Foreign Policy Blogs

Singapore’s Wisdom in China’s Development: The ‘Guangdong Model’



What is the ‘China Model’? Answers among scholars vary, and it seems impossible to reach a consensus. However, one can try to construct a framework by looking at a particular case in the country.

The ‘Guangdong Model’, studied by Professor Zheng Yongnian from the National University of Singapore, might give us some insights. Zheng works in Singapore and remains active in Chinese academia.

In 2012, he published an article, ‘Guangdong’s Reform and China’s Future’, on The Phoenix Weekly. In it he gave a systematic analysis of the Guangdong model and its three pillars: economic transformation, social reform, and administrative reform. These aspects can not only help us to understand China’s development but also give us a clearer picture of the transformation in China’s diplomatic policy and its international orientation.

Economic transformation

The most appealing slogan in the Guangdong model is “Emptying the Cage for New Birds.” It refers to a policy to relocate those labor and resources intensive industries, which generate low added value in the core industrial area (the Pearl River Delta region), to other regions. Meanwhile, technology-intensive and higher-value industries are introduced to replace the old ones. In the eyes of neoliberal economists, industrial distribution is a natural outcome of the market economy, thus this ‘industrial policy’ violates the market discipline in its nature.

However, the economic boom of the Asian Tigers was the result of government-led industrial policies. Guangdong’s policy of ‘Emptying the Cage for New Birds’ is based on their successful experience. Zheng regarded grasping the proper line between the state-owned and private economy as the key to successful economic transformation.

He thought of the Guangdong model as a mixture of both economies, which combined the function of social security (by the state-owned economy) and the function of enhancing productivity (by the private-owned economy). As such, the economic transformation and social stability could be achieved at the same time. This view is apparently different from Western observers, which generally take either one of the economies as the leading force and do not believe that the government and market could integrate.

Social Reform

Zheng pointed out that there are three components in the social reform of the Guangdong model: social institutions, social management, and social participation. For the construction of social institutions, the government aims to develop public services like healthcare, education, housing, etc. to build the foundation for a consumer society. These are expected to make Guangdong’s economy more resilient during the ups and downs of the international economy. Also, these social institutions are expected to support the growing middle-class in the region.

As for social management, the government gives more power to emerging private enterprises and SMEs along with its government-led policy. Administrative policies are simplified so that these enterprises are given more room of self-management.

With regard to social participation, the public policymaking consultation in Shunde City is praised by Zheng as an adaptation from the ‘Singapore policy’. Indeed, party representatives and deputies in Shunde listening to public opinion and doing down to districts is more or less similar with Singapore’s ‘meet-the-people sessions’.

Administrative Reform

According to Zheng, another merit of the Guangdong model is how it innovatively redefined the relationship between the party and the government. Take Shunde City as an example. Zheng thought that the cooperation between the local government and the party had streamlined both the government’s and the party’s structure. It is an essential breakthrough for Guangdong’s administrative reform to incorporate the party into the reform policies.

Although the West still challenges the Chinese military and political structure and deems it as an archetype of a no-checks-and-balances structure, many Chinese scholars think the separation of party and government is a redundancy.

So, why do we need to study the Guangdong model? Zheng believes the three aspects of the model can be expanded to the whole country. This idea can be seen from the formula in his newly published book China Model (revised edition): a mixed economic model with a relative powerful state-owned department, a political model with concentrated party power yet open to sharing it, and a steady institutional reform model.

This model is different from contemporary Western political and economic systems. Zheng believes this model helps answer China’s question of ‘Who am I?’ on the international arena. It is especially significant for other countries to understand China’s internal logic and improve their interactions with Beijing.

Just like Guangdong’s policy of uniting party and government, China’s diplomatic policy is also moving towards this direction since President Xi came to power. He formed diplomatic decision-making bodies with the National Security Council as the representative and named himself leader of different ‘leader groups’. All these strategies serve one purpose: to concentrate the diplomatic decision-making power that was once dispersed in various departments. The One Belt, One Road Initiative and the fine-tune of Hong Kong policy are originated from this institutional reform.

The West regards China as an authoritarian state with an all-government-led feature. Nonetheless, Chinese diplomatic policies have been criticized by researchers as uncoordinated, leading to ineffective policy implementation. What frustrates the international community is that sometimes those policies deliver different or even contradictory message. All in all, as mentioned above, the openness of Guangdong model is deemed by Zheng as the most valuable feature that should be promoted to the whole country.

In Deciphering the “Chinese Dream”, the author pointed out that Chinese diplomatic policies will make good use of nationalism in order to unite different sectors of society and people of different identities. Besides the consideration of the Grand Unification, this is a mean to facilitate public participation and review on diplomacy under controlled situation. It is, in fact, an experiment to try to benefit both the public and the government.

China’s ever-changing society and rapid development of new media platforms have intensified public opinions’ mobility and outbreak. The voice on traditional foreign policies become louder and people are more enthusiastic about participating in public diplomacy. Under this environment, how Xi’s government promote the ‘big diplomacy’ with an ‘openness’ feature, referring to Guangdong model, remains to be seen.



Simon Shen

Dr. Simon Shen is an Associate Professor & Director of Global Studies Program, Faculty of Social Science and Co-Director of International Affairs Research Center, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the chairman of Hong Kong International Relations Research Association (HKIRRA). He also serves as the lead writer of a Chinese newspaper called Hong Kong Economic Journal (Global). He is a graduate of Oxford and Yale University.