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BEIJING – Chinese leaders admired modern Singapore's founder Lee Kuan Yew for his toughness, economic pragmatism and insistence on respect for authority. In many ways, Lee's model of "Asian values," combining authoritarianism and economic planning, became China's own blueprint for modernity.
Most significantly, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping looked to Singapore, with its ethnic Chinese majority, as he embarked on his country's economic reforms in the late 1970s. Those changes would spur three decades of rapid growth and lift China from the grinding poverty and political dysfunction that were legacies of Mao Zedong's centrally planned economy.
"Deng was greatly influenced by what he saw on his trip to Singapore" in 1978, said Su Hao, professor at China Foreign Affairs University. "It's fair to say China's reform and opening policy has a direct relationship with Singapore, where ethnic Chinese demonstrated their ability to create an economic miracle."
Lee, who died Monday at age 91, and Deng established a close relationship during their several meetings, sharing a starkly practical approach, hard-headed manner and similarly ruthless bent when their wills were defied.
"Society in Singapore is quite orderly. They manage things very strictly," Deng told his subordinates in 1992, describing how China's special economic zones should copy the city-state. "We ought to use their experience as a model. And we ought to manage things even better than they do."
During Deng's rule, Singapore became a major investor in China, building shopping malls and office buildings, and investing in airlines and infrastructure projects. Deng and Lee also originated an exchange program whereby thousands of Chinese bureaucrats were sent to Singapore for observation and training.
In 1994, Lee joined with Chinese leaders in establishing the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park near Shanghai that replicated some aspects of Singapore, with its streamlined bureaucracy, purpose-built offices and factories and integrated working and living spaces, and was meant to be a model for such developments nationwide. The project lost money for several years, but eventually turned a profit in 2001, according to the Singapore government.
Over that period, Chinese leaders became firm believers in Singapore's example of one-party rule and long-term term strategic planning, although they never instituted government accountability on a Singaporean level as a deterrent to corruption. Lee shared the Chinese leadership's intolerance of criticism and dissent and believed limits on free speech were necessary to preserve stability.
Yet Deng also recognized the stark differences between the relative manageability of tiny Singapore and the vast challenges of China's massive territory and huge population.
While lifting some of the most intrusive aspects of Communist Party control, Deng eschewed Singapore's system of parliamentary democracy — albeit skewed in favor of Lee's ruling People's Action Party — and did little to shrink the size of the China's all-encompassing state in line with Singapore's small government model.
"If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly. But I have the whole of China," Deng said.
Always skeptical about the application of Western-style democracy to Eastern societies, Lee too had warned China not to pursue political liberalization.
"China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse. Of that, I am quite sure, and the Chinese intelligentsia also understands that," Lee was quoted as saying in a 2013 book.
Lee was also an admirer of China's leaders, including current President Xi Jinping, who made a point of dropping in on the then-minister mentor shortly after being tapped as the Communist Party's heir-apparent in 2010.
"I would put him in Nelson Mandela's class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In other words, he is impressive," Lee said of Xi.
Despite such mutual respect, ties between the two countries have not always been smooth.
During Mao's era, Lee and other pro-Western Singaporean leaders were denigrated as "running dogs of American imperialism" and Chinese radio broadcasts called incessantly for revolution in Southeast Asia.
While such deprecations ended under Deng, they remained an underlying factor in relations and formal diplomatic ties weren't established until 1990 — the year Lee stepped down as prime minister.
China has also been rankled by Singapore's hosting of U.S. military assets and close relations with Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that Beijing considers a renegade Chinese province. Beijing heatedly protests exchanges between Taiwanese and Singaporean leaders and put relations on hold after then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — Lee Kuan Yew's son, who is now prime minister — paid a private visit to the island in 2004.
One year later, during a visit to Shanghai to accept an honorary degree, Lee Kuan Yew seemed to warn against China abusing its new-found might and ignoring the lessons of past mistakes.
China's young people, Lee said, should be "acutely conscious that China ... has the responsibility and self-interest to assure its neighbors and the world at large that this emergence is benign and not a threat, but a plus to the world."
Associated Press writer Didi Tang and researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this story.