The global power struggle is becoming increasingly ideological. While US President Biden sees a conflict between democracies and autocracies, Beijing’s idea is thriving that China must protect its cultural values from a vulgar Western liberalism — of the economic or sexual kind. President Xi Jinping’s latest mantra is “Community Prosperity.” The trimming of extremely wealthy private entrepreneurs fits in with it, but also the hunt for actresses, tennis players and other internet stars with an overly brash lifestyle.
In this climate, interest in the discreet and brilliant ideologue behind Xi Jinping’s throne is growing. This Wang Huning is a fascinating character, recently featured by the podcast Sinica and in a profile in Palladium. As of 2017, as a member of the Politburo’s second Standing Committee, Wang has been one of China’s seven most powerful men, having never ruled a province, city or ministry. As a chief wordsmith, he is also responsible for internet censorship and cyber influencing.
Born in 1955, Wang made a career as an academic and intellectual. He also worked for both previous presidents: Jiang Zemin (1993-2003), who discovered him in Shanghai, and Hu Jintao (2003-2013). Just surviving for decades at the top of a faction-torn party shows political talent and instinct for power. Wang does not seek the limelight – he never speaks to foreigners either – but has the ear of the leader.
Also read this essay: World leader China? The country has no cultural power
Yet the councilor has now found his ideal emperor. Xi’s person and the geopolitical moment fit like a glove to the vision that Wang has been developing since the 1980s. Culture is the central concept.
While Marxism has traditionally been interested in the social “hardware” of economics and institutions, Wang argued in an important essay from 1988 that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should also not forget the “software” ie culture, values, behavior. Otherwise it could go wrong. The CCP merely criticized the core values of classical and modern China, without introducing any new core values. Society risked emptiness.
Decisive was an America trip. As an academic talent, Wang was allowed to travel, watch, speak, read in the US for six months. In early 1989, as a spectator at Bush senior’s inauguration, he admired the miracle of the peaceful transfer of power; Growing up himself during the Cultural Revolution, he had experienced different things. At the same time he was shocked by the excesses of individualization and capitalism; the drug addicts and homeless in Washington’s streets, the commercialization of every aspect of life. As a contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville – the traveler-intellectual who returned to Paris in 1835 Democracy in America delivered – Wang bundled his reflections on this tension America against America (1990). It has since become a cult book, a portrait of a society in decline that fetched $2,500 at auction early this year, in the days after Trump supporters stormed the White House.
Shortly after Wang’s return from the US in June 1989, the Party brutally crushed the student uprising in Tiananmen Square. In that context, Wang turned out to be the ‘neo-authoritarian’ thinker Beijing needed: liberalization had to be tamed thanks to a strong state. The question he wrestled with remains topical: how to combine economic modernization with the preservation of cultural values and social cohesion.
Under Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) there was a sober adage: “If you open the windows, flies and mosquitoes will also come in.” At the time, China was so poor and backward that economic opening to the outside world was necessary. The inconvenience of ‘cultural infiltration’ from the West took the lead into the bargain.
This consideration is over. The windows close. Economically things are in order. The Covid emergency makes it extra easy to ban foreign journalists and academics. At the same time, it is more than that. Xi and Wang are pursuing cultural security for China.
Or is it already too late? In his time, Tocqueville analyzed how individual equality inexorably affected all social relations, just as the power of money did. In China, the Party has brutally kept democracy out of the door, but brought in hyper-capitalism and consumerism. It will be quite a journey for the emperor (and the thinker behind his throne) to get those “flies and mosquitoes” out the window.
Luke of Middelaar is a political philosopher and historian.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 24, 2021