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October 7, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1653

Xi Jinping's Politburo – Part 1: Wang Huning (王沪宁)

October 7, 2022 | By Chris King*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1653

MEMRI will be publishing a series of reports about the seven individuals who comprise the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the 19th Central Committee (CC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These individuals are the most powerful people in China and are Chinese President Xi Jinping's closest advisors.


Wang Huning

The first installment in this series is about Wang Huning (王沪宁). Wang has been a member of the Politburo since the 2017 19th CPC National Congress. He is a renowned academic and is the CCP's top intellectual and ideologue. Wang is considered to have been the main architect of the CCP's political theory since the 1990s.[1]

About Wang Huning

Wang is the first intellectual to be on the Politburo's Standing Committee since Chen Boda, who was Mao Zedong's chief secretary. Sometimes referred to as Xi Jinping's "brain," Wang Hunin was instrumental in shaping Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents" theory, Hi Juntao's "Scientific Outlook on Development" theory, and Xi Jinping's "Socialist Thought for a New Era," "Chinese Dream," and "One Belt, One Road" theories. Since he is behind the political theories of these three consecutive CCP leaders, Wang has been referred to as the "Teacher of the Three Emperors" and as the "Kissinger of China."

Wang opposes political openness, and he has the unique ability to breathe new life into the CCP's ideological foundations by presenting old theories in fashionable scientific terms and by providing them with a "contemporary" or "modern" basis. This talent may be one of the factors that leading to his rise to intellectual prominence, and early in his career, Wang was viewed as an avant-garde intellectual with novel ideas – something that was appreciated in 1980s China, which was characterized by relative liberalism and ideological openness.

He believes that a centralized political model is preferable to a democratic and decentralized model, because it allows the government to more effectively allocate resources and promote economic growth. He also maintains that a centralized government can better prevent social unrest and division from becoming widespread during modernization and reforms, and that it enables authorities to more quickly react to sudden national developments. Moreover, he argues that iron-fisted leadership is necessary in order to advance China's modernization before it can consider becoming democratic.[2] He also holds that China needs to be run by a strong, centralized Party-State system, culturally unified and self-confident.

What Wang Huning has proposed, and is promoting in the name of Xi Jinping, is to graft the part of Chinese traditional culture and values that merges the Confucianism of Confucius and Mencius with Marxist Communism, in which no one truly believes anymore, in order to obtain a new source of spiritual power and a solution to prolong the life of the Communist Party.[3]

Academic Career

Wang Huning holds a master's degree in law from the Department of International Politics of Fudan University. He has served as Director and as Deputy Secretary-General of the Chinese Political Science Association, as the Dean of the Law School of Fudan University, as a professor in the Department of International Politics, and as a doctoral supervisor. Wang is very well-read in Western political science and social science works.

Already well known in China's academic circles in the 1980s, he was featured on the cover of the CCP's Fortnightly Chat magazine and other current affairs magazines.

The major books he has authored are Analysis of Comparative Politics (1987), Analysis of Contemporary Western Politics (1988), America Against America (1991 – his most famous work), Political Logic – The Principle of Marxist Politics (1994), Political Life (1995) and General Introduction to New Politics (1998, co-authored with mentor Wang Bangzuo and republished in 2006 and 2011).

In the 1980s, many of Wang's papers were published in professional journals such as Social Science Front, Foreign Politics of CASS, and CASS Journal of Political Science. His papers on political system reform were widely published in the pioneering theoretical periodicals and in newspapers such as Dushu, World Economic Herald, Wenhui Daily, Jiefang Daily, and Guangming Daily.

His most prominent papers and articles include:

  • Analysis of Political Leadership in the Process of Modernization
  • The Background and Prospect of China's Political System Reform
  • The Changing Structure of China's Political Culture
  • The Establishment of a New Political Outlook on Development
  • The Primary Stage of Socialism and the Reform of the Political System
  • On the Construction of Democratic Politics
  • Promoting the Internationalization of Government Functions
  • The Subjectivity of Democratization of Political Life
  • On Political Transparency
  • A Comparative Study of Contemporary American Democratic Republic System
  • A Comparison of the Organizational Structure of Contemporary Western Political Parties
  • An Analysis of Contemporary Political Science
  • Sovereignty

Scholars critical of Wang have criticized his "new" theories of being nothing more than mixtures of ideas from Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Machiavelli's The Prince, and the well-known political work Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government (a.k.a. History as a Mirror).

In 1988, Wang Huning visited the U.S., spending six months as a visiting scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Iowa and University of California, Berkeley. During his time in the U.S., he visited more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities, and returned to China in 1989.[4] His observations and research conclusions are a fundamental rejection of the American political system and values. At that time, he hoped to create a new "core value" for China, which was to combine Marxism and socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Chinese Legalist political thought, Western supreme ideas of state sovereignty and power, and Chinese nationalism, to resist the influence of Western liberalism. This can be seen in a book he wrote after returning home, titled America Against America.

In that book, Wang Huning argues that the America faces "unstoppable crises and undercurrents," and that the cell of American society is the individual – and that at the core of modern American liberalism lie radical, nihilistic individualism. At the same time, he states, everything is commoditized, corrupting society and leading to serious problems.

Finally, he says, nihilism is becoming the American way, which is a fatal impact on cultural development and the American spirit. He maintains that as a result of this development, the value system of the U.S. is declining, and the entire democratic system is also under great impact.

He agrees with the idea of the "end of the American spirit." "If the value system collapses," he asks in his book, "how can the social system survive?"

America Against America sold out in China during the turmoil after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, especially when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed Congress on January 6, 2021. At that time, some Chinese thought that the U.S. was in decline. Wang's book states the same thing – but 30 years previously.

Wang Huning's theory of American decline may be the ideological source of Xi Jinping's ongoing belief in the past two years that the idea that "the East is rising and the West is declining" is manifesting itself in the international power system.

Since entering politics, Wang has cut off almost all contact with former teachers, students, friends, and colleague from his days in academia.

Political Career

Wang's rise in politics began when his ideas found favor with Zeng Qinghong and Wu Bangguo, later to become members of the Politburo's Standing Committee and China's Vice President and Vice Premiere, respectively. At the time, Zeng and Wu were senior party officials in Shanghai, and were responsible for forming Wang's relationship with future Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who was at the time secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee.

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when Deng Xiaoping appointed Jiang Zemin to the post of General Secretary of the CCP's Central Committee, Wang Huning was brought to the attention of the highest echelon of the CCP, and was ultimately summoned to Beijing by Jiang Zemin in 1995. He became an advisor and writer to the highest echelon of the CCP, and sat in the Zhongnanhai, which is the CCP's headquarters, in Shanghai.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the strongman politics of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had begun falling out of favor, and the CCP needed new theoretical political concepts in order to preserve its stability and its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese public. Deng Xiaoping proposed that the leadership of the country be handed over to experts and professionals in order to facilitate modernization, and he proactively sought out individuals from nonpolitical backgrounds who would not be interested in political struggle.

Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping all hold degrees in science and engineering, and they rose in the ranks of the CCP during the technocratic era ushered in by Deng Xiaoping. However, as a result of the technocracy, much of the CCP leadership lacked comprehensive training in humanities, political science, economics, literature, philosophy, history, and other classic fields of study. Since Jiang Zemin's reign as the leader of the CCP, this role has been filled by Wang Huning, who is a bona-fide academic with a knack for transforming the leaders' ideas into grand visions and into cohesive and modern political theories. His unique talents also help him form ways of defending the legitimacy of the CCP's one-party rule.

Originally joining the CCP in 1984, Wang was a member of the 16th to 19th CCP Central Committees, a member of the Politburo of the 18th and 19th CCP Central Committees, and the Secretary of the 17th and 19th CCP Central Committees. From 2002 to 2020, he headed the Policy Research Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Currently, he is the top official in the party's Central Secretariat, and since 2014 he has served as head of the Reform Office of the CCP Central Committee.

What the Future Holds For Wang Huning

Some have speculated that at the CCP's 20th National Congress, to be held in October 2022, Wang Huning will be ousted from his position, since his usefulness to Xi Jinping will have run out after the revision of the party constitution. There is further speculation that he will be replaced by Huang Kunming, a close associate of Xi Jinping and the current Director of the Central Committee's Publicity Department.

However, it is unlikely that Wang will be replaced, particularly by Huang Kunming, who is Wang's direct subordinate and who is a less prolific academic than Wang. In addition, it is likely that Xi will need a veteran advisor like Wang to help him continue managing the CCP's ideological developments, since it is highly likely that he will win a third term as the CCP's leader.

*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.

 

[1] Wang Huning was born in Shanghai on October 6, 1955. His ancestral home is Laizhou City, Shandong Province. Confucius is also from there.

[2] In March 1988, an article by Wang Huning titled "Analysis of Political Leadership in the Process of Modernization" was published in Fudan University Journal.

[3]  Last year, in the last two notes I wrote for MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1646, A Packaged Past – Part III: Translated Excerpts From Chinese History Schoolbooks For The Seventh And Eighth Grades, July 26, 2022, I specifically talked about the reason and purpose of Xi Jinping's forced merging of Confucianism and some other traditional Chinese thoughts and values with Marxist theory: "Xi Jinping likes to talk about traditional Chinese culture, stressing what he calls cultural confidence, because the ethical principles of traditional Chinese culture are beneficial to his rule. Moreover, the promotion of Chinese traditional culture is conducive to shaping the Han Chinese into the main ethnic group of China and strengthening the concept of the Chinese nation. Xi Jinping's ambition is not just to emulate Mao Zedong, but to surpass him. Mao disparaged, suppressed, and denied traditional Chinese culture in general, but Xi Jinping is now trying to revive the so-called traditional Chinese ethical thought, which is characterized by rigid hierarchy and the worship of centralized power. Not only does he not want to oppose the part of Chinese traditional culture which is beneficial to his power, but he also wants to graft and utilize the thought of centralization and loyalty to the monarch in Chinese traditional culture to Marx and Lenin's communist ideology."

[4] A Fall 2018 newsletter published by the University of Michigan's Center for Chinese Studies further confirms that Wang Huning had frequent foreign contacts before entering politics in Beijing. (Lsa.umich.edu/content/dam/lrccs-assets/lrccs-documents/CCS%20News%20F18--Cover.pdf.) The newsletter notes that in June 1989, around the time of the CCP's brutal crackdown on Tiananmen Square's student pro-democracy movement, Wang Huning even exchanged three letters with Michel Oksenberg, a political science professor at the University of Michigan and then-director of the Center for Chinese Studies. Professor Oksenberg's July 1989 letter to Wang Huning was also published in this newsletter.

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