Focus topics

Wang Huning: servant of three masters

By Johnny Erling

It’s always the same protocol ritual, celebrated annually on March 5. This Friday, China’s Premier Li Keqiang will open the mammoth meeting of the National People’s Congress with his accountability report and the key data for the new five-year plan and this time also for a 15-year plan. Thousands of delegates are already waiting in the Great Hall of the People when China’s seven most powerful men march up shortly before nine o’clock. Head of state Xi Jinping leads his Politburo Standing Committee at a distance of barely two meters. He lets himself be called “the core” (核心) because everything has to revolve around him. Premier Li, number 2, sits to his left in the front row of the presidium. The rest of the seven take turns sitting to the left and right of the core.

Chief consultant and speechwriter since 1995

Only Xi and Li are known abroad. But it is worth taking a closer look at number 5. The 65-year-old Wang Huning is an exception among the technocrats and apparatchiks of the domestic leadership. He is the only intellectual without government experience. He has served Xi as chief adviser and speechwriter since 2012. Wang has been so since 1995, first for party leader Jiang Zemin and then for Hu Jintao (2002 to 2012). He rose in the service of three rulers, preparing their theories for them, which they passed off as their ultimate advancement of Marxism. Jiang promulgated the guidelines for modernizing the party as the “Triple Representation”, Hu his “Scientific Development” for a harmonious society. Xi shines with”China’s Dream to Revive the Nation.”

A graying party official once revealed to me in Beijing, “Wang’s handwriting is hidden in all these teachings.” That worked because everyone was aiming to make China the dominant socialist world power while safeguarding one-party rule. That had also been Wang’s dream since he became the youngest professor of political science at Shanghai’s Fudan University in 1985 at the age of 30.

It is not the only reason Wang survived politically behind the bamboo curtain of power under three party leaders and climbed the ladder, from CC secretary to Politburo and Standing Committee member. More importantly, the boyish-looking, slender academic type mastered the art of denying himself. Although he always sat next to his respective president at many dozens of international meetings, he did not attract attention for many years. Interest in him awoke only when the New York Times described Wang as a behind-the-scenes “spin doctor” or the Wall Street Journal discovered in him the “classic type of Confucian civil servant scholar” who “devoted his life to the emperor”.

His books cause a sensation

China experts in the US lament how little they know about China’s leadership today. Since Wikileaks revealed what high-ranking Chinese once told US diplomats, nothing is getting through from China’s top elite.

Wang is also loyal, does not deviate even one iota from a stereotypical party Chinese in official speeches. He gives no interviews. Yet, he could talk like no one else. As dean of international politics at Fudan, he coached his students in British oratory and won first prize with them twice at the Asian Universities Debating Competition in Singapore in 1988 and 1993. Before 1995, he wrote more than a dozen books that made a splash, and China’s leaders brought him to Beijing in 1995 to join the CC’s Political Research Staff. From 2002 to 2020, he served as director of the most important advisory body for the highest party elite.

Wang Huning’s political diary “A Political Life” published in 1995, in which he anticipated many developments that are part of Xi Jinping’s ideology. Today it is offered at antiquarians for 800 to 1000 yuan – more than 100 times the original price.

The enormously well-read Wang, who once studied French for five years, published the book “A Political Life” in January 1995 with hundreds of his diary entries from January to December 1994. He recommended reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution, “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” because of its current relevance for China. Eighteen years later, the Politburo prescribes the book as required reading for all Party members to answer the question: “Why is it that it is precisely in times of reform when a regime sets out to correct aberrations, that the most dangerous mixes for its survival occur?” Wang was also the first to deal with US political scientist Joseph Nye and his theory of “soft power”, thinking about the “dream” of letting China become strong. He also devoted himself to Deng Xiaoping’s statement that state sovereignty (guoquan) must take precedence over the protection of human rights (renquan), an issue that Xi Jinping has made the absolute maxim of his policy.

China’s love-hate relationship with the USA

Wang’s out-of-print books are cult. His 1991 “USA Fights USA” (美国反对美国) was offered for sale by China’s online antiquarian for 16,666 yuan, 3.000 times its former retail price after Wang wrote it as a visiting scholar at Iowa and Berkeley universities after spending six months in the US in 1988. “I visited more than 30 cities and 20 universities,” Wang said. He found a nation torn apart and full of contradictions, but at the same time achieving great things. He said he wanted to explain the phenomenon of why China lagged behind with many thousands of years of history, while the US became a world power after only 200 years. He neither demonized nor idealized the USA but described its contradictions. China’s leadership today looks at the US with just as much love-hate.

After 1986, many critically posed questions made Wang an advocate of the New Authoritarianism school (新权威主义). Socialist states, he argued, were caught between their former centralization of power and the demand for political reform and democracy. To avoid descending into instability, they would need an authoritarian system of order and rule for the transition. Wang envisions an “enlightened autocracy” that allows for a “highly effective distribution of social resources” and “rapid economic growth”. His boss Xi probably sees this in a similar light, but not the goal Wang once set himself of achieving more democracy. It was only a small step from the New Authoritarianism to the walling-in police state dictatorship. I wonder what Wang is thinking about that today.


    The state legacy of China’s success
    Jiang’s legacy looks much better in comparison
    Standing up to the iron fist of the party
    Fake marriages in the LGBT community