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Wang Huning: Philosopher with Chinese Characteristics?

Wang Huning. Photo courtesy Cary Huang at South China Morning Post.

As predicted, China’s 19th National Party Congress kicked off with a laboriously long (3.5 hours, to be exact) speech by President Xi Jinping. It was a speech that touched on virtually every aspect of Chinese society, from foreign policy and the environment to culture and the importance of ‘socialism in the new era.’ Various analysts are already busy parsing the meaning from what was, in all seriousness, an unexciting opening ceremony. This is an aspect of studying China, which has a strange style of political rhetoric that tries to bend administrative doctrine into vaguely Confucian-style phrases that are easy to repeat (The ‘Chinese Dream,’ the ‘Three Represents,’ ‘Find Truth from Facts,’ to name just a few). However, analysts should probably shelve that temptation for now. Much of the most interesting parts of Xi’s speech didn’t come from its content, but from the events happening on the sidelines.

A lot of the rhetoric heard at the National Congress is contradictory, and thus wasting time analyzing it just grants its rhetors the appearance of stately intellectualism they want. It might be fun to talk about what Xi means by a new era of socialism, but a little intuition tells me it’s going to be more of the same: talking about a philosophy, but never implementing it. After all, he also talked about new free trade ports and the importance of foreign direct investment. Rather than pin down ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ as many analysts are, why not spend more time writing and reading about why Xi Jinping Thought is being pushed in such a way? What is its importance?

Xi Family Values

It’s not a secret that the Chinese Communist Party presents its political philosophy and style of government as an open alternative to ‘Western’ values. Xi Jinping himself worked to implement this idea, that Chinese values are different from the West and in many cases superior, through the party’s propaganda organs. However, a lot of Western China-analysts are treating this as a fait accompli. It’s thought that a Chinese alternative already exists, and Xi Jinping is merely more emboldened in talking about it as he enters his second term. The opposite is true: these ‘Chinese values’ are an ongoing project, and where some students of Chinese government might see Xi Jinping Thought as a great ideological challenge to the West, others should see it as a clunky attempt to retroactively justify how the Party runs China.

One of the big initiatives started by Xi Jinping was the encouragement of ‘think tanks’ in China, with the same purpose as those of their American inspiration, just with a heavy dose of censorship and state control. These think tanks, it would be hoped, would provide a place for retired political officials to work at and improve Chinese policy even after their own career has ended. This sounds good in practice, but the reason such think tanks need to exist at the state’s behest is because the Chinese Communist Party is constantly worried about legitimacy. Thus, these think tanks are not going to be like those we can find giving oh-so-many seminars in the USA. China’s think tanks are meant to constantly echo the rhetoric of the Communist Party and write in support of it. This is purposeful.

Enter Wang Huning, who is apparently likely to join China’s elite Standing Committee by the end of the Congress. This is significant considering Huning is not an administrative official or governor, like most members of the Committee. But this defiance of convention makes more sense when one thinks of the ongoing effort the Party has on articulating Chinese values. Wang Huning, above all, is a political theorist and the architect of many Confucian-style phrases used by Xi Jinping — and his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Wang Huning would be a valuable asset for the new state-sponsored think tank culture developing in the country, coming from them in his past and in all likelihood he’ll lead them in the future.

The actual political philosophy of Wang Huning in the modern era is fairly simple: it’s a new spin on enlightened despotism that puts a great emphasis on Chinese-style bureaucracy as a superior alternative to Western democracies. This is exactly what Xi Jinping wants the impression of China’s governance to be. Wang has been articulating this philosophy since at least the 1980s, though. Why as it taken on new significance now?

The Party of Contradiction

Despite guiding three of China’s leaders, Wang Huning’s thesis is still struggling to be proven true. Regardless of what the Party may want, Western values are still held in high regard by much of the Chinese middle-class population. Even if public figures representing the West (see: Donald Trump) are considered odious, there’s no trouble separating their negative image from other things the West offers. It’s the leadership vacuum of people like Trump that has emboldened the Chinese government to press for international respect for Chinese values, but even if it takes advantage of this opportunity it isn’t clear China’s own population really buys the line that the Party has a credible alternative to Western political philosophy.

Wang Huning’s goal, for his academic life, has been to fix this problem. Xi Jinping’s reorganization of the propaganda organs was also meant to fix this problem. But Wang Huning’s ultimate thesis feels a little flimsy: how can Chinese values substitute the West when those values are held up as what the Party is doing, not what it should do. Perhaps this distinction is confusing. Consider that for much of its life, the Party’s legitimacy rested on communist philosophy — Marx, Lenin, and Mao. These are still the figures quoted in Xi Jinping’s speech about socialism, and their works are still studied in every Chinese university. However, the Party’s actions are not in line with communist values whatsoever. This contradiction, between rhetoric and action, is fine, so long as China has continued economic prosperity. But at its core China’s economy was not built by the Party, it was built by the market reforms of the late 1980s. Wang Huning’s job, and Xi Jinping’s dream, has been to promote Chinese values that somehow claim China’s prosperity comes from the Communist Party. But that’s just not true — it was the gradual release of the Party’s hold on the economy that made China rich.

The new ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, the ‘new socialism,’ will try to remedy this by justifying state capitalism under Marxist doctrine, but it’s still a very flimsy philosophy. In other words, the work of Wang Huning will be to claim Chinese values are superior to the West because of how rich China is, and retroactively attribute these values to a Communist Party that didn’t even articulate them until 2017. That’s the inherent contradiction. Western political philosophy, and its think tank adherents, are devoted to opposing doctrinal policy and providing alternatives. The gamut of criticism levied at policy and governance from the Western political tradition makes that part of the world’s values much more attractive, since it articulates a vision of how a government should be.

‘Chinese values,’ in contrast, are somewhat-intellectual justifications for authoritarian regimes that have to grapple with staid rhetoric about communism. Wang Huning will champion China has a model of values, separate from the Western tradition, when the reality of China’s greatness lay in a mere easing up on market controls and is predicated on economic prosperity. China’s own citizens, much less other countries, don’t buy the lofty rhetoric of the Party. How, then, could Chinese values come to be as attractive as that of the West, especially when Wang Huning focuses on what is and not how things should be?

President Xi at the UN General Assembly

The China Approach

Nevertheless, despite the inherent contradictions in its philosophy, the Party will likely have Wang Huning honing its vision from a seat on the Standing Committee. China will continue to promote and champion authoritarianism, even if its other talk will prove a paper-thin justification, just because it has a strategy. By inheriting leadership posts at international organizations that would normally spread the universal values the Party leadership hates, China can make them more accommodating to authoritarian systems. This has been the plan for quite some time, and there isn’t much hope the current US administration will reverse it.

Still, this approach illustrates what every student of world governments should do when looking at China: watch what they do, not what they say.


Wang Huning: Philosopher with Chinese Characteristics? was originally published in Mob-Rule on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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