The Man Behind the Curtain, Wang Huning | Nathan Wilson
In recent months I began a major writing project that has come in the form of the Chinese civilisational state. This has sought to explain the problems within the Middle Kingdom and attempt to present a fuller understanding of these issues.
Consequently, during this project I have looked at demographics, culture, and other issues within the nation’s body politic. This has mostly been aimed at explaining the internal conditions for China’s new period of history. One thing, I have neglected to talk about has been its core leadership. Since 1949, Chinese political groups have been mirrored by their respective evolutions and schools of thoughts (call these for future reference ‘generations’).
However, there has been one man who has found himself having risen to the top, through his ideas rather than his own personal political aspirations. This man has been the invisible Wang Huning, who until several years ago, for many did not even exist.
Subsequently, I do not want to go deep into Chinese political theory and its influences into the present (it’s a lot, that is for the next section), instead I want to use the pre-existing Western frameworks to help explain the core ideas behind these matters. This will include ideas behind liberalism and neoconservatism, in contrast to Legalism and Confucianism.
Instead, I will separate the following work into three core sections, the man’s life, his worldview and where we are today because of this. This should help examine why this man matters and why his ideas will continue to shape China’s future.
As such, when we think of individuals who hold major sway of a nation’s history and destiny we often think of our Napoleon’s or Julius Caesar’s, we do not think of the men behind the curtains. One such man who has found himself as perhaps the most vital of all pieces within modern Chinese political thought is that of Wang Huning. To compare him to Kissinger or even a national mirror like Chen Boda, remain inadequate, instead I will use a word called ‘dishi’ or Emperor’s teacher (a term created by Kublai Khan). Instead, Wang should be thought of as being like Han Fei(zi), as this legalist combination of everything that came before to form this perfect philosophical guide to the Chinese state and its leadership.
His work is so unknown that much of his literature has yet to ever be fully translated outside of the original Mandarin. Subsequently, like with most things, it is important to start at the beginning for such a story.
Born into a wealthy Shandong family, and being secretly schooled in French, having been born in the mid 1950’s he managed to be shielded from the worst that Mao had to offer to China’s youth (something not shared with his co-workers within the CCP). His developed love for reading and academia pushed him to pursuing undergraduate studies in French, after which a young Wang applied to the prestigious Fudan University and was instantly accepted into doing a master’s course in International Relations. It was after this; he pursued the Confucian scholar lifestyle of keeping away from the internal political surroundings that existed during the start of the Deng generation. Such a generation inspired new thinking within the Middle Kingdom, in various now evident ways.
After his studies, he stayed on at Fudan, continuing to work in various capacities and even becoming the Dean of the university’s International Relations department. It was during the 1980’s he made a name for himself, through his many academic literature pieces. This is alongside winning an international debating competition against National Taiwan University in Singapore, were he successfully argued that human nature was naturally evil, where he made a name for himself (this will become obvious later, after June Fourth Incident in 1989), within academic circles.
Subsequently, during this time the young professor became a visiting scholar to the United States, for six months in 1988. This single six-month trip, it can be thought left a major impression on the young man, from believing in the United States as a model nation, to becoming its harshest critic. While there he visited over thirty cities and some twenty universities, acting as a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, some have described. During his travels, he saw what he would later describe as being America’s biggest internal contradictions.
It was this travel, which lead to the creation of which what he is now most famous for. This being his book ‘America against America’ (3A). It is this for many that lay bare his central worldview towards the US and how China should respond.
After his return, he continued working alongside his other activities, this was until the political situation within China had changed and the desire for a figure like Wang was needed. It was during the 90’s that Jiang after Deng begged for Wang to enter the CCP’s administration in an official capacity. After this time, he cut off all communication with his former colleagues and even stopped speaking to all foreigners, something very interesting as he was known for his ability to speak both French and English and that he goes on foreign dignitary trips with Xi and others. It remains noting that Wang’s ideas (explored later) fitted into the gaps of the CCP’s intellectual needs, becoming one of Jiang’s core supporters.
Jiang’s followers became known as the Shanghai Gang, as this was the location for many from where they gained political notice. However, many stayed on for the following administrations under Hu and Xi, with the remnants of the Shanghai Gang being ruthless purged under Xi, seeking to clampdown on ‘corruption’ within the party.
It was during this time that Wang became the head of the CCP’s ‘Central Policy Research Office’ (CPRO). The CPRO, can be thought of being like the US’s Department of State’s ‘Policy Planning Staff’, or an administrations internal think tank. It is the CPRO, that has been the core force behind Deng’s successors and their central policies. In addition to this, Wang became the head of the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization, this organisation, following Jiang and Hu’s core policy of being a harmonious society, in the Confucian sense. There he remained until the Xi administration in 2017 brought him into the fold and he joined the highest ranks of the Politburo.
He remains the only senior member of the seven-man politburo to have never held a political office (he was never a mayor or provincial leader), he also remains the only political theorist, with the rest being politicians with mostly engineering backgrounds.
Besides this, very little is truly known about him since the 90’s, his avowed silence and workaholism remain infamous within China’s political circles. Although one story that has never been confirmed reminds the stuff of legend, within China’s circles is that in 1996 he broke his silence to go to Harvard unannounced to knock on Samuel Huntington’s door. There he informed Professor Huntington of a few things. Firstly, in twenty-five years’ time the US will be at war with itself, even that there will be rioters in the Capital Building like during the June Fourth Incident. Secondly, that since Deng’s Generation, China has been waging economic war against the US and finally the Western World will collapse in 2027-30. Very bold claims, when speaking to a man who had just written ‘Clash of Civilisations’.
Yet very little has been fully attempted to understand the inner workings of this man and his rise to becoming Chinese highest public intellectual for the last twenty years. So, this begs the question, how did a man that came from nowhere end up becoming the key political theorist for China’s elites for the last twenty-five years. In addition to this, most importantly what does he believe?
The Arguments/ Worldview
For the following section, this will be broken down into the internal and external world for China and Wang (again, I am attempting to simplify very abstract and complex political thoughts, into a western framework that can be understood). For Wang firstly, both these world’s directly overlap, alongside the Confucian and legalist belief that authority to the state remains the highest virtue of the individual, directly clashing with the liberal idea of autonomy with the system.
In short, China believes that even before the end of the Cold War, the United States had been in decline (since the 60’s). This has been best of a level of unvetted liberalism within the ‘operation system’ of the West. This focus on ‘Green’ (think political compass quadrant) has meant that democracy has allowed the generation of too many structural contradictions amongst people for a coherent society to emerge. In addition to this, neoliberal capitalism has created a society with too many economic inconsistencies.
For Wang, all of this will eventually cause the West to collapse and cease to stay hegemonic. Perhaps most notable within this, is the line from 3A, that “While Western modern civilization can bring material prosperity, it doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement in character”. This emphasis on spiritual character within the nation, while criticising aspects of modernisation showed his links with individuals like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom (Bloom’s book ‘Closing of the American Mind’, is drawn heavily from by Wang and his beliefs).
During the 80’s Deng’s economic transformation had a massive effect on China socially and politically. Economic market reforms had widened the scope for democratic liberalisation within the system and demand for change (especially after the Mao years, nepotism by figures like Deng and Zhang Ziyang and wider political corruption). This became extensive after the start of the June Fourth Incident, which developed into an existential crisis for the Deng administration and resulted in major political crackdowns on protesters.
This is alongside the Soviet Union during the 80’s, as the USSR went through glasnost (opening to the world) and Perestroika (restructuring, of the political system and economics). The Chinese learnt from this, but they went through the later, while controlling the former (attempting to follow a Singaporean Model from Lee Kuan Yew).
This can be simplified that after the June Fourth Incident, China began looking for a new political theory of understanding itself and pushing the nation forward, that could not be wholly liberal and democratic. As such, a young and brilliant political theorist called Wang entered the frame, after catching the attention of Jiang in 1993 with his victory in debating in Singapore. There he argued that the modernisation of China, was leaving the nation in a directionless culture and without such things the nation will slowly maintain the worst aspects of ‘green culture’, (linking into Xi’s clampdown on celebrity culture, videogames, and effeminate men, some thirty years later). In addition to this as shown in Wang’s 3A in 1991, China sort to both learn and then curtail these issues, while making sure that the nation could never liberalise and allow the freedoms that exist in America. This in part links with the traditional Confucian values of order and fidelity towards the state, something liberalism would allow not to happen.
The best way to avoid these problems internally is through the adoption a neo authoritarian/ neo conservative (I prefer the former term) worldview that was adopted out of this period of Chinese political history. Wang is a follower of the neo authoritarian movement, that came out of the Deng years, alongside other influential contemporary scholars like Zheng Yongnian (who has a brilliant book about Chinese-Singaporean relations) and Xiao Gongqin.
For Wang in short, nations hold two separate operating systems, with the software being what hold states together, think culture and identity. While at the same time, a nations hardware are its institutions and material conditions. Wang believes both systems need to stay fluid in their ability to handle change and yet rigid, in the maintaining of traditional values to allow the nation to continue to grow. What this means is that internally the CCP needs to maintain its strong central grip on the country, while keeping its systems healthy from green culture and rapid liberalisation.
Since his inception into the highest echelons of the CCP’s administration, having served all of Deng successors. This is alongside survivors the increasingly dangerous world of CCP factional politics, Wang has made it his mission for all these ideas and beliefs to break into the mainstream within the politburo (something that Xi agrees with).
His handiwork remains on multiple pieces of recent political thought, from Jiang’s “Three Represents” policy, Hu’s “Harmonious Development of Economy” and “Scientific Development View”, and finally Xi’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (‘Xi Thought’).
So, how did this link into the US and the West by extension. Well, these problems in China are precisely what Wang first felt was being shown when he travelled the US in 1988. The inherent contradictions are producing a society that is ill and self-hating. The US, for Wang is a nation of structural contradictions, this has been squarely caused by neoliberalism and liberalism generally. Inequality for Wang is merely a colour on a rainbow of the issues within the operating systems. These inequalities can be understood on nearly every level structurally with the nation.
This mirrors the similar arguments put forward by Allan Bloom also during the 1980’s. For Wang during his travels in 1988, he describes seeing homeless shelters and the Crack Epidemic spreading throughout major American cities. This is notwithstanding the attitude of university students he interacted with while being a research scholar, something that has been a recurring trend amongst Chinese academics and students when studying abroad.
To witness the closing of the American Mind, for Allan Bloom was not just a physical and political thing within the West but showed a civilisational collapse in how the nation understood itself and the subsequent generations it was producing.
For China, liberalism is a disease that spreads between both operating systems, it produces the worst of both worlds and if not, constraint it will only reproduce itself in different ways abroad.
An unnamed Chinese academic I knew back in Hong Kong, once told me similar that neoliberalism and globalisation alienated people from their respective systems. What he meant by this, is that like Marxism arguing that capitalism has alienated the workers from their labour, as too has globalisation done the same but for individuals and their own cultural identities. This was something that neoliberalism had done, akin to what capitalism was claimed to have produced for workers. In addition, the idea of Western Universalism of values, is no different to being a form of cultural imperialism, instead of colonialism we now have Coca-Cola, Marlboro Cigarettes and Johnnie Walker Red Label (next time you are in a Third World country go to any small store, they will have all three I guarantee it). This is especially relevant regarding those that for Wang seek to promote a universal value onto all respective operating systems, both hard and soft alike.
This is regarding the global citizens of the world; it is these global citizens that China (especially Wang and Xi) truly hates the most (the word used for these people is ‘Baizuo’ (it means SJW in Mandarin)). All of this reflects how Wang within 3A has argued about America’s decline and the need for neo authoritarian Confucian body politic to be developed. As the American Right, want to reclaim a lost sense of Christian values and culture, as too the CCP want to maintain the traditional Confucian values. Think of this as a form of spiritual irredentism between both core civilisations, against green culture.
Where we are today
In the 1990’s there was a political nexus within Chinese thought towards what China needs to do to become hegemonic (I am going to be insanely brief as this is an entire book worth of information). Subsequently, the nexus found the perfect opportunity for China to operate and exploit the West for all its worth. This itself links into another book by two Chinese Army Colonels, called ‘Unrestricted Warfare’. In the book, they contend that dominate powers set the rules, while rising powers break them and China should be doing everything it can to subvert and damage the US and become hegemonic. They argue that the three biggest events that occurred during the 1990’s so far (book was published in 1999) was the Gulf War, Tokyo Subway Attack, and the Asian Financial Crisis. Firstly, the Gulf War showed that the ‘End of History’ period was a lie, and that conventional kinetic warfare still mattered. Secondly, the Tokyo Subway attack showed that CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) warfare matters. Thirdly, the Asian Financial Crisis showed that economic warfare and the effects on nations (there is an entire chapter about why China hates George Soros on this part because of this reason).
However, both Wang and Xi understand that although a lot has been done to curb these negative effects of liberalism, they have both accepted that widespread economic liberalisation has been good for China’s development. However, the need to curtail and control the green remains of utmost importance for the CCP and the neo authoritarians to function.
In conclusion, Wang Huning remains an enigma, from being a young man traveling across the US, to becoming the main dishi for the last three Chinese leaders. His ideas match and even expand upon the neoconservative ideas of the West, while adopting a more traditional neo authoritarian viewpoint. Only one thing remains to be said, what will he do in the future?
As such, this moves into the final sections of this China series. The following will look at China’s ideology since the 1970-80’s and a deep dive into the effects of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt on Chinese development, ultimately leading to China’s true structural failures and collapse. This will partly continue from Wang, into looking more deeply into the neo-authoritarians in China, and why Xi believes he will maintain the mandate of heaven.