Chinese Character

Serving the emperor

Wang Huning takes over as the Communist Party’s ideological chief


Moving centre stage: Wang has spent decades advising China’s leaders

Until last month Chen Boda was the only propaganda guru to make it into China’s leadership elite without experience of governing a municipality. One of the Chinese Communist Party’s best writers and theorists, Chen started out as Mao Zedong’s political secretary, before becoming a Standing Committee member of the Politburo in 1969.

Mao took Chen with him wherever he went. This included a visit to Moscow in 1949, where to Mao’s surprise Chen’s reputation had caught the attention of Joseph Stalin.

During a banquet, the Soviet leader raised a toast “To Comrade Chen Boda, the great Chinese historian and Chinese philosopher.” A fluent Russian speaker, Chen laughed and shared a few jokes with Stalin before the Chinese interpreters explained to Mao what was going on.

Despite his status as the leading framer of Mao Zedong Thought, Chen would pay a heavy price for stealing the limelight. In 1970 he was purged by Mao and one of his crimes was his “suspicious relationship” with the Soviet Union.

It is unimaginable that Wang Huning would make a similar mistake. During the 19th Party Congress last month, the ideologist was promoted to become one of the seven Standing Committee members of the ruling Politburo (see WiC385).

Similar to Chen, Wang has little experience of governing. Throughout his career he has worked as an academic or theoretician for the Party. But as a key staffer for three generations of Chinese leaders, Wang has had firsthand experience of high politics. Chinese media says he is often spotted doing the final proofreads of key speeches by the senior leaders, although he has yet to accept an interview with any of the state media agencies himself.

Wang was born in Shanghai in 1955 to a family from Shandong province. His parents weren’t associated with the higher echelons of the Party. But when Mao acknowledged towards the end of the Cultural Revolution that China needed to cultivate talent with a tertiary education, Wang was among the luckier youngsters to get into college (eligible students needed to have at least three years experience as farmers, factory workers or soldiers – indeed three of the seven current Standing Committee members belong to this college intake).

From 1972 to 1977, according to Xinhua, Wang took foreign language courses at Shanghai Normal University. The college specialised in training diplomats but Wang, who is said to speak excellent English and better French, opted against taking that career path and started a graduate programme in international politics at Fudan University instead.

Engaging in political debate back then was a dangerous undertaking. However, Wang found a safe haven in Shanghai, taking a job as a teacher at Fudan after graduation. He soon rose to become the dean of the department of international politics (and later the first dean of the law school).

More importantly, Wang was one of China’s first ‘political scientists’ active in the era of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. Since then he has conducted voluminous studies on China’s political system and the challenges poised by economic reforms. Another key focus of his work was to construct an intellectual justification that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” wasn’t capitalism under another name. Plus Wang and another Fudan scholar were the masterminds behind the “one country, two systems” concept, the flexible doctrine that allowed Hong Kong, a former British colony, to maintain its capitalist system after returning to Chinese rule in 1997 (their template was initially designed for reunification with Taiwan).

This background marks Wang out as different to his predecessor Liu Yunshan, who served the majority of his career in the state media or the government departments that oversee it, including a five-year stint as director of the Central Propaganda Department, before joining the Standing Committee.

Wang has spent more of his time on committees at think tanks and writing books. According to a 2005 article from Chinese newspaper CBN, he leaves two main impressions upon those meeting him for the first time. First, he has a deep understanding of the histories and political economies of both China and the West; and second, he is a bookworm of the highest rank.

Citing the recollections of his students at Fudan, the newspaper said that Wang’s name appears on the borrowing cards of virtually every book in the library. Another anecdote from his Fudan days has it that his former wife once sent him out to buy dinner, only for Wang to return two hours later with nothing to eat and a stack of purchases from a local bookstore.

Wang’s skillset didn’t go unnoticed by senior politicians, however, especially those from Shanghai. When officials from the so-called “Shanghai faction” (such as former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his key ally Zeng Qinghong) secured senior office they brought Wang to Beijing as a key adviser, and in 1995 he was appointed as a division head at the Policy Research Office of the Party’s Central Committee.

This marked the beginning of his stellar rise. In 2007 he was promoted to the Central Committee Secretariat’s staff. In 2012, he became a member of the Central Committee’s Politburo and at the Party Congress last month, he was anointed as the Party’s fifth-ranked official on the seven-man Standing Committee.

For two thousand years under China’s Confucian system, imperial examinations were used to recruit outstanding candidates for the Middle Kingdom’s bureaucracy. The highest pursuit for scholars was to become a guoshi, or advisor to the emperor. Chinese media has been calling Wang “the guoshi for three dynasties”. His career path has seen him working closely with three of the Party’s general secretaries (and national presidents). And a key aspect of his job has been moulding their ideological tropes: from Jiang’s “Three Represents” to Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” to his latest: “Xi Jinping Thought” (see WiC385).

Western jargon would describe Wang as more of a spin doctor, or political strategist, and he is now tasked with the challenge of helping Xi Jinping’s government to connect with the Chinese public and the outside world. (The Wall Street Journal describes him as “Karl Rove and Kissinger rolled into one”.)

Wang and the think tanks he leads have already been credited with formulating Xi’s promise of a “China Dream” (see WiC192), as well the Chinese leader’s signature foreign policy: the Belt and Road Initiative.

Helpfully Wang’s intellectual history is documented in various books and publications, giving a clearer picture of his views than most of his colleagues in the Politburo. Analysts are already looking for clues on how he might influence policy. What’s clear is that he is an advocate of “neo-authoritarianism”: that political stability is fundamental for economic development, and that greater democracy and individual rights should come only when the time is appropriate.

Like Xi, Wang has also been described as a centraliser, and as being unconvinced by the kind of collective leadership style introduced after Mao’s death.

In the 1980s, he spent time as a visiting scholar at colleges in the US, although the experience “did not entirely inspire him,” the Economist has suggested.

In his book America Against America, published in 1991, Wang warned that Washington’s political system is actually under the “undemocratic” control of “special interests” and that the same political model wouldn’t mesh with China’s history and culture.

“At this time, centralised decision-making power and modernisation is more ‘politically efficient’… This model has achieved stunning economic results,” he wrote of China’s governance style.

He also downplayed the notion that democracy allows anyone to be elected as American president, pointing out that voters can only pick one of the two candidates nominated by Democrats and Republicans. “Generally speaking, every eligible citizen has the chance to become president. Figuratively speaking, only around 40 people had the luck in two hundred years since the founding [of the US],” he wrote. “Other people can have their presidential dreams, but that’s it.”

Other works of Wang’s include Life of Politics, a compilation of diary-style articles in which he expresses more of his personal reflections. Older copies of the book, which was published in 1995, sold for about Rmb8 before last month’s Congress. Now they are being hawked in second-hand bookstores for more than Rmb3,000 ($452) each.

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