you had the Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period and so on. Every king, every emperor needed a male successor. So you had the inner palace (内宫), you had eunuchs, and women had a certain position in society which created a feudal mentality. It was common for men to have many wives. My grandfather, my father's father, had many wives. The Chinese revolution instituted monogamy — one man, one wife. Foot binding was stopped. Women had equality. And the result is that Chinese women today are probably the most liberated among all Asian women. Is this good or is this bad? Of course, it is good. But it is also bad. Why? Women don't want to marry young. They want fewer children. If the husband is unreasonable, they say forget it. Let's have a divorce. So what do we see today? A birth rate which is plunging. And China has to solve this problem because if Chinese people cannot reproduce themselves, there is no future.

So this revolution, wave after wave, continues. And who leads the Chinese people in finding a way to the future? The Western system cannot work in China. It has to be the CCP. And because China is such a big country, the revolution is full of twists and turns, big achievements, big mistakes, big achievements, big mistakes... But all the time, learning and finding a way forward.

The question of legitimacy 

In the past, if you belonged to the imperial family, you could be an emperor. Today, who has the right to lead China? In Western society, it is through voting. It doesn't work in China. It doesn't work in many places in Asia. So how do you create legitimacy for the CCP to lead the Chinese people into the future? This is a very big issue because today the CCP has a huge membership. I don't know, maybe, 80 million members. To me, that's much too big, because it's more important to have quality than quantity. And if a member of the CCP is not a good person, if his heart is not in the right place, then that membership has a negative value, not a positive value. And the most important is, has he got integrity? Which is why the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 was so important. 

A man cycles in front of a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during a celebration marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
A man cycles in front of a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during a celebration marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

I remember when Xi Jinping became the general secretary, he gave a speech saying in gist: If we don't stop corruption, the party and the country will be finished. Because this has a bearing on legitimacy. If you are corrupt, then you are not working for the people. This is not real democracy. So the party must be close to the people. For the party to be close to the people, it must have integrity, its heart must be in the right place. You cannot have corruption.

What President Xi has done to remove corruption since 2013, has been incredible. No one believed that he could achieve what he has achieved. And even then, it's only 50%. Because corruption is very difficult to remove from Chinese society. In Chinese society, we learn to have relationships. So you're the bureau chief, the director, the head of department — we address each other by our titles. When we take a photograph, where we stand depends on the relationship. And naturally, gifts are a form of etiquette which express a certain relationship. And at what point do gifts become bribes? 

Every Chinese New Year the Chinese mother must prepare red packets to give to relatives and friends. Careful gradations are made.  And then you ask your children, how much did you get? In the giving and receipt of red packets, you're creating a social network. But that mentality creates corruption. So how do you solve this problem in Chinese society? It is a problem throughout history. When you have an honest judge like Judge Bao Zheng (包公, Bao Gong), we immortalise him in Peking opera. What a great man because he stopped corruption! Which means, corruption is such a difficult problem. When you have a good judge, we must all clap. So this problem is a continuing problem. And how do you solve it?

China is big. There are many layers of government. Beijing is far away. Many things happen. Maybe with big data analytics, it is easier to find out if there is corruption. When you look at data from a village, a town, a university, you suddenly find the data shape unusual. Then you can investigate. And officials, if they know that the central government can find out — not from the next level, because the next level has already been covered — but from other directions, they will be more careful. And maybe the digital renminbi can help China in resolving this. But this is still an evolving experiment, a great experiment for the future. Because every solution creates new problems.

It is very important that Chinese nationalism be a broad-minded and big-hearted nationalism...which learns from others, which is humble, which knows itself, which takes a lively interest in the experiences of others, and learns from them without judging them. Then China will be a great nation, and the CCP will really be a leading force. But that is a challenge.

Future challenges

When you ask me about the future of the CCP, yes, we celebrate 100 years of enormous progress. But the future is still full of challenges, and requires a very lively party, which is very close to the people, very open to the world, and very open to new ideas. And saying, look, we are the Chinese people, we have our own history, we have to find our own way to the future. And only we can find that way to the future. But we can only find a way to the future by learning from the experiences of others. Which is why, if you look at foreign ideologies, Marxism-Leninism for instance, when it first came to China, many people thought if we followed this and that, we would be liberated. No, because China had a different situation. And in the end, Mao Zedong had to say, look, for China, the revolution must begin in the countryside, not the cities as in the Soviet Union. So, Marxism-Leninism became sinicised. Whether it is democracy, or socialism, or Buddhism, or Christianity or Islam, the process of sinicisation takes time but absolutely necessary. It requires debate, it requires intellectual effort. And most importantly, it requires the heart to be in the right place. 

In this photo taken on 9 June 2021, people ride past a propaganda slogan which reads "Follow the Party Forever", outside an exhibition of calligraphy, painting and photography celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, at an exhibition centre in Beijing, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)
In this photo taken on 9 June 2021, people ride past a propaganda slogan which reads "Follow the Party Forever", outside an exhibition of calligraphy, painting and photography celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, at an exhibition centre in Beijing, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)

It is very important that Chinese nationalism be a broad-minded and big-hearted nationalism. If it is narrow-minded, and small-hearted, it will destroy China. It must be a big nationalism, which learns from others, which is humble, which knows itself, which takes a lively interest in the experiences of others, and learns from them without judging them. Then China will be a great nation, and the CCP will really be a leading force. But that is a challenge.

I: What do you think is the global significance of CCP’s achievements? 

GY: China is a big country with a large population. And it is natural that as the Chinese nation rises and falls, its influence radiating into a much wider region waxes and wanes. When China expands, you have the China trade, you have the Chinese market, you have the silk routes. When China contracts, there are a lot of problems in the region. And if we look at the 19th century, the decline of the Qing Dynasty created modern Singapore because many Chinese left China to look for a better life, and that's how Singapore became three-quarters Chinese. So the historical cycle of China's rise and fall has a huge impact far beyond China, affecting the entire Chinese periphery and beyond. China’s rise today has an equally great impact.

Singapore’s relationship with China

Because of its Chinese population, Singapore has a very special relationship with China. In the 19th century, the Opium War, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天国), the Boxer Rebellion (义和拳) — every major event in China affected people in Singapore. Kang Youwei, Sun Yat-sen all came to Singapore, all spoke to Chinese people here who were caught up in the Chinese drama.  Many of the uprisings preceding the Xinhai Revolution were organised in Singapore and in Penang. And when later the Communist Party was formed in China, the Communist Party was formed in Singapore and Malaya. When the communists and Kuomintang fought in China, they fought here. When they were united, they were united here. When China fought Japan, people here raised money to help China fight Japan and sent volunteers to China to help fight Japan. When the Japanese army came to Singapore, they killed many Chinese because it was all part of one conflict. So later, when China became the PRC, China continued to support local communist parties in Southeast Asia. It was only after Deng Xiaoping’s visit in 1978, that the position changed and China stopped supporting local communist parties. 

...the CCP, when it makes its decisions, cannot just think about China. It must think beyond China, because it has an impact beyond China, and how the people around China react to China.

China's then-senior vice-premier Deng Xiaoping (centre), arrived in Singapore to a warm welcome from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Deng, at the age of 74, made his first and only official visit to Singapore in 12 November 1978. (Ministry of Information and the Arts)
China's then Senior Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping (centre) arrived in Singapore to a warm welcome from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Deng, at the age of 74, made his first and only official visit to Singapore in November 1978. (Ministry of Information and the Arts)

The problem of dual loyalty was partly resolved in the 1950s when Zhou Enlai was in Bandung. He told ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia: You're a citizen of Indonesia. You're not huaqiao (华侨, overseas Chinese), you are Indonesian, you are Singaporean, you are Malaysian, you are Thai. But the cultural links are very natural. They can never go away because you are Chinese. You have the same traditions, you have the same literature. You have the same customs, the same calendar. So naturally, there are these links. 

But the rise and fall of China has an impact beyond that. All the "chopsticks people" — Japan, Korea, Vietnam — they're all affected, because historically, they've always had close relations with China. And beyond the "chopsticks people", we talk about Thailand or Myanmar, or Mongolia or Kazakhstan, there are very close links. Many people analyse the culture and they say, you can't escape it. In Kazakhstan, they also have the animals of the zodiac. And this is not surprising because of historical connections. All countries surrounding China follow the Chinese drama closely and follow the choices made by the CCP closely. 

And therefore, the CCP, when it makes its decisions, cannot just think about China. It must think beyond China, because it has an impact beyond China, and how the people around China react to China.

Strides in tackling corruption 

I: How do you see CCP’s performance, or the changes to the country that have taken place since the 18th Party Congress in 2012? What do you think are the challenges CCP faces? What are your advice and hopes for the CCP? 

GY: To me, the greatest achievement of President Xi Jinping is the actions he took against corruption in China. Corruption was destroying China. It was already very serious, but he was able to reverse it. However, if you are not a fan of China, if what you want is a weak China, not a strong China, then you say Xi Jinping is no good, because they prefer a corrupt China, they prefer a corrupt People's Liberation Army high command. Then it's easier for them to do things, to conduct foreign relations. So I'm not surprised that in the world today, the view of the 18th Party Congress is mixed. It depends on who the observer is.

Urban Society, neural networks, digital civilisations... All these present new challenges for human beings around the world. China is probably the most advanced. And what China does, other countries will watch.

A sign indicating digital yuan, also referred to as e-CNY, is pictured at a shopping mall in Shanghai, China, 5 May 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)
A sign indicating digital yuan, also referred to as e-CNY, is pictured at a shopping mall in Shanghai, China, 5 May 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)

China is going through a very interesting period in its historical development. It is now possibly the most digital society in the world. People are buying and selling on the internet. Everywhere you have facial recognition. People don't use cash; a blockchain digital currency will become commonplace. Artificial Intelligence will be very developed in China. China has more robots than any country in the world. And many of them are intelligent robots. I was talking to my Weiqi teacher just yesterday. He told me when AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, and later Ke Jie, it was so moving. Tears flowed down Ke Jie’s cheeks. He was defeated because of AI. We're talking about a new society. The 14th Five-Year Plan envisages China to be 65% urban in five years time, then 70% and 80%.

Learning to work together

Urban Society, neural networks, digital civilisations... All these present new challenges for human beings around the world. China is probably the most advanced. And what China does, other countries will watch. They can’t follow China. But they will study China’s successes and mistakes and draw lessons for themselves. And China should in turn learn from other people's successes and mistakes to reduce the cost of its own lessons. This is a very exciting period, a new China interacting with the world, under very different circumstances, affecting not just China's economic policy but also its foreign policy, how the Chinese people see themselves as part of a larger human family. 

Let me give you an example. Today, many countries are going to the Moon and to Mars. What happens when there are many of us on the Moon and many of us on Mars? Do we fight each other, do we kill each other? Or do we say when we are on the Moon and on Mars, we work together? You’re American, you're Russian, you're Indian, you're Chinese, but we work together. If you're in trouble, I'll help you. If I'm in trouble, you help me. We don't carry weapons. Or do we say no, you can't trust them. When you reach the Moon, you carry arms. And you have to defend yourself. And you build walls and defence systems. This is a challenge to all human beings. When we talk about Antarctica, we say, okay, Antarctica, we find a way to cooperate. In the Arctic, we are competing, but in Antarctica we will cooperate. On the Moon, on Mars, what do we do? This requires new thinking, but not by China alone, because China can’t do this alone. China has to do this with the Americans, the Russians, the Indians and others. So we are talking about a very exciting new chapter in human history which is not far away.

Sudden realisation that China is becoming strong

I: Do you think the accusations of the West against China are valid? 

GY: Since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, China has continued to make great progress, and many countries which used to think that China was still very backward suddenly realised that this is a very big country and it is going to be the biggest economy in the world and very advanced in all areas of technology. This did not happen overnight. It did not happen in 2012. This has been going on for many years. But the sudden realisation only happened in the last few years for some reason.

In this picture taken on 1 May 2021, Chinese paramilitary police keep watch as people visit the promenade on the Bund along the Huangpu River during the Labour Day holiday in Shanghai, China. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
In this picture taken on 1 May 2021, Chinese paramilitary police keep watch as people visit the promenade on the Bund along the Huangpu River during the Labour Day holiday in Shanghai, China. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

It is like when we were in school doing chemistry experiments. You add acid drop by drop into the litmus solution. Suddenly the litmus turns from blue to red. You cannot say the last two drops caused the change. The litmus changed colour because the pH has been changing over time. So many criticisms of President Xi Jinping arose out of a sudden realisation that China is very big and successful. And the sense of insecurity has become stronger and stronger. So if you look at American foreign policy towards China, the agenda used to be a positive agenda — I help you but we compete, and I'm confident that I can compete. Today the agenda is negative. I was quite surprised when recently President Biden said he would not allow China to surpass America. This is a negative agenda. And it is because of a sudden realisation that China could overtake America. China did not become strong overnight. This has been going on for many years. But a sudden realisation, which has now crystallised in the view of President Xi’s leadership. And it explains why in recent years, on many issues, they criticise China, often unreasonably. 

Hong Kong and Xinjiang

I tell my Western friends, when they look at the face of China, instead of looking at the whole face, they zoom in on a pimple and say, “Oh, this pimple looks terrible! Why is this pimple there? It should not be there.” But they’re not looking at the whole face. And it's not as if China has a perfect face. Of course China has blemishes. It is not a perfect society by any means. Some criticisms are justified. Others are not. 

For many years, I have lived in Hong Kong. I travel up and down between Hong Kong and Singapore. And I'm very glad that finally, stability has returned to Hong Kong. I argue with my Western friends: “I don't agree with you when you say this national security law is bad for Hong Kong. How can Hong Kong have less democracy than under the British. Under the British, the governor was appointed by London. No one had any say.” 

Xinjiang has a long history. Islamic terrorism had become a serious problem. I first went to Xinjiang in 1991 with Lee Kuan Yew. It was very backward. But I was surprised by one thing that all the road signs had Chinese characters, Roman characters, and Arabic characters. I asked when China started putting up Arabic characters in Xinjiang. I was told when China became PRC. It wasn't there under KMT China. 

People walk in a night market during the Labour Day holidays tourist rush in the old city in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 2 May 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
People walk in a night market during the Labour Day holidays tourist rush in the old city in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 2 May 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

In August 2001, I was in Kashgar. I led a business delegation. And for the first time, I saw Muslim women in burkas. I thought they were wearing baskets over their heads. It was the first time in my life that I had seen a burka. I asked my guides: “Who are these people?” “These are Muslim women,” they replied. “What are they wearing?” I asked further. They said it was in their religion to wear such clothing. I scratched my head. I thought that we would never allow this in Singapore. Why was China allowing it? 

Then when I was in Urumqi, we had a free afternoon. Our guides took us horse riding. I said I couldn’t ride a horse. They told me not to worry and to just get on the horse. A little boy or girl would jump on behind me. The horse was galloping quite fast and I was a little frightened. I tried to speak to the young girl behind me, who was about ten years old, in putonghua. She could hardly speak putonghua. This was in 2001. This young girl, ten years old, grew up in the People's Republic, and could not speak putonghua. I thought this was not good. So for too many years, China has neglected the education of some of its people, and this has created problems. And I know that six, seven years ago, it was not safe to go to Xinjiang. 

The process of changing mentalities takes time. It's not easy. When we read reports of re-education camps with barbed wire and so on, we must remember that every country with a sizeable Muslim population faces the problem of Islamic extremism. Singapore faces this, Indonesia faces it, Malaysia faces it, France faces it. Every country faces it and has its own response. We may agree or disagree with the way China handles this. But you cannot call it genocide. It is a misuse of the word. But then there are political reasons for pushing this issue as genocide. And it goes back to what I talked about earlier, about the fear of a rising China and the fear that “One Belt, One Road” will increase China's influence in a large part of Asia. 

The US says China is no longer a status quo power. In other words, China is upsetting the status quo. How can China not upset the status quo when the economic weight is changing? The Americans are saying that they are happy with the current status quo and you should not change it. Since you are changing it, you are behaving badly. That’s not reasonable.

Perceptions of the West

I: Why do you think the West has such a strong sense of rivalry against China? 

GY: If I am a Westerner and I've been used to the West being superior and dominant for a few hundred years, and suddenly, I’m not able to retain that position and the Chinese are standing up to me, looking me in the eye and saying things I don't like, it’s very uncomfortable. It’s not only words, but also in economic and scientific development. China landed the spacecraft carrying a rover on Mars on the first attempt. That’s an incredible achievement and it makes the Chinese people very proud of their own scientists. But in the West, it is really alarming. Because if the Chinese can do that, without having too many failures before achieving success, what does it mean for Western dominance? 

This undated handout photograph released on 11 June 2021 by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) shows an image taken by a camera released from China's Zhurong Mars rover showing the rover (left) and the landing platform on the surface of Mars. (Handout/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/AFP)
This undated handout photograph released on 11 June 2021 by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) shows an image taken by a camera released from China's Zhurong Mars rover showing the rover (left) and the landing platform on the surface of Mars. (Handout/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/AFP)

The US says China is no longer a status quo power. In other words, China is upsetting the status quo. How can China not upset the status quo when the economic weight is changing? The Americans are saying that they are happy with the current status quo and you should not change it. Since you are changing it, you are behaving badly. That’s not reasonable.

But China has to see things from the American viewpoint too. That this is unsettling to them. Some of it can't be helped, some of it can be helped. You are living together in a house and you're getting bigger and having more members. Suddenly, my sense of freedom is a bit circumscribed. There has to be a better understanding by China of the insecurity of the West. I'm not saying that the West is reasonable. China should be firm in the way it manages the West, but China will do better for itself by understanding Western insecurity more deeply.

I watched their rebuttals to Western criticism, their indignation. I think they can be more effective by being more elegant. Sometimes, let the facts reveal themselves. One side may be name-calling, but if you also reply with name-calling, you follow them to the mud. I think China can do it better.

I: In the eyes of the West, is the CCP the legitimate ruling party? 

GY: There's a feeling amongst some in the West, that if China were to become like a Western power, then that kind of China will be easier to deal with. If they become more liberal, more Western in their thinking, then China will be “one of us”. I don't think so. In fact, I think it will be worse. 

This photo taken on 25 May 2021 shows people walking along the Bund in Shanghai, China. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
This photo taken on 25 May 2021 shows people walking along the Bund in Shanghai, China. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

To begin with, the Chinese look different from the Westerners. Unlike the Japanese who are “honorary whites”, I don't think it's possible for China to be "honorary whites" like the Japanese. China is too big. It is militarily not dependent on the West. And if China were to behave like the West, it would want to dominate others the way the West is used to dominating others. I think this will lead to more conflict in the world, not less conflict. 

The West has an attitude towards the rest of the world. It is the judge of others in the world. Look at the way they write about other countries. They are always judging and writing as if people are stupid. That if you were to do ABCD and E you will be a very happy society. Their writing is full of judgment, full of suggestions about how others can improve. Their journalists hardly know the country they write about but they are ever ready to dispense prescriptions. We will never think of writing like that or talking to people like that. We may have these feelings inside ourselves, but we will never write it or say it out publicly. The Chinese have enough problems in their own family. They think, “How can I be giving you advice on how you should manage your family?” It’s never wise to offer advice lightly to another person's family. We should always be reluctant to offer advice, especially when the advice is not asked for. Even if advice is sought, I should be very careful what I say.

And China, in reverse, cannot expect that the West will behave like it does. The West has a different DNA and a different collective memory. 

I have been reading the recent parliamentary enquiry about Dominic Cummings, who used to be Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former adviser. He said terrible things about the prime minister which the British media reported on with pleasure. But this is their tradition. They have always done this. You can’t do this in Singapore, or China. That will be like children criticising parents. It creates a lot of problems for society. But somehow in the West, they are able to do it and happily get on with their lives. If you want to understand the West, you have to read their history. If you read about the debates in the Roman senate, like those between Cicero and Catiline, you realise that some things have not changed. They confront one another, sometimes in fair ways, sometimes in unfair ways. It is in the Western political tradition.  

The CCP has to take as reality the nature of Chinese society which is deeply rooted in its own history and tradition. The CCP cannot operate in Western society or Russian society. It operates in the reality of Chinese society.

People walk along the Las Vegas Strip, on 16 June 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada, US. (Ronda Churchill/AFP)
People walk along the Las Vegas Strip, on 16 June 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada, US. (Ronda Churchill/AFP)

I: How should we look at the CCP being a hundred years old? Does this tell us anything about ways to look at human society?

GY: There are different ways of organising human society. For chimpanzees and apes, they share fairly predictable forms of social organisation. Somehow in the evolution of becoming homo sapien, we developed reprogrammable group behaviour. This evolution in group behaviour is what creates our history and civilisation. How we are organised depends on history and on institutions. Institutions can change, while culture evolves slowly. China was unified 2000 years ago and has a common written ideographic script. Chinese characters have a digital quality. Their values don’t change with a change in pronunciation. With alphabetic languages, written words change with vocal words. This makes it difficult to read old European languages. In contrast, old Chinese texts are easily read and can be understood without the same difficulty. This digital quality of written Chinese is an important reason why Chinese civilisation is what it is. 

And for many centuries, China had paper. Paper allows for much more data storage than say palm leaves, bamboo strips, leather or papyrus. This enabled much more record keeping of history, of astronomical phenomena, of weather... The more data you have, the bigger the network you can sustain. Chinese civilisation had this advantage for many centuries and networked more human beings than any other group on earth — by far. There is no ethnic group of such a size. India may have a population as big as China, but India is more like Europe. It has many cultures, languages and religions. It is not homogeneous. China is over 90% Han and the Han people believe in a common ancestor and share a common literature. We may not be able to understand each other‘s spoken language, but we share the same literature whether it is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the Confucian classics. This is unique to Chinese civilisation. No other country can be like China in this regard. 

The CCP has to take as reality the nature of Chinese society which is deeply rooted in its own history and tradition. The CCP cannot operate in Western society or Russian society. It operates in the reality of Chinese society. So as Mao Zedong said very early on: in the end, practice leads theory. You begin with reality, seeking truth from facts. The CCP is capable of leading the Chinese people but it is certainly not capable of leading other people. 

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