Many harbour the false premise that it is possible to instantly transform a society from one that is poor, tribal and chaotic to one that is prosperous, modern and free without going through an interim stage of national development. History however has shown time and again that one cannot simply transition from the primitive and poor to the free and prosperous without first engaging in a sustained period of centrally derived order that inspires social discipline.
This is why Singapore has become one of the most successful countries in the world. Under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, a modern, centralised, well-ordered, efficient and anti-corrupt state was created in a colonial swampland whose experience in the 1960s saw conflict with Indonesia (whilst part of Malaysia) before ultimately being expelled from Malaysia amid a period of riots. Today, due to Lee’s transformative leadership, Singapore is one of the most prosperous, safe, educated and healthy societies in the world.
Although Lee did not want Singapore to be politically separated from the rest of Malaysia, when in 1965 a point of no return was reached, he committed himself to creating a new model of what an independent and self-governing south east Asian nation could be by adopting a modern and open economy combined with a society in which a strict education system created an atmosphere of social order and discipline among a diverse citizenry.
In Lee’s own words, these actions took the country “from third world to first”. Although China is one of the longest continuously self-governing civilisations in world history, the century of humiliation which began in the early 1800s took a great toll on China. By the time the country asserted stable political control over all of its vast provinces after 1949, Deng Xiaoping realised that in 1978, the country was in need of vast economic modernisation.
In order to achieve this, Deng did not destroy the social discipline that had been instilled by a centrally controlled state in 1949 but instead he reformed and opened up the economy based on many of the same economic principles that Lee had used in Singapore, all the while preserving but modernising key state institutions. The result has been the single biggest success in world history in respect of elevating a billion people out of poverty. Whilst poverty in China stood at 88% at the end of the 1970s, today, it is well below 2% and by the end of next year it is likely to fall to 0%.
At the same time, China’s society has become far more free whilst retaining key cultural characteristics that allow China to remain a fully sovereign state. With greater prosperity always comes greater freedom within communities and for the individual. But when one attempts to create social freedoms through diktat (aka out of thin air) rather than through a gradual process that is driven by increased prosperity, the results include the proliferation of both public and private sector corruption, mounting crime, social anarchy and a breakdown in public services. This is what happened in the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s when the corrupt Gorbachev/Yakovlev regime attempted to alter society through diktat rather than help to free society through Deng Xiaoping style economic reforms. The result is that Russia became vastly poorer, crime ridden and filled with social chaos in the 1990s whilst after over ten years of Deng’s reforms, by the 1990s China was well on its way to becoming the economic and civilisational powerhouse that it is today.
It is incredibly disingenuous when first world countries whose own social freedoms are contracting in-line with prolonged economic stagnation, attempt to lecture the developing world on how to improve their material and social conditions. No country can simply wave a magic wand, implement a piece of legislation or engage in that most childish practice of wishful thinking in order to create a more free society. There can be no freedom without an underlying stable and sustainable level of prosperity and this type of prosperity cannot be created without first instilling political and social discipline.
Western countries that in the 19th and 20th centuries achieved social peace and freedom did so after centuries of civil war, religious war, discrimination and hardship. These trials and tribulations were vastly more extreme than the equitable measures of social discipline that Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping implemented and enforced in order to streamline and modernise their respective societies. As such, those ignorant as to their own history should cease throwing stones in glass houses.
Finally, one must realise that every culture expresses freedom in a different way. Even within western Europe, the great historian Oswald Spengler pointed out how German conceptions of freedom differ greatly from those in Britain.
As such, while sustainable and equitable prosperity across a society necessarily leads to an expansion of human freedom, not all societies express this freedom in the same way. That itself is the definition of freedom and as such, one can say that both Singapore and China have achieved an elevated state of freedom for their respective populations over a very short period of time. The key to Singaporean and Chinese freedom has been economic reform, political and social discipline and ever increasing standards in education. These are the tools to free human beings from the conditions of poverty and anarchy that have retarded the human spirit for centuries.