Media & Gaming

Wang’s long view

A 30 year-old book forecasts American decline


Wang: an uncanny prediction?

A month after it was announced that Wang Huning would become one of the seven most senior officials in the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2017, we reported how his out-of-print books were selling at sky-high prices as collectors’ items (see WiC387).

The cost of getting one of Wang’s works moved higher this month, with America against America, written 30 years ago, getting praise as a forewarning of the civil strife disfiguring US towns and cities.

After protesters stormed Capitol Hill in Washington at the start of January, photos on Chinese social media highlighted how a copy of the 1991 publication was on sale on a Chinese rare books marketplace for Rmb18,000 ($2,750).

Of course, it wouldn’t command such a premium price if its author didn’t have the job of China’s chief ideologue. Wang’s ranking in the Politburo Standing Committee makes him China’s fifth-most senior leader too.

WiC managed to get hold of a copy of the book a few years ago. As the title suggests, much of Wang’s focus is on the contradictory aspects of American society. As a figurative example, he mentions ‘People’s Park’ in Berkeley California, which he describes as filled with homeless people, living in miserable conditions. In more conceptual examples he queries how American can be truly democratic when economic decisionmaking power is so concentrated in privately-controlled businesses.

Another of his main arguments is that the American emphasis on “individualism, hedonism and democracy” would result in internal divisions, sapping the country’s competitiveness over the longer run.

This is the theme that the Chinese media is highlighting today.

However, the book could just as well have been titled The Journey of a Socialist Theorist in America as it documents Wang’s experiences during a six-month visit to the US in 1988, when he was a political science scholar at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Academic exchange programmes like these are rarer these days (an MIT professor was arrested this week on allegations of hiding his connections with the Chinese government). But back in the late 1980s – when the US authorities had not reached the stage of seeing China as a strategic rival – Wang toured more than 30 American cities, “meeting and discussing matters with different people everyday”.

Wherever he went – from Capitol Hill to the wood-panelled office in Atlanta of Coca-Cola’s boss – he asked himself the question of how a 200 year-old nation had become a superpower so quickly and kept that status for a prolonged period.

For many Chinese scholars it was the counter thesis to that of why their own country, an ancient civilisation, had shed so many of its former glories and suffered the humiliation of long periods of foreign occupation of its major coastal cities in the nineteenth century.

Wang needed to touch on a few more sensitive issues in his treatise, including how a socialist China might learn from the efficiencies of American capitalism. But he was careful to avoid direct conclusions on which of the two systems was superior. Instead, he tried to convince readers that the “real US” was very different from “the US imagined by the Chinese”. In particular he argued against two very different outlooks the Chinese had harboured of the US. In the first, under Mao, America was portrayed as an imperialist ‘demon’. But as China changed in the post-1978 reform era, that image was transformed. Suddenly the US was a place that millions of Chinese admired unreservedly for its wealth and opportunity.

With China about to enter another period of political turmoil at the end of the 1980s, publication of America against America was delayed to 1991. But three decades later, Wang is now being loudly lauded for his predictions of the social, cultural and political rifts that have deepened under the Trump administration.

Timing-wise, the praise is hardly accidental, of course. It coincides with an academic zeitgeist in which a new generation of political scientists at universities across China are busy publishing critiques of the American system and its flaws. 

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