Wang Huning’s career speaks volumes about political changes in China

IYEAR before the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Chinese campuses were buzzing with debates about how to make the country more liberal. For some intellectuals, the West offered a model. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had shown how one could begin. Amid all this excitement, in August 1988, a bespectacled political scientist arrived in America for six months of study, initially at the University of Iowa. He found much to criticize but also much to admire in America: its universities, its innovation, and the smooth transfer of power from one president to another. Capitalism, the 32-year-old party member wrote, “cannot be underestimated”.

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This scholar, Wang Huning, is now one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s top governing body. As head of ideology and propaganda, he is tasked with crafting a very different message: that China practices real democracy, America’s is a sham, and American power is fading. For a party locked in a growing ideological war with America, this line is not surprising. Mr. Wang’s role in the struggle is more so. His early writings did not suggest narrow nationalism. He saw weaknesses in the American system, but did not exaggerate them. He also saw problems in China. More remarkably, he crafted the party’s message under three successive leaders. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has trusted him in this vital role even though he is not a former associate. A state-linked newspaper called him the party’s “number one adviser”.

It’s a shadow post. His occasional speeches give little clue as to what he is doing behind the scenes. Before Xi stopped traveling abroad two years ago at the start of the pandemic, Wang often accompanied him on overseas trips, suggesting he was also involved in diplomacy . Party-linked media in Hong Kong gave more. They credit Mr. Wang with shaping the defining policies of every leader for more than two decades, from the “Three Representatives” to Jiang Zemin (who lifted taboos surrounding the admission of private entrepreneurs into the party) to Hu Jintao’s “scientific perspective on development”. (aiming for a greener and fairer approach) and Mr. Xi’s “Chinese dream” of a rich, militarily strong and globally powerful China.

This may have required delicate political work. As a member of Mr. Xi’s inner circle, Mr. Wang should have distanced himself from Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang, whose allies have been among the targets of Mr. Xi’s purges. It was Mr. Jiang who brought Mr. Wang from Fudan University in Shanghai, where he was teaching, to the party headquarters in Beijing in 1995. Being an academic and not a politician may have helped Mr. Wang to rise above the internal party battles. All factions appreciated his skills as a theorist and his willingness to use them flexibly.

It is impossible to know what Mr. Wang really thinks of the policies he adopts. How did he react when in 2018, the year after Mr. Wang was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, Mr. Xi changed the rules to make it easier for the Chinese leader to stay in power indefinitely? ? In his book about his American stay, “America against America”, which was published in 1991, Mr. Wang noted that if a political system failed to find a way to transfer power, it would be difficult for this country “to enjoy a lasting and stable situation”. political order”. The book is often described as a bleak survey of America’s outlook (‘collectivist’ Japan challenging its supremacy). Still, his stability clearly impressed him.

But assuming that Mr. Wang believes in the propaganda he is currently promoting, his intellectual background is not that different from that of many others of his generation. In the 1980s, he symbolized those who believed in “neo-authoritarianism”, that is to say that strong leadership was needed to manage a gradual and orderly change, over a long period, towards a more liberal (few openly suggested an eventual end to one-party rule).

Much has changed at the end of this decade and beyond. First, the pro-democracy unrest of 1989 all but ended the party’s discussions of political reform. Then came the collapse of communist regimes elsewhere. Little of what emerged appealed to Chinese liberals. The country’s economic boom in the 1990s increased the appeal of a strong party that could maintain the country’s stability. “Keep writing articles on political reform,” Wang wrote in his diary in 1994 while still an academic (it was published the following year). “Suggest workable methods to deal with the current situation…but if you want to change quickly, you won’t.”

The diary, titled “A Political Life,” covers just one year but offers fascinating details about Mr. Wang’s non-academic interests at the time. He liked to watch foreign films, often late at night (many entries begin “Au petit matin…”). “Alien”, a sci-fi horror film, was one. Such films were popular in the West, he noted. “I don’t know if it has something to do with their mentality or a social reason.”

Like many people in the 1990s, Mr. Wang also seemed intrigued by the claims of mystics to have supernatural powers. He described meeting someone who showed off their skills, appearing to bend a fork and spoon with just a touch, and squeeze pills out of a bottle without opening it. “It was truly a miracle,” Mr. Wang wrote. “We could only believe. In 1999, the government launched a fierce campaign against Falun Gong, a mystical group led by a so-called miracle worker. These days, no official would even hint at a belief in magic.

Mr. Wang would probably have little time for such distractions now, anyway. At the end of this year, the party will hold a five-year congress, at which it is likely to clarify that Mr. Xi will effectively remain the leader of the party, although he has served for the planned maximum ten years. Mr. Wang should already be busy preparing the report that Mr. Xi will present.

He has a long experience of this work. When he was an academic, he was asked in 1987 to submit suggestions for the report presented to that year’s congress, according to Ming Xia, a former colleague who now teaches at the City University of New York. In terms of politics, this 1987 document was the most pro-reform of the communist era, calling for the separation of party and government. But Mr. Wang avoided entanglement with the party’s reformist faction in Beijing and remained silent during the 1989 uprising, says Mr. Xia (who was less cautious). He did, however, facilitate Mr. Xia’s departure for America after the bloody crackdown on the protests.

What will happen to Mr. Wang after the congress is far from clear. He is young enough, at 66, to stay on the Politburo Standing Committee for another five years. But new ideologues are emerging, says Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution. One is Jiang Jinquan, who succeeded Mr. Wang in 2020 as head of the party’s Policy Research Center, a powerful think tank. Mr. Jiang could get a seat in the Politburo after the congress, Mr. Li believes.

Maybe Mr. Wang is ready to move. “When a person has been working for a long time… his thinking will gradually become fixed and he will lack open-mindedness,” he wrote in his 1994 diary. Mr. Wang’s propaganda suggests that fixed thinking is a problem that permeates the system.

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