Who is China's Grey Eminence?


China PalaceRafik Wahba

He is China's top ideological theorist, quietly credited as the "Ideas man" behind each of Xi's signature political concepts, including the "China Dream," the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even "Xi Jinping Thought." He is a member of the CCP's seven-man Politburo Standing Committee. If you look closely at any photograph of Xi on a major trip or at a significant meeting, you'll see him in the background, never far from the leader's side.

His name is Wang Huning and he is known as China's Grey Eminence.

Wang is notably unusual in that he has served as court philosopher to not one but three of China's former top leaders, including authoring Jiang Zemin's famous "Three Represents" strategy and Hu Jintao's "Harmonious Society."

The evident parallels between the ideas in earlier works and current events in China reveal something remarkable about how Beijing has come to see the world through Wang Huning's eyes.

When Wang looked at China during Deng's rapid opening to the world, he saw a country that was "in the process of transitioning" from "a production economy to a consumption economy," as well as evolving "from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture" and "from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture."

"China's most recent structure has no core values," he cautioned.

The young Wang, who was once optimistic about America, returned from a visit to the US and became a strong opponent of reform given what he saw as Western defects.

He would turn these beliefs into China's "Neo-Authoritarian" movement, though Wang never used the word, instead associating with China's "Neo-Conservatives." This reflected his ambition to synthesize a new framework for long-term stability and growth immune to Western liberalism by combining Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Legalist political thinking.

Despite his and Xi's success in harsh suppression of political liberalism, many of the same problems Wang noticed in the United States have ravaged China over the last decade as the country has shifted to a more neoliberal capitalist economic model.

China has quickly become one of the most economically unequal civilizations on the planet as a result of "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics."

China's population of 600 million people remains largely impoverished.

The job market for China's growing pool of university graduates is so competitive that the cultural myth "Graduation means unemployment" has taken hold.

Contrary to common Western assumptions about China's inherently communal culture, the country's sense of atomization and low social trust has become so acute that it's led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after strangely regular instances of injured people being left to die on the street by passers-by suspicious of being scammed.

Wang Huning appears to have won a long-running discussion within the Chinese system over what is now needed for the People's Republic of China to survive in this setting.

In China, the era of unrestricted economic and cultural liberalization is finished.

If the liberal West's campaign succeeds in making China's "Young generation lose their toughness and virility," as one nationalist piece disseminated across state media put it, "we shall fall exactly like the Soviet Union did." The goal of Xi's "deep revolution" is to make sure that "the cultural market will no longer be a haven for Western culture."

In any case, our world is currently witnessing a major experiment: China and the West, experiencing very similar societal challenges, have now begun on drastically divergent approaches to addressing them, owing to Wang Huning.

With China rapidly challenging the United States for global geopolitical and ideological leadership, the outcome of this experiment could have a significant impact on the global governance landscape in the coming century.

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