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Mao mania: Detail of a 1968 cut-out of Chairman Mao.

Something about countries with a population of five million, such as Norway, Denmark, Hong Kong or Singapore, seems to make them paragons, whether of economic efficiency or social fairness. Singapore, whose outstanding leader Lee Kuan Yew has died, is perhaps the most remarkable: it not only prefigures the future of China, we are assured, but shorn of its less admirable characteristics has a lot to teach us too.

Economically its statistics read like an idealised Britain: a global market centre dependent on trade, but with a manufacturing base of around 30 per cent and the world’s third-highest per capita income. Socially Lee promoted clean living, respect for elders, high educational standards, meritocracy in the best Chinese tradition, and a well-paid, high-quality civil service staffed by elites of talent. It is a place our politicians might envy too, with a multi-party system where only one — the People’s Action Party (PAP)— has ever won elections, thereby avoiding the instability and policy switches that afflict less tidily run states.

And that is the nub. Its constraints on press freedom and civil rights mean that Lee’s model city will never be one for Britain. Yet admiration for authoritarian regimes — some of it not so grudging — gained ground during the recession and in the wake of the Arab world’s poisoned spring. The buzzwords “multi-polar system” now slip easily off the tongue, as if the brutalism of Russia and China, the chaos of Brazil, the institutionalised corruption of India or the theocratic thuggery of Iran were evidence of some much-needed diversity in a lamentably white Western democratic world.

The greatest beneficiary has been Beijing, and Lee’s death is a good time to refocus on the suggestion by those of a panda-hugging persuasion, and occasionally by Lee himself, that the future of China could be Singapore writ 2,000 times larger. Just as (before Ukraine) the Poles were said to be showing us that even Russians might not be congenitally immune to democratic delights, so Singapore (75 per cent Chinese) has been seen as a stepping stone to a post-Communist future for the Middle Kingdom, complete with a multi-party system. Imagine a Lee Kuan Yew figure as Chinese leader.

His growing confidence about the country was based on 32 visits and discussions with every Chinese leader from Mao to Xi Jinping, with whom he was clearly impressed. After his death Xi returned the compliment, praising Lee’s “outstanding contributions to peace and development in Asia”, and allowing his ancestral home in Guangdong province to be turned into a tourist attraction.

Margaret Thatcher rightly admired Lee for his foresight, though on Xi his optimism is proving questionable, and a comparison he once made with Nelson Mandela unfortunate. His point was that like the African leader Xi would rise above the persecution he and his father suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and learn the lessons. Since acceding to the leadership in an aura of expectation nearly three years ago Xi has in fact become increasingly repressive and domineering. What the Chinese Mandela is most passionate about, he keeps reminding us, is not letting the Chinese Communist Party go the way of the Soviet one, and to prevent it there seems little he would not do.

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