Wang Huning and the Power of Chinese Culture


Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. He is an Associate of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House, London, an adjunct of the Australia New Zealand School of Government in Melbourne, and the co-editor of the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, run from the German Institute for Global Affairs in Hamburg. He is President-Elect of the Kent Archaeological Society and an Affiliate of the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at Cambridge University.

Wang Huning, member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo since 2017, has been labelled the ‘mastermind behind Xi Jinping’s power.’ There is speculation that his role may be enhanced even further at the imminent five yearly congress expected later this year. A figure spotted by former President Jiang Zemin while a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai in the 1990s, Wang was brought into the national leadership nexus in 1995 when he joined the Central Policy Research Office. This is a body at the heart of Party power in Beijing, and operates as a type of think tank and policy recommendation entity.

Wang used his position at the Office to exercise unique influence over the years. Ideas from that of Jiang’s `Three Represents,’ which allowed entrepreneurs to join the Communist Party in 2002, and Hu Jintao’s `Spiritual Civilisation’ in 2007, stressing the need for quality of economic growth over quantity, all bear the fingerprints of Wang’s influence. Even while Xi Jinping has been called a figure who exercises power unlike any of his immediate predecessors, Wang has, in fact, continued to increase his stature. Remarkably, he has shaped elite political discourse and the policies flowing from it in China for almost three decades. This should qualify his acknowledgement as amongst the most powerful figures of China’s modern era.

With a self-effacing and low-key personality, and barely any public persona, it is easy to see why Wang slips easily into the shadows as others take the limelight. During my stay in a hotel in Hainan a few years back, I remember gazing at a photo in the lobby celebrating a visit by former President Hu. Sitting beside him was a familiar face – that of Wang, looking slightly out of place amongst the serried ranks of hotel attendants and assistants all celebrating such a prominent visit. That seemed to sum up something about him – a person with the air of both being there, but also standing a little apart.

Wang’s insights during his tenure as an academic in the 1980s and 1990s had sufficiently potent political content to appeal to hardened leaders like Wu Bangguo, Jiang Zemin and those that then followed them. He is often attributed as the architect of neo-authoritarianism. But an inspection of his writings before he disappeared behind the silent wall of Beijing officialdom show something more complex.

Wang Huning’s Trip to America

At the heart of Wang’s thinking was concern about the issue of values and culture. Wang visited the United States in early 1989, briefly studying in Iowa (ironically the same US state where Xi Jinping, then a lowly Fujian official, had resided a few years earlier for a couple of weeks in 1985). His book from 1991, America Against America captures the ambiguous feelings many of those, newly able to travel abroad, felt when traveling from China to the US for the first time. Impressed and critical in equal measure, Wang was struck by the levels of homelessness in this so-called wealthy country, but also the constant talk of creativity and embrace of innovation. Americans, he found, could talk of creativity in the same breath as their cherished traditions, showing there was not always tension between them. As a sign of changing times, the four things about US life that impressed Wang during his visit, and which China did not have – universal use of credit cards, personal computers, high levels of personal car usage, and fixed phones in every house – are, of course, things that his country has now mostly acquired. In terms of smart phones and other technology, China has even exceeded the US. But Wang’s main fascination with this encounter was the commercialisation of everything – of housing, transport, labour, and even health. As he wrote, `people’s flesh and blood, knowledge, sex, politics, power, land, everything was the object of commercialisation’ in the US. This was something at the same time both deeply impressive, and quite terrifying.

In an essay published a little before his US visit (and expertly translated here): Wang spoke in detail about the role of culture in politics in China. Against the usual stereotype of the Chinese being concerned more with business and economics, Wang offers data for how much political engagement Chinese people show. They are, in fact, profoundly political. The issue, in Wang’s view, was that the political culture, at least as it has existed in the People’s Republic of China since 1949, is a complex one. Old traditions, rejected and attacked by Mao and the leaders around him (particularly in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 and the campaign to attack Confucius in the early 1970s), went alongside the importation of Marxist and socialist ideas. This had created confusion, where it was no longer clear what core values Chinese people or their politicians had.

The Party’s crisis of faith in the 1980s was exemplified by the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989, along with the huge disruption and disturbance this caused not just to social life but to the fundamental belief system of the elite. Divided in their response to the crisis and confronted only two years later by the collapse of communism with the disintegration of the USSR, the foundations of Chinese socialism were under threat. In response, the Party recommitted to solidifying its legitimacy by stressing performance in the economic realm and improvements in people’s material living standards, but Wang understood that this would never prove a long term solution. In his phrase, China’s political culture needed to be `re-engineered.’ His main achievement was to come up with the analytic tools to diagnose the problem, and then a means to try to address it – a redefinition of, and then commitment to, of China’s political values and a reconnection to the repository of traditional Chinese culture. Wang believed that these would differentiate Chinese political culture from that of the threatening and overconfident West. China, in essence, after decades of fighting against its pre-modern, feudal past, needed to make some kind of peace with it.

Wang proved to have a skill at pithily conveying complex ideas, something that probably attracted politicians hungry for new thinking to him, and articulating ones that might have a chance at successful implementation. Stating that China was moving from `an economy of production to one of consumption’ (a transition the country is still in the midst of today), he realised that this simple change carried profound social, cultural and, therefore, political implications. What, in fact, did Chinese society look like when people were no longer simply just trying to survive? Was a China with wealth levels like those of the West preordained to become a replica of it? Would China experience all of the issues and problems Wang witnessed in early 1989 and noted in his book? What was an authentic model of modernity for a country that also wanted to stay true to its history and traditional values despite espousing revolution and change?

Wang Huning and the Xi Jinping Era

Those that listened to Xi Jinping in his years in Zhejiang as a provincial senior were probably struck by the levels of moralising in his public utterances, and the ways he often sounded like a priest berating a misbehaving congregation rather than a politician celebrating the latest economic successes. Hu Jintao and his generation may have sounded like statisticians. But Xi sounded like a preacher, talking more about the many failures of Party officials to live clean lives, be true to their professed ideals, and actually behave like they cared about anything except themselves. Once in ultimate power, Xi was able to carry this one step further, undertaking an anti-corruption clampdown from 2013 which fulfilled his promise on the day he was made party leader in November 2012 of `closing the gap between the people and the party.’ Xi had his own reasons for taking this particular route. Even so, it is striking how Wang’s diagnostic from two decades before suddenly became so timely.

Inspired by Wang and his insistence on the principal importance of belief systems and the cultural roots they grow from, values associated with these key, have become a key issue since 2012. At the heart of this is the notion that socialism with Chinese characteristics is something that has grown out of an authentic and unique national tradition, and that this exists not just on the level of rhetoric but has to be believed. That means having an impact on people’s thinking, behaviour and lifestyle. . Under Xi, the 12 core socialist values were promoted, and Party officials were immersed in study campaigns that sought to cleanse them of not just their material, but political, intellectual and spiritual corruption. Wang had accepted in his 1988 essay that factors in political culture were complex, spreading across the differences between people, families, and their clan networks, then through institutions, and then through regions and differing identity formations. But he also identified a list of broad areas where there was social change which the Party needed to focus on and work with and which was bringing about a cultural transformation. The transition, as Wang saw it in 1988, was from politics to economics, from revolution to construction, from collective to individual, from focus on the goal to focus on the process, and from ideals to reality. The endpoint of this if it were simply left to happen would be a society where everything was about making money, caring just for yourself, and never having any ideals or goals.

Wang went even further. Political identities were strong in terms of having deeper faith in the country, but when one looked at how Chinese identified with specific leaders, the message went cold. People lacked political knowledge and had weak political sentiments. Although Wang sees Chinese people as intrinsically political, they are simultaneously exiles from politics. What they needed, according to Wang, was the form of politics that they could believe were their own, ones that spoke to their sense of being Chinese, modern, confident and outward facing. Cultural competence might have become an important idea in Western discourse. For Wang, and now for Xi, the core idea is cultural confidence. Chinese being able to say that they have a form of modernity and a set of values on which it is based grants indigenous power and authenticity.

Would Wang, Plato-like, feel he had in Xi schooled the perfect ruler for a China under this kind of cultural outlook? One that accepted the core importance of politics, but also the necessity to make sure this politician was engineered and calibrated for local conditions? It is unlikely history is so neat. Wang clearly read certain key issues in a way that, more by accident than design, keyed in with an idea that others who went on to become central political leaders did. Ironically, Wang now sits beside them. Xi is the most important of these – someone who had supported the categorical pushback against what has been labelled `western universalism’ since 2013, and constructed a hybrid, but so far effective, form of ideology that has enforced unity and obedience in the elite by convincing them they have to believe something, and that the Party is the only entity that offers China’s mission to be a great and powerful nation.

Attention to Wang, and his words from long ago, at least alerts us to the reality that the current leadership may have the figure of Xi sitting a top, attracting all of international attention, but that underneath, like a huge iceberg, lies the ideas that his chief ideologue has been mulling over for more than four decades. One of the great deficits in the modern era for China was a feeling of cultural backwardness, captured in the words of the great writer Lu Xun, and that to have a future, Chinese needed to desire to be something else. For Wang and Xi, this era of Chinese confidence is also the one where it can finally start to say that to be Chinese, to believe in Chinese values, to admire Chinese culture, is a source of strength. It is no longer the Chinese who are afflicted with self-doubt, poor confidence, and societal divisions, but the once confident Westerners. That may well be the most significant shift we see in the current era. If so, Wang was the principal architect who allowed this ideology approach to unfold.