As Trump sits down with Chinese president Xi Jinping for official meetings in Beijing today (Nov. 9), a quiet, low-profile Wang Huning is almost certain to be at the Chinese leader’s side. Wang was part of Xi’s overseas entourage in April when the two leaders met for the first time, but now he has emerged much stronger. The 62-year-old political-theorist-turned-official just won a seat on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee—the apex of China’s decision-making power. Well before that, he’s been widely described as the intellectual force behind the ideologies espoused by China’s three most recent presidents, including Xi himself.
If political strategist Steve Bannon was Donald Trump’s “brain,” shaping his thinking from trade to immigration, then Wang Huning is Xi Jinping’s. While Bannon has been fired from that role, Wang’s thinking—already considered to be on display in Xi’s “Chinese dream” slogan— is expected to guide the Communist Party chief through his second term (and perhaps beyond). Wang has written extensively on anti-corruption, national sovereignty, and China’s political system—works that are crucial to help understand where is China headed today. He is known as an advocate of “neo-authoritarianism,” the doctrine holds that political stability is fundamental for economic development, and that democracy and individual rights should come later when the time is appropriate.
Wang’s theorizing isn’t restricted only to China. In 1988, Wang spent six months in the US as a visiting scholar, traveling over 30 cities and nearly 20 universities. Back from the trip, he wrote “America against America,” a 400-page Tocqueville-style personal memoir of his impressions of American life, from the economy to politics to society. The idea, Wang wrote, was to compare the real America he saw against the imagined America that many Chinese have gone to extremes to either admire or despise. More than two decades old, some of those observations might still resonate today.
In one chapter, Wang detailed his firsthand observations of the 1988 US presidential election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Some of his criticism of the way the American politics works as reflected by that election may still hold true today.
Wang named the chapter after the economics concept of “imperfect competition,” which describes a market structure that allows producers or consumers to exercise some—but not entire—control over market prices. In Wang’s view, the US presidential race is not perfectly competitive because voters essentially can only pick one out of the two people nominated by Democrats and Republicans. The two parties’ primary elections, which are at the center of US presidential races, are “not that democratic,” Wang says. (Some might see that criticism a bit rich given a leadership selection system in Wang’s own country that functions like this.)
“Generally speaking, every eligible citizen has the chance to become president. Figuratively speaking, only around 40 people had the luck in two hundred years since the founding [of the US],” Wang wrote. “Other people can have their presidential dreams, but that’s it.”
After watching the first Bush-Dukakis presidential debate at a fellow professor’s home, Wang commented that the two candidates were almost equally good in terms of their performance, though Bush “appeared to be more sophisticated, and experienced in international politics.” Previously, another US professor told Wang that he was not voting for Bush because “his face doesn’t look reliable.” This struck Wang as absurd—“What kind of standard is this?” he wrote.
Wang argues that presidential debates are much more focused on how candidates look and articulate their thoughts rather than on the substance of what they really say. “Actually Americans are not that interested in politics—they are more interested in what the person is like,” Wang wrote. He called it “the depoliticization of politics.”
Wang wonders what degree of democracy is ideal in the process of choosing a political leader to run a huge society—a question he doesn’t answer in the book.
Wang took a field trip to the headquarters of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, in an attempt to learn how influential American companies run. At that time, as Wang noted, Coca-Cola’s soft drink was sold in more than 150 countries, and the company hired an army of full-time and part-time employees across the globe.
He tried to explore the political implications behind that: while meeting their financial targets, he wrote, gigantic American corporations also subconsciously manage part of society—their employees—for the benefit of the government, he says.
Wang also paid a visit to a toothpaste and detergent factory in Iowa. There, he was attracted by the employee manual written on the wall of a meeting room. One of the bullet points reads, “We care about everyone as an individual. We will act in a respectful and trustworthy manner.” Wang commented that such motivational slogans were “unimaginable” in Western capitalist societies not long ago.
In the last chapter of his book, Wang listed out all the sources of potential crisis he saw in American society, including drugs and gangs, weak family ties and runaway teens, as well as the discrimination against Native Americans and black people.
Wang said he largely agreed with the view that race-related issues could turn into the most trenchant problem the US has to grapple with. He visited black neighborhoods in cities including New York, San Francisco and Atlanta, and found groups of young black people hanging out in the streets, which he said made him feel unsafe. In Washington, Wang wrote, beggars and homeless people were mostly black, and those who wait in line for relief services were mostly black, too.
“If this society can’t find a thorough method to improve black people’s lives, they would probably end up with much fiercer racist movements against black people,” he wrote. “It’s the weakness of mankind, that the easiest way is to strongly oppose something when we can’t fix it.”
On the geopolitics front, back in the 1980s, Japan was right on track to surpass the US to become the world’s largest economy. It was the first foreign country that had emerged as a major competitor to the US, Wang wrote, but wouldn’t be the last. He didn’t say outright it would be China next.
“In the next century, there will no doubt be more nations challenging the US.” he wrote. “Then, Americans will truly introspect their politics, economy and culture.”