How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
When, on October 25, 2017, seven men in black suits filed on stage in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to announce themselves as members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Politburo Standing Committee, only one face came as a surprise. It was that of Wang Huning, a longtime party ideologist and former professor of international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai. Few had predicted Wang’s rise to the highest ranks of the CCP, but now this once-reclusive academic, known for his quietness and caution, will have ideological authority second only to that of President Xi Jinping himself.
Wang’s inclusion in the standing committee was a striking departure from the practice of recent decades. Standing committee members have traditionally been chosen from among prominent Politburo members with experience of serving as the party secretary of multiple provinces or province-level cities. Wang, however, came from the party’s Central Policy Research Office, of which he was the long-time director, overseeing development of the CCP’s ideological platform. The only previous occasion on which a theorist like Wang rose to the standing committee was at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when Mao Zedong brought in his former secretary Chen Boda.
The current situation in China is radically different from that of the 1960s, of course. But in one sense it may be meaningfully similar: changes in the national situation and the norms of elite politics seem to have once again brought the CCP to a historical inflection point. Riding a crescendo of increasing authority that has seen him named the party’s core leader, Xi recently launched his second term as president by announcing his theory of a “New Era” of socialism with Chinese characteristics, associated with the need to ensure social stability and high-quality economic growth while comprehensively increasing China’s national power. At the same time, Xi has repeatedly emphasized the Soviet-style existential danger in which the party could find itself, if it does not effectively promote feelings of faith and trust among ordinary Chinese.
Many of Xi’s policies—from the “China Dream” that is supposed to unite the aspirations of the common citizen with those of the state as a whole, to the radical anticorruption crackdown and the “Four Self-Confidences” that every party cadre must exhibit—have been aimed at reinvigorating and justifying the CCP’s authority. As the party pushes to consolidate its authority, what might the rise of Wang Huning say about China’s path forward in Xi’s “New Era”?
THE SEARCH FOR ORDER
In the years following Mao’s death in 1976, as the Cultural Revolution gradually gave way to the era of reform, countless Chinese citizens began to pursue the dreams that had been deferred during a decade of political struggle. Wang spent those years reading centuries-old political texts about the evil of human nature, the origins of the state, and the need for an all-powerful ruler to manage social conflicts.
Entering Fudan University in 1978 after taking an undergraduate degree in French, Wang went on to earn a master’s degree in international politics in 1981, writing his thesis on the concept of sovereignty in Western thought. The paper traced the idea of the modern sovereign state, from its earliest full articulation in the work of the sixteenth-century French political theorist Jean Bodin, who delineated a conception of “sovereignty [as] the absolute and perpetual power of a commonwealth,” through to its later elaborations, and then disavowal, in the twentieth century. Wang would repeatedly return to the theme of sovereignty in his books and articles over the next decade and a half, as he rose through the professorial ranks to become, in 1989, director of the international politics program in which he had studied.
Wang’s basic account of sovereignty agrees in important respects with those of its key Western theorists. Sovereignty, for Wang, entails the ability of a political authority to exercise unified administrative control over a territory without external threats or internal subversion. Bodin was the first to set forth a theory of politics in which the state alone held this authority, to the exclusion of any other political, religious, or legal power. Key to this conception was the premise that sovereignty is indivisible; although any policy or norm can be the subject of dispute, it is the sovereign’s role to put an end to such disputes. As Bodin wrote in his Six Books of the Commonwealth, “Just as God, the great sovereign, cannot make a God equal to Himself because He is infinite and by logical necessity two infinities cannot exist, so we can say that the prince, whom we have taken as the image of God, cannot make a subject equal to himself without annihilation of his power.”
For Wang, the historical development of such ideas was especially important because it showed that in early modern Europe, as in twentieth-century China, the modern state had had to fight to emerge amid the chaos of conflicting feudal forces and territorial and social divisions. The great European theorists of sovereignty, including Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, and Machiavelli (whom Wang saw as struggling to unify an Italy divided, as China later would be, into a “loose sheet of sand”), had been ahead of their times in seeing the need for a form of political organization that could produce unity and order out of weakness and confusion. In modern China just as in Renaissance Italy, mankind’s innate tendencies toward war and revolution meant that only shared obedience to a supreme authority could form the basis of national strength and independence.
Of course, such ideas would have had a special meaning in the China of the late 1970s, after the disastrous experiments of the Cultural Revolution had weakened the state and called into question the ideological justifications for its power. But for Wang, early Western theorists of sovereignty had an eternal value because they had used a realist (or “materialist”) perspective to cut through the ideological fantasies of their eras and grasp what their societies really needed: strong, unifying rulers who were loyal to the people and unbeholden to any feudal, foreign, or religious influence. These strong rulers would in turn form the foundations of the stable and autonomous states that would go on to bring the West to the apex of global dominance.
According to Wang, the supposedly universal values of Western civilization were forms of “cultural expansionism” being deployed to infiltrate Chinese society.
CHINA AND ITS ENEMIES
The West’s ascent to global supremacy, however, would itself give rise to further changes. In particular, Wang was struck by one curious phenomenon. Why, as the capitalist countries had come to dominate the rest of the world, did they gradually turn away from the sovereign Westphalian state and toward more universalist visions of “global governance,” “human rights,” and the like? Wang explored this topic in his thesis, as well as in his 1985 essay, “On New Developments in the Modern Theory of Sovereignty,” and his 1987 book State Sovereignty, and other publications in the early 1990s.
Wang argued that it was no accident that Western countries had developed a distaste for state sovereignty and an interest in universalist ideas at the exact moment that they sought to consolidate control over vast colonial empires. Following World War I, with no more land to grab but a vast set of existing acquisitions to preserve, the colonial powers developed new international institutions such as the League of Nations, and new ways to justify their exercise of colonial or semi-colonial control over vast swathes of the world, including parts of China. At the same time, the ideal of national self-determination, which had been the last great advance in the traditional theory of sovereignty, was sidelined in order to preserve the international status quo. After World War II and throughout the Cold War, leading Western states continued to try to limit or control the process of decolonization, and often worked to suppress those who, in Wang’s view, truly represented the political will of Third World peoples. The United States’ continuing efforts to constrain the CCP could be seen, from this perspective, as part of a long tradition of Western attempts to maintain sovereignty over the non-Western world, while denying non-Western people any right to resist this domination.
Thus when the American political scientist Samuel Huntington developed his “clash of civilizations” thesis in the early 1990s, which held that conflicts between large civilizational groupings, such as the Confucian, Islamic, and Western worlds, would define twenty-first century geopolitics, Wang was ready to put an influential, party-friendly spin on the idea. According to him, the supposedly universal values of Western civilization were forms of “cultural expansionism” being deployed to infiltrate Chinese society. They could be countered only by a CCP capable of firmly asserting its own “cultural sovereignty,” a term that Wang adopted to refer to China’s ability to maintain its ideological autonomy and political unity against criticism from the outside world.
Tragedies such as the violence that followed the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square were, in Wang’s view, the natural outcome of allowing one’s citizens to be deluded by foreign influences that eroded the state’s authority and ultimately threatened to turn China back into a “loose sheet of sand.” Thus both China’s external sovereignty, or freedom from direct Western control, and its internal sovereignty—the ability of the state to organize society and prevent conflict between interest groups and classes—depended on the party’s ability to define and apply political and even moral values on its own terms, and to be obeyed.
Wang’s arguments are essentially negative, framed around deterring potential evils rather than striving towards any positive vision. And although the CCP itself has increasingly sought to appropriate the rhetoric of traditional Chinese philosophy, very little in Wang’s work indicates any specifically ethnonationalist conception of the state. What matters in his thought is not some Chinese essence but rather the ability of the state, and of the people whose interests it embodies, to neutralize any force that would divide and weaken them. Similarly, although Wang’s pre-Tiananmen writings did occasionally nod toward the need for moderate reforms, these were always placed in the service of and very much subordinated to the larger goal of preserving the state’s authority. Finally, even Wang’s applications of Marxism were invariably focused on justifying stable party power rather than gesturing toward the utopian society such power was nominally intended to bring about. No abstract concept, whether freedom, justice, equality, social harmony, Confucian benevolence, or even the dialectic of history, matters as much to Wang as the bare facts of authority, obedience, and order.
A PEN SHAFT FOR THE PARTY
Wang’s preoccupation with sovereignty—and his suspicion of Western cultural encroachment—appeared consistently in writings throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1995, General Secretary Jiang Zemin and his associates Zeng Qinghong and Wu Bangguo invited Wang to join the CCP’s Central Policy Research Office to work on ideological issues. There, Wang helped draft Jiang’s ideological contribution to the party platform, the “Three Represents,” which articulated a new “representative” political function for the CCP that allowed it to justify including members from China’s burgeoning business and professional class. In the years since then, he has had a leading role in developing the signature theories of successive general secretaries, including Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” and the aforementioned “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Xi is the first leader since Mao to have his name appear in the party platform, and in him, Wang seems to have found for the first time a strong “prince”—of the kind Machiavelli sought—who can more fully put into practice his ideas about defending Chinese sovereignty and resisting the West.
Wang’s support for Xi will be bolstered by the fact that Wang has likely risen to his current position not because of his personal authority, but rather mostly due to the machinations of elite politics. In particular, as someone who has worked closely with all three of China’s post-Deng leaders, he is likely the only Politburo member that Jiang, Hu, and Xi have all found unthreatening or inoffensive. Previous party theorists, or “pen shafts” (biganzi), who have ascended to positions of authority—including Chen Boda as well as the later reform skeptics, Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun—have similarly risen or fallen based on shifts in elite patronage. His awareness of these precedents provides Wang with yet another reason to ensure that his ideological contributions continue to justify unchallenged authority for the party, and for Xi. Indeed, since October, Wang has already publicly called for journalists to “unswervingly follow the party” and made comments to Chinese and Western tech leaders about the need to defend China’s “cyber sovereignty.”
Current analysis of Wang’s influence is divided between those who see him as a tried and true believer in “neo-authoritarianism” and others who detect a strain of cautious liberal sentiment in his scattered comments on the value of democracy and the rule of law to modern states. Yet it might be a mistake to seek his ultimate importance in any personal goals, whether avowed or “hidden.” Even near the apex of power, Wang remains subservient to the interests of the CCP. Barring any unforeseen crisis, his public work will continue to serve the party. And indeed, it is Wang’s own theories that justify his subordination.