China's Crown Theorist

The Rise of Wang Huning

Wang Huning at a tribute ceremony in Tiananmen Square, September 2017. Jason Lee / Reuters

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

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