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The Triumph and Terror of Wang Huning Revisited
One man’s thought has become pivotal in China’s new political and cultural crackdowns. That man is not Xi Jinping.
China recently held its 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Held every five years, it is a major event that sets the direction of the country, and it is attended by the entirety of the party’s senior leadership—the Central Committee.
Two days ago, on the last day of the Congress, former president Hu Jintao was escorted off stage under unclear circumstances. It was an incredibly exposed incident—he was seated directly next to the current president Xi Jinping. Hu seemed confused as attendants escorted him away from the podium to no reaction from Xi, who had earlier criticized his administration in a speech.
One government-affiliated news agency described the incident as Hu Jintao feeling unwell and choosing to leave. Western observers speculated that it was a staged humiliation—in addition to his exit, Hu’s protégé Li Keqiang was conspicuously absent from the Party Congress as well. Either way, recordings of the event were censored in Chinese media.
Li Zhanshu, the Chairman of the Standing Committee and for a time something of Xi’s chief of staff—they’ve known each other since the 1980s when both were administrators in rural Hebei—was sitting between the two men and was caught off guard by the event. He made a move to stand up, as if to get more involved. But he was discreetly intercepted by First Secretary Wang Huning.
Wang Huning is not just an apparatchik with good political instincts. By training he is a political scientist, and it is his thought that undergirds Xi Jinping’s regime.
A little over one year ago, Palladium Magazine published “The Triumph and Terror of Wang Huning.” It describes the political transformations that have marked the tenure of Xi, who showed himself to be at the zenith of his power at this most recent Congress. The ideological foundation of his regime is not Maoist or liberalizing developmentalism. Nor is it even ad hoc authoritarianism. Wang Huning’s thought did not just inform Xi, but previous presidents including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao himself.
Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. It took former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s repeated entreaties to convince the brilliant then-young academic—who spoke wistfully of following the traditional path of a Confucian scholar, aloof from politics—to give up academia in the early 1990s and join the Chinese Communist Party regime instead. When he finally did so, Wang cut off nearly all contact with his former connections, stopped publishing and speaking publicly, and implemented a strict policy of never speaking to foreigners at all. Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.
Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.
A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.” Scrutinize any photograph of Xi on an important trip or at a key meeting and one is likely to spot Wang there in the background, never far from the leader’s side.
Wang has thus earned comparisons to famous figures of Chinese history like Zhuge Liang and Han Fei (historians dub the latter “China’s Machiavelli”) who similarly served behind the throne as powerful strategic advisers and consiglieres—a position referred to in Chinese literature as dishi: “Emperor’s Teacher.” Such a figure is just as readily recognizable in the West as an éminence grise (“grey eminence”), in the tradition of Tremblay, Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, or Vladimir Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov.
But what is singularly remarkable about Wang is that he’s managed to serve in this role of court philosopher to not just one, but all three of China’s previous top leaders, including as the pen behind Jiang Zemin’s signature “Three Represents” policy and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society.”
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Although he is a major ideological architect of China’s current order, his credentials stand out at gatherings like the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. While Xi and Li Zhanshu worked hard agricultural labor as young men, Wang Huning went to an elite foreign language school where he studied French, before departing for a career in academia at Fudan University. Before he became a political operator, he was an accomplished scholar who wrote on the necessity of tradition for maintaining political stability.
Wang elaborated on these ideas in a 1988 essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” which would become one of his most cited works. In it, he argued that the CCP must urgently consider how society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). While seemingly a straightforward idea, this was notably a daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.
Examining China in the midst of Deng’s rapid opening to the world, Wang perceived a country “in a state of transformation” from “an economy of production to an economy of consumption,” while evolving “from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture,” and “from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.”
Meanwhile, he believed that the modernization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was effectively leaving China without any real cultural direction at all. “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” he warned. This could serve only to dissolve societal and political cohesion.
Wang Huning’s thought is not localized to China. Much of what informs him comes from his own experiences abroad, and it was during a trip to the United States in the late 80s that he came to a definitive conclusion about the failures of Western liberalism.
Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.
But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.
Moreover, he says that the “American spirit is facing serious challenges” from new ideational competitors. Reflecting on the universities he visited and quoting approvingly from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, he notes a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values” and actively rejects its cultural inheritance. “If the value system collapses,” he wonders, “how can the social system be sustained?”
He began to argue that China had to resist global liberal influence and become a culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state. He would develop these ideas into what has become known as China’s “Neo-Authoritarian” movement—though Wang never used the term, identifying himself with China’s “Neo-Conservatives.” This reflected his desire to blend Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Legalist political thought, maximalist Western ideas of state sovereignty and power, and nationalism in order to synthesize a new basis for long-term stability and growth immune to Western liberalism.
Wang Huning’s political philosophy is now embodied in the Chinese party-state. But its long-term survival will depend on how well the country can weather the social-economic effects of liberalization. A low-fertility demographic crisis, capitalist individualism, and widespread corruption are all obstacles to the future of the Communist Party. The outcome of his and Xi’s attempts to stop liberalization in its tracks will be the inner competition that accompanies a growing outward rivalry with the United States:
Either way, our world is witnessing a grand experiment that’s now underway: China and the West, facing very similar societal problems, have now, thanks to Wang Huning, embarked on radically different approaches to addressing them. And with China increasingly challenging the United States for a position of global geopolitical and ideological leadership, the conclusion of this experiment could very well shape the global future of governance for the century ahead.
We recently put out a new podcast on the geopolitical future of the 21st century as a result of climate change. Much of it is informed by Velay-Vitow’s 2021 article “Climate Change Is Inevitable,” which is featured in print in PALLADIUM 07: Garden Planet.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
Palladium Podcast 82: Jesse Velay-Vitow on the Geopolitics of Climate Change. Jesse Velay-Vitow joins Ash Milton to discuss how recent geopolitical realignments, energy crises, and migration patterns will shape the course of the twenty-first century.
The Genealogy of Chinese Cybernetics by Dylan Levi King. Qian Xuesen helped China gain nuclear weapons and theorized Dengist cybernetics. Although a brilliant physicist, he made dangerous missteps as an advisor to power.
The Transformations of Science by Geoff Anders. Science originated in taking no one at their word, but today we’re told to “trust the science.” Can we balance these two impulses?
Science Needs Sovereigns by Samo Burja. Powerful individuals are the best allies to crazy new ideas. Science is no exception.
Palladium Podcast 81: Dylan Levi King on East Asian Ecotheology. Dylan Levi King joins Wolf Tivy to discuss his featured 07 article on North Korean environmentalist policies, Japanese whaling, and the ecotheology that undergirds them.
That’s all for now.