(Bloomberg) — Since Deng Xiaoping visited in 1978, Chinese
leaders have looked for lessons in stewardship from Lee Kuan
Yew’s Singapore, a city-state with 0.4 percent the population of
China and a landmass about half the size of Shanghai’s Pudong
district.

Countries around the world have lavished praise on the
Singapore Model — a state ruled by a single party, defined by
robust economic growth, low crime and startling cleanliness —
that brought international renown to Lee, who died Monday at 91.
None took Singapore’s example as seriously as China, which sends
hundreds of Communist Party cadres to the city-state every year
to study it.

“They think that the so-called Singapore model, single-party rule maybe can provide them something to maintain the
Communist Party’s rule without losing too much in the process,”
said Huang Jing, who has taught classes full of Chinese
officials as a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public
Policy in Singapore.

Echoes of Lee’s influence are evident in China’s economic
reform plans, announced in 2013, to allow a greater role for the
market while maintaining the party’s grip on power, and in
President Xi Jinping’s bid to eliminate rampant corruption.
China is also seeking to emulate Singapore’s shift away from a
manufacturing boom that put it on the path to growth.

Lee was an “old friend” of the Chinese people and
pioneered the nation’s ties with Singapore, Xi said in a
telegram to Singapore President Tony Tan, according to a
statement on China’s foreign ministry website. “Mr. Lee Kuan
Yew was the founder of Singapore, and a strategist and statesman
who was widely respected by the international community.”

‘Early Days’

Chinese officials frequently express their admiration for
Singapore’s blend of authoritarian state-capitalism, its low
crime and cleanliness. Deng was the first senior Chinese
official to visit Singapore, meeting Lee a month before he was
formally named paramount leader at a party gathering in December
1978. It was at that event that Deng gave his backing to reforms
that would lead to 30 years of economic growth.

Deng toured Singapore with a 36-member delegation, visiting
the country’s Housing Development Board and Jurong Town
Corporation to see firsthand Singapore’s public housing and
industrialization program.

Xi also praised Singapore in November 2013, when he met
with a group of intellectuals in Beijing.

Rigorous, Systematic

“He did mention that China learned from the Singapore
experience in the early days of reform and opening up,” former
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said after attending that
meeting. Yeo left the Singapore Cabinet after losing his
parliamentary seat in a 2011 election and is now vice chairman
of Kerry Group (HK) Pte.

A 2012 article in Study Times, the journal of the Communist
Party’s Central Party School, spelled out the reasons China
liked the Singapore Model so much. It detailed how Lee’s
People’s Action Party set up a system to select talent in a
“rigorous, systematic way” and formed grassroots organizations
to keep “in close contact with the masses.”

Lee turned Singapore into one of Asia’s wealthiest nations
by emphasizing efficiency and incorruptibility, which helped the
city lure multinational companies to build a manufacturing
sector focused on exports. The government also maintained tight
control of major companies, with state-owned investment company
Temasek Holdings Pte. holding strategic stakes in businesses
from Singapore Airlines Ltd. to DBS Group Holdings Ltd.

China Roots

Ethnic Chinese make up more than 70 percent of the former
British colony’s 5.5 million people, and include Lee, whose
great-grandfather emigrated from southern China in the 19th
century.

Lee’s own attitude toward China was mixed. In the 2011 book
“Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” he voiced
support for Deng’s decision to unleash the military on unarmed
protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. In his
2013 book “One Man’s View of the World,” Lee put Xi in the
same class as Nelson Mandela.

Yet he also said China’s creative output would never match
that of the U.S. because the Communist Party doesn’t allow the
free exchange of ideas. And he chided its leaders for telling
others to be more respectful.

“They tell us that countries big or small are equal: we
are not a hegemon,” Lee said in the book. “But when we do
something they do not like, they say you have made 1.3 billion
people unhappy…so please know your place.”

Idealistic Image

In 2012, Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper reported that
China Central Television was preparing a 10-part series on
Singapore’s governance. It cited unidentified sources as saying
that Xi had personally endorsed the project.

Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the National
University of Singapore, said he was approached by the
filmmakers to chat and told them the notions they had about
Singapore no longer held, especially after a 2011 ballot in
which the PAP won re-election by the smallest margin since it
split from Malaysia in 1965.

“They have this idealistic image of Singapore that does
not exist in reality,” Bo said, adding that when he told that
to the filmmakers, they never contacted him again. “The
Singapore model is actually in decline.”

Chinese state media have themselves grappled with that
question. An article in the Chinese state-run People’s Daily
newspaper acknowledged that China had seen “waves of Singapore
fever.” It said Singapore is too small for its model to be
copied wholesale.

Nonetheless, the 2012 article left little doubt about
China’s respect for the Singapore Model.

“Singapore’s appeal is not restricted to China,” Beijing-based freelancer Huang Shuo wrote. “The person seen by many as
having created the economic miracle, Singapore’s first Prime
Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is seen by many developing states as
their superhero.”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story:
Nicholas Wadhams in Beijing at
nwadhams@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Rosalind Mathieson at
rmathieson3@bloomberg.net
Linus Chua