Hello everyone. Welcome to Zooming In China Tea Time. I’m Simone Gao. I am suffering from allergies on my face so I will not appear on camera this time. Sorry about that.
Dubbed “almost certainly the most dangerous man in the world that most folks have never heard of” by Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt, Wang Huning is emerging as a source of intrigue for academic and political leaders trying to understand the rapidly changing tides of Chinese politics. A man notorious for his comfort in the shadows of Chinese presidents who seeks no political limelight for himself, Wang is reported to have carried tremendous influence over the last three leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and to be the central figure behind Xi Jinping’s major policy reforms.
According to an October 2021 article in Palladium, written by a China expert using the pseudonym N.S. Lyons, the “sudden wave of new government policies that are currently upending Chinese life in what state media has characterized as a ‘profound transformation of the country,” policies that are commonly referred to as Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign, are the brainchild of Wang Huning.
Recently, I read Wang Huning’s popular memoir America Against America, written after a 6 month stay in the United States. I have to say his knowledge of Western political philosophy, American history, and American politics went well beyond my expectations, leaving me with the impression that he is a diligent, rigorous and qualified scholar. Despite that theoretical rigor used in his memoir, however, I don’t think he understands the essence of the American order. Does that matter? Yes it does. Wang is now charged with charting a way forward for the world’s second most powerful nation. In that role, he has chosen to view the U.S. as a negative lesson, an example of what not to do when defining China’s path. He is also choosing to define and build China’s strengths in opposition to America’s perceived weaknesses.
With China’s economic size and ambition, any political or economic move it makes will have an impact on the world. We have only to think about the impact that Nazism had on the world to understand that ideas have consequences.
Yet for all Wang’s clear persuasive power with the presidents he has served under, I do not believe he yields as much power as author N.S. Lyons claims. Lyons claims that Xi Jinping’s strength is sufficient to tolerate very smart people around him and that Wang, as the brightest of the bunch, survived into Xi’s regime because of it.
I believe this judgment to be wrong. I don’t believe that Xi Jinping is strong enough to tolerate dissent and highly intelligent people. Instead, he is faction-minded. He trusts and uses only those people from where his old posts were in Zhejiang and Fu Jian province which caused a grave alienation of the rest of the CCP bureaucracy. Wang Huning did not survive into the Xi Jinping regime because of Xi Jinping’s broadmindedness. He survived because of his political cunning, a cunning that has allowed him to gain the trust of three generations of Chinese leaders, especially with Xi Jinping who only trusts his own people.
In Lyons’ reading of the book “America against America”, he found that Wang “marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, [Wang] concludes that America faces an ‘unstoppable undercurrent of crisis’ produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity. In the end, [Wang believes that] ‘the American economic system has created human loneliness’ as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality.”
Obviously the American trip had an impact on his views on liberal democracy; that change conveniently fits with the Chinese political shift right after the 1989 democratic movement. After the Tiananmen massacre, the CCP started to crack down on Western liberal thought, believing that was the cause of the democratic movement. A few years later, though, China’s then de facto leader Deng Xiaoping directed the country to open up and began the economic reform. There was no indication, however, that Wang Huning went along with Deng Xiaoping’s vision.
That said, I believe Wang’s different policy prescriptions for three Chinese leaders speaks more to a desire to serve the current regime and ruler than to individual ideological shifts on the part of Wang. To survive through three Chinese leaders, Wang needed to tailor his ideas of governance toward not only the needs of the Communist Party as a whole but also the unique preferences of each leader. The political and social shifts now being attributed to Wang may not be fully his own but rather represent adaptations made to pacify each new leader.
But whether the political ideologies are Wang’s own or are adaptations to the thinking of his employers, it remains true that this key advisor to three generations of CCP leaders holds great influence over China’s future directions and, as such, is worthy of study.
Much of the ideology that Wang Huning consistently holds is centered on the idea that value systems shape a country’s political system and when the central values of a nation crumble, the nation itself will follow. In one of his most cited works, his 1988 article “China’s Changing Political Culture,” Wang argues for an urgent review of how Chinese society’s “’software (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its ‘hardware’ (economics, systems, institutions).”
Wang argued that “Since 1949, we have criticized the core values of the classical and modern structures but have not paid enough attention to shaping our own core values.” He went on to say that “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” making a daring negative claim about China’s socialism with Chinese characteristics.
In America Against America, Wang turns that critical eye toward the political ideologies and practices of the United States. He quotes extensively from American conservative political philosopher Alan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom advocated for the promotion of Western cultural traditions and civilizations, praising the cultural and spiritual creations of Plato, Socrates, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Shakespeare, Bacon and others. He believed in the use of these heritages to spread the Western civilization and cultural spirit.
Wang, however, believed that America was trending toward a deviation from those Western cultural traditions and toward nihilism. He argued that nihilism as the new American way would have a fatal impact on the American spirit and would eventually impact the entire democratic system.
I believe that Wang Huning’s insight into this U.S. ideological trend was both profound and rare in 1988. Wang’s background as a successful professor and political philosopher combined with his rare opportunity to observe the U.S. first-hand at some of its elite educational institutions gave him the ability to see broadly and deeply. In doing so, he hit the nail on the head: America was built on an idea, one so central to its fabric and identity that if that idea disappears, the social system and national identity disappear along with it. Impressive, right?
He got the basic trend right. His understanding of why, however, reveals his limitations.
Wang Huning quoted a substantial portion of Bloom’s argument in his book, but he left out a key argument of the author. Bloom believed that American nihilism developed from the relativity of values instilled in college education at the time. The theory of value relativity says that there is no objective standard of right or wrong in this world. All good and bad, right and wrong are relative and subjective. One culture may have one set of criteria for knowing what is right or wrong, while another culture has different criteria. Because there is no objective standard, any value could be accepted. Which philosophical school or ideology holds the view of value relativism? Marxism. It stands in opposition to the philosophical thinking of the Eastern and Western traditions. Judeo-Christianity, Greco-Roman culture, and Eastern philosophies such as Buddhusim, Taoism and Confucianism all believe that there is an objective and eternal moral order in this world, and its standards come from God or heaven.
Why didn’t Wang Huning mention the theory of value relativity? Because his academic foundation is Marxism. While he affirms Bloom’s argument that America is moving toward nihilism, he cannot accept the argument that the move toward nihilism is because of value relativity and the loss of faith in God.
This has a profound impact on his research and perspective on the United States. I believe that his core idea, that the value system shapes the political system, is correct. Yet, Wang Huning did not explain why the quality and origin of such a value system matters. That is a direct effect of his intrinsic belief in the relativity of value, the lack of an objective and eternal right or wrong. He believes that any value system that could be applied to his society and bring economic prosperity and strength to the country is a good value system. He further believes that China can create a more efficient and effective value system than the United States.
This idea is very dangerous. It may lead China once again to the old path of so-called social and human nature transformation that has happened both inside and outside of China. The Cultural Revolution is a perfect example. It meant to better the human nature of the bourgeoisie and intellectuals by eliminating the traditional Chinese culture they were immersed in and sending these people to the countryside, forcing them to do hard labor so that they can shape the proletarian consciousness.
From the perspective of conservative thinking, Wang Huning’s theory of a value system that excludes moral judgment fails to grasp the essence of the American order. He does not understand what makes America great; He also does not understand what would make America decline. Therefore, his remedy for China that was meant to avoid America’s mistakes is destined to fail.
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