In international politics, the concept of “soft power” is already well known. But in the Chinese domestic domain, the contest for power is often dominated by strongman politics. Therefore, the elevation of Wang Huning, a soft-spoken and mild-mannered intellectual, to the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Political Bureau, or Politburo, at the recent Party Congress in China is all the more striking, yielding insights on contemporary politics in China and beyond.
Up From Academia
With his parentage traced back to Shandong Province, the birthplace of Confucius, Wang Huning was born in 1955 to a revolutionary cadre family in Shanghai, where he spent most of his formative years. A quiet and introverted boy, Wang developed a penchant for reading. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when books were in short supply, he managed to access banned titles from his teachers at the Shanghai Yongqiang School, including foreign literary classics.
In 1978, Wang was among the first to participate in the newly revived university entrance examination and passed with flying colors. In fact, he did so well that he was accepted directly into the master’s program in international politics at the prestigious Fudan University, without having to obtain a bachelor’s degree first. Under the supervision of Professor Chen Qiren, a leading researcher on Marx’s Das Kapital, Wang completed his MA thesis tracing the conceptual development of sovereignty, entitled “From Bodin to Maritain: on sovereignty theories developed by the Western bourgeoisie.”
Having received his master’s degree, Wang went on to become an academic at Fudan University and was fast-tracked into professorship because of his exceptional performance. He was not only a good teacher, popular with students, but also a prolific researcher, publishing widely in both academic journals and the general press on topics of political science and political philosophy. Wang also enriched his experience by spending half a year in the late 1980s as a visiting scholar in the United States, which gave rise to his oxymoronically titled book America Against America, featuring detailed commentary on the many contradictory aspects of the American society. By the time he was made chair of International Politics and then head of the Law School at Fudan University, he was only in his 30s, a remarkable achievement in those years when China’s academia was rigidly hierarchical, with seniority in age and experience regarded as almost a prerequisite for promotion.
On top of his academic credentials and accolades, Wang also mentored and coached the Fudan debating team into winning a series of televised international debating championships watched by millions of viewers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thus adding to his already formidable reputation as one of China’s foremost brains on political issues during Deng’s reform era. His growing fame as well as his advocacy for strengthening the authority of the central government (which was dubbed “new authoritarianism,” a label Wang himself had rejected) attracted the attention of key government leaders in Shanghai, including Zeng Qinghong and Wu Bangguo, who then introduced him to President Jiang Zemin.
At first reluctant to quit academia, Wang was eventually persuaded to join Jiang’s government in 1995 at the age of 40, initially serving as head of the politics group in the Central Policy Research Office. Jiang had already heard much about Wang and read his works before their first meeting. It was reported that when they first met, Jiang joked by saying to Wang, “If you still don’t come to Beijing, these people [referring to members of the “Shanghai Gang,” like Zeng and Wu] will fall out with me.” Jiang went on to quote passages from Wang’s books, much to the latter’s pleasant surprise.
The Chinese press also relayed stories about how impressed Jiang was by Wang’s knowledge and learning. For instance, when U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Beijing in 1998, Jiang spoke, at dinner, in glowing terms of Wang’s academic ability. Not to be outdone, Clinton found it opportune in his rejoinder to parade the towering achievements of the renowned American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who had previously been cited in Wang’s own works – a fact unbeknownst to Clinton.
Surviving and Thriving in Zhongnanhai
Wang’s academic ability was indeed put to good use once he had entered politics. In no time, he became the director of the Central Policy Research Office and was made a member of the Party Central Committee in 2002. After Jiang handed over the reins to Hu Jintao, Wang continued to serve the new leadership, edging a step closer to the inner sanctum of power when he became a member of the Central Secretariat of the Party. When Xi Jinping took over in 2012, Wang was retained, rather than purged as often happens when regimes change hands. In fact, Wang was promoted even further, soon entering the Politburo, the core of the party leadership made up of 25 members of the ruling elite. With the newly concluded 19th Party Congress, Wang has finally ascended to the apex of power in China, as one of only six top leaders apart from President Xi himself. This is a far cry from what he must have envisaged when first entering politics 22 years earlier.
Wang Huning’s rise cannot simply be understood by tracing his formal progression up the ranks of officialdom over the years. His influence has been more subtle and pervasive, using the strength of his ideas and persuasion, rather than brute force and raw power prevalent in the arena of strongman politics. He has been credited as the mastermind behind the ideological banners of three successive leaders, from Jiang’s “Three Represents” through Hu’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” to Xi’s “China Dream.”
There are at least two aspects to the longevity and continuing ascendancy of Wang’s political career. One is systemic, relating to the circumstances of China’s current system and political realities. The fact that all the three recent leaders have needed Wang’s counsel points to profound questions confronting contemporary China, which are not only technical or bureaucratic, but also theoretical and ideological. His contributions to the theoretical formulations of the three regimes may be seen as an external manifestation of the tectonic struggles concerning the constitutive questions facing China today, questions over the quest for legitimacy and the future direction the country should take without jeopardizing its fundamental security and stability.
The other aspect is more directly related to Wang’s personal attributes. He is a man of ideas, having been a full-fledged scholar before entering politics. However, he is not a man of just any ideas, but ideas that happen to appeal to the government of the day, such as those emphasizing the importance of authoritarian leadership and the primacy of the central government. Wang can be sharp as an intellectual, but as a bureaucrat/politician he is more subtle and sophisticated, knowing when and how to pull in his horns or to hide his light under a bushel while offering his ideas and services to his political patrons, almost always anonymously. Although his image has been pushed into the foreground of politics, frequently appearing on national television side-by-side with his political masters Jiang, Hu and Xi successively, he has seldom spoken out publicly on any issue in his personal capacity. In fact, Wang stopped publishing in his own name as soon as he entered politics in 1995 and has refrained from personal contacts with former acquaintances ever since.
Wang’s style stands in sharp contrast not just to some of his patrons and peers back home, but more importantly to such personalities as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in an age when the characteristics of these political strongmen have given rise to the so-called “thug theory” of politics. Wang’s urbane style, gentle mannerisms, and low-key approach, which has no doubt contributed to his political survival, reminds us of the age-old Chinese wisdom that water, soft as it is, overcomes stone and steel, however hard and tough the latter may be. In this sense, Wang Huning’s success represents a timely antidote, though to a limited extent, to the ugly side of strongman politics.
Mind over Matter
If Wang’s rise lends force to the idea that ideas matter, it is also good news for those who study humanities and liberal arts, vis-a-vis the physical sciences. His ascendancy as a former student of political science and philosophy adds an interesting twist to the recent trend of high-level Chinese politics being presided over by those with degrees in science and engineering. This may provide some inspiration to current and potential students of such subjects as philosophy and literature that are regarded as useless by an increasingly utilitarian-minded population bent on seeking high-paying jobs and striking it rich.
Wang’s willingness to remain in the shadows has helped to eventually propel him out of the shade. The challenge for him now is how to hide his light under the glaring sun.
Dr. Yi Wang is a scholar at Griffith University, Australia, a diplomatic interpreter, and co-author of “The Hidden Ruler: Wang Huning and the Making of Contemporary China.” The author wishes to thank the BBC Chinese Service for publishing a Chinese translation of this article and for allowing this original English script to be published in The Diplomat.