“Hidden Ruler” Wang Huning Steps Onstage

Of the five new arrivals on China’s top Politburo Standing Committee at last month’s , none has attracted as much recent scrutiny as . Wang was once the youngest professor in the history of Shanghai’s elite Fudan University, coaching its debate team and rising to head its international politics department and then law school before being recruited into government by . Reclusive and “almost obsessively low-profile,” he became a key ideological advisor, reportedly helping to forge the signature “banner terms” of Jiang, Hu, and Xi: the “,” “,” and the “.” Jane Perlez examined Wang’s past career and the implications of his promotion at The New York Times on Monday:

“People call him the brain behind three supreme leaders,” said Yun Sun, a China expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

As a young professor in Shanghai in the late 1980s, Mr. Wang won attention for advocating “neo-authoritarianism,” the idea that a nation as big and poor as China needed a firm hand to push through modernization before it could consider becoming a democracy.

As others argued that China could never modernize without becoming democratic — a view that later gave rise to the ill-fated student movement based in Tiananmen Square — Mr. Wang made the case in a 1988 article that an enlightened autocracy would be “highly effective in distributing social resources” in order to “promote rapid economic growth.”

“He believed in modernization and that China needed strong political leadership,” said Ren Xiao, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai and a former student of Mr. Wang. “That is still on his mind. It is his firm belief.”

In Mr. Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, Mr. Wang has found an ideological soul mate. Mr. Wang is believed to have helped craft Mr. Xi’s key slogans, including the one the party enshrined in its constitution last month, elevating Mr. Xi to the same status as Mao: “ Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics.” [Source]

News of Wang’s ascent to the Party’s top level reportedly spurred “frenzied” speculation on shares in Hangzhou’s Huning Elevator Parts Co, based on nothing more than the resemblance between their names.

Amid rumors of Wang’s elevation before the new Standing Committee was unveiled, Harvard’s Julian Gewirtz noted that “unlike so many Chinese officials, Wang has a huge paper trail in his own name of writings from the late 1980s and 1990s.” The Conference Board’s Jude Blanchette followed these tracks in a mid-October blog post:

Before his move to the capital, Wang Huning’s scholarly output was prolific. He was the author of at least a dozen books, and had published more than 50 academic articles. Since 1995, and his transition to Beijing, this number has dropped to near-zero, a casualty of the “black box” which renders Chinese politics a whirl of mystery and rumor to us outsiders. While we don’t know much about the debate taking place within the walls of Zhongnanhai, fortunately, we do have the paper trail left by Wang Huning before his journey to the capital.

[…] Wang’s writings of the 1980s were to form the foundation of what came to be known as “neo-authoritarianism” (新权威主义). The doctrine held that political stability provided the structure for economic development, and that considerations such as democracy and individual liberty were to come later, when the conditions were appropriate. As Wang wrote in a 1993 article entitled, “Political Requirements for the Socialist Market Economy,” (社会主义市场经济的政治要求) “The formation of democratic institutions requires the existence of specific historical, social, and cultural conditions. Until these conditions are mature, political power should be directed towards the development of these conditions.”

[…] After the June 4th crackdown and the purge of Zhao Ziyang, however, neo-authoritarianism needed a brand makeover. Its call for a “transition” to a more democratic form of political system (albeit vaguely outlined) was jettisoned, leaving only the call for strong and unchallenged leviathan in the form of the CCP. […]

The legacy of Wang’s neo-authoritarianism and its cousin, neo-conservatism, lives on today under the reign of Xi Jinping. Look at the first five years of Xi Jinping’s administration through the neo-authoritarian lens, and we see a consistent theme: clawing power back to Beijing. State-owned enterprises, which in many cases had become economic empires unto their own, have been pulled back into the Party’s embrace. Highflying private companies, such as Anbang and Fosun, now pay heed of Beijing’s commands. Cadres throughout the country now pay homage to the “core” of the Party’s Central Committee, Xi Jinping. [Source]

Wang’s paper trail does not appear to have led to a clear consensus on his political inclinations. On one hand, South China Morning Post’s Kinling Lo dubbed him a “liberal dream weaver” based on his early advocacy of adherence to the national constitution (a principle first embraced then abandoned by Xi during his first term) and of eventual democracy. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Scott Kennedy described this characterization as “unconvincing,” adding that “his writings and career path scream ‘conservative.’” On the other hand, both Perlez’s article and another by Quartz’s Zheping Huang cited comparisons between Wang and Donald Trump’s ideological muse Steve Bannon, which The Financial Times’ Wang Feng suggested was going “a little too far.” (Other American reference points include Karl Rove, Henry Kissinger, and John F. Kennedy advisor Theodore Sorensen.)

Whatever the overall justice of the comparison to Bannon, both have been seen as holding influence disproportionate to their formal rank. While Bannon was often sardonically referred to as “President” prior to his departure from the White House, a paper published in the Journal of Contemporary China in August argued that “it is possible to describe [Wang] as a ‘hidden ruler’, whose advice and counsel can have great influence on politics, just as influential as the foremost political leaders.” The article, according to Griffith University authors Haig Patapan and Yi Wang, is “the first comprehensive examination of the life and thought of Wang Huning.” Wang’s position, they concluded, is an ominous symptom of the recent state of Chinese politics and Party rule:

The possibility of a thinker as advisor and therefore hidden ruler not only reveals important aspects of Wang himself but also provides valuable insights into the unique circumstances of contemporary China that can accommodate such an office. It is only in unusual circumstances, especially in times of foundings, crises and transitions, that advisors can come to exercise such authority. That all three recent leaders have needed Wang’s counsel suggests there are profound questions confronting contemporary China that are not simply technical or bureaucratic. Wang’s contribution to ‘banners’ is simply the external manifestation of the tectonic struggles concerning the future direction China should take without jeopardizing its fundamental security and stability. In other words, the contests for legitimacy due to the ‘three belief crisis’ that have provided unprecedented political authority for thinkers are also incontrovertible evidence of the formidable constitutive questions and challenges facing the country. The very influence and authority of Wang Huning therefore coincides with the instability and precariousness of contemporary China, and a deep uncertainty of what is ‘China’s Dream’. [Source]

Excerpts from the paper later appeared in The Washington Post, illustrating Wang’s views on the United States, sovereignty, governance, and corruption:

Wang’s writing over the years is so strikingly parallel to the policies Xi has adopted that he is regarded by many as the brain behind the throne, the mandarin behind the emperor. What Wang has written offers huge clues to understanding where China is headed.

[…] There is no doubt that Xi Jinping is his own man, who has accumulated more power to pursue his goals than any leader since Mao Zedong. But, Wang’s writings that hew so closely to Xi’s policies offer the best insight we are likely to gain into how those within the hierarchy of China’s opaque leadership think. [Source]

Wang’s attitude towards the U.S. has been a particular focus of recent attention. Quartz’s Zheping Huang, for example, examined his written observations from travels there, including his criticisms of American democracy and suspicion of its private sector.

In 1988, Wang spent six months in the US as a visiting scholar, traveling over 30 cities and nearly 20 universities. Back from the trip, he wrote “America against America,” a 400-page Tocqueville-style personal memoir of his impressions of American life, from the economy to politics to society. The idea, Wang wrote, was to compare the real America he saw against the imagined America that many Chinese have gone to extremes to either admire or despise. More than two decades old, some of those observations might still resonate today.

In one chapter, Wang detailed his firsthand observations of the 1988 US presidential election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Some of his criticism of the way the American politics works as reflected by that election may still hold true today.

[…] Wang took a field trip to the headquarters of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, in an attempt to learn how influential American companies run. At that time, as Wang noted, Coca-Cola’s soft drink was sold in more than 150 countries, and the company hired an army of full-time and part-time employees across the globe.

He tried to explore the political implications behind that: while meeting their financial targets, he wrote, gigantic American corporations also subconsciously manage part of society—their employees—for the benefit of the government, he says. [Source]

Loyola Marmount’s Tom Plate wrote at South China Morning Post that for all his skepticism about the U.S., Wang could act as a “steadying hand […] to keep bilateral relations on an even keel”:

Is Wang anti-American? Yes and no. The titles of his books range from America against America and Analysis of Modern Western Politics, to Debate Contest in Lion City (Singapore he likes). He rates the American system less warmly now than in the past. A review of his utterances yields a Communist Confucian of both conviction and flexibility: “The political system must fit into and be accepted by a country’s history, culture and society … It cannot be too above the ground.” On political reform in China, he notes that it should “stay within the capability of the acceptance in society”. “At this time, centralised decision-making power and modernisation is more ‘politically efficient’ … This model has achieved stunning economic results,” he writes.

The party elite’s view of the US has never been simplistic, nor has it been effusively complimentary. On this scale, compared to other party intellectuals – especially Liu Mingfu – Wang is a middle-of-the-road critic of US foreign policy and society, perhaps midway between the hawkish Liu and the cosmopolitan Zheng Bijian, whose take on America was comparatively empathetic. For all this, the overall judgment is that the American political system is little more than a fascist structure. [Source]

A 2013 article by The Wall Street Journal’s Jeremy Page noted similar hopes that Wang would prove a moderating influence on foreign policy. Two acquaintances disagreed, however, with a former Fudan colleague describing his growing influence as “good news for China, but not very good news for other countries,” and another scholar describing the prospect of a Wang-influenced foreign policy as a “disaster.”

The Economist last week linked Wang’s promotion to the rise of the idea “that China’s global ambitions require a dose of anti-Americanism.”

Xinhua’s description of democracy’s self-destructive tendencies echoes that of a book published in 1991 called “America Against America” by a professor at Fudan University, Wang Huning. But there are three important differences between China’s interaction with America today and the way it was then. One is that Mr Wang has just been elevated to the party’s most powerful body, the , where he is likely to be in charge of propaganda (that is, projecting the party’s image at home and the country’s abroad). Having in such a position an America-sceptic who actually studied there is unprecedented.

Next, the government has started to export what it calls “the China model”. Deng Xiaoping once said China was not a model for anyone. At last month’s party gathering, Mr Xi talked about China “blazing a new trail for other developing countries” and offering “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving problems” (his “Belt and Road Initiative” offers lots of cash, too). Orville Schell of the Asia Society in New York says this seems to set up a clash not just of civilisations and values, but of political and economic systems.

Third, the anti-American strain now seems to run from the top of the Chinese state (Messrs Xi and Wang) to the bottom (Xinhua and internet trolls). That suggests such sentiment is gaining strength. Mr Xi may still prefer to exercise caution in his country’s rivalry with America. But he does not seem to have moderated his global ambitions because of Mr Trump. And it will take more than a dinner in the Forbidden City to wish those ambitions away. [Source]

Meanwhile, The Diplomat’s Charlotte Gao reported last week that Wang has emerged into the unfamiliar spotlight since his rise to the top:

November 8 marked the 18th Journalists’ Day in China. To celebrate Journalists’ Day as well as the 80th anniversary of the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), the 27th China Journalism Awards ceremony was held in Beijing with about 300 attendees. At the ceremony, China’s new czar, Wang Huning, took center stage in the Chinese media for the first time and made an unusual public speech. He urged all Chinese journalists to follow the lead of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “unswervingly.”

[… B]efore his elevation, Wang remained extremely reserved in public speeches and writing alike. The only track record of his personal ideas came from academic books and journals published in his early years, when he had not started his political career yet. In addition, although Wang had accompanied Xi on almost every domestic and international trip, he maintained a low profile by standing several steps away from Xi during photo ops.

[…] According to Xinhua, Wang said at the ceremony that all people working in news media should carefully study and understand Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (a concept that was added into the CCP’s Constitution at the 19th Party Congress, as The Diplomat reported), and to publicize the spirit of the 19th Party Congress clearly, comprehensibly, and to the point.

He further urged the ACJA to organize Chinese journalists to follow the Party “unswervingly.” [Source]