Can China’s ideology tsar, Wang Huning, be the steadying hand in Sino-US relations?
Tom Plate says the newly promoted chief party theoretician is known to be a middle-of-the-road critic of US policy and society, and could exert a positive influence to keep bilateral relations on an even keel
Is Wang anti-American? Yes and no. The titles of his books range from America against America and Analysis of Modern Western Politics, to Debate Contest in Lion City (Singapore he likes). He rates the American system less warmly now than in the past. A review of his utterances yields a Communist Confucian of both conviction and flexibility: “The political system must fit into and be accepted by a country’s history, culture and society ... It cannot be too above the ground.” On political reform in China, he notes that it should “stay within the capability of the acceptance in society”. “At this time, centralised decision-making power and modernisation is more ‘politically efficient’ ... This model has achieved stunning economic results,” he writes.
The party elite’s view of the US has never been simplistic, nor has it been effusively complimentary. On this scale, compared to other party intellectuals – especially Liu Mingfu – Wang is a middle-of-the-road critic of US foreign policy and society, perhaps midway between the hawkish Liu and the cosmopolitan Zheng Bijian, whose take on America was comparatively empathetic. For all this, the overall judgment is that the American political system is little more than a fascist structure.
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Consider this from Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief of The WorldPost, who has met Wang: “He is suspicious of democracy because, as he puts it, it is like shareholders in a company; in theory, every shareholder has a voice; in reality only those of the largest minority share do. Still, the main thing about him is that he has been pushing the ‘neo-authoritarian Confucian tradition of Chinese politics’ view and found a good receptacle in Xi.”
The Seoul newspaper Hankyoreh can lay claim to dubbing him “China’s Kissinger”. Perhaps – but for my 10 cents, Wang, shy and loyal, reminds me more of Theodore Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s fabled policy adviser and wonder wordsmith.
Rarely in front of a camera, invariably hunched over yet another speech draft, the late Sorensen, a self-effacing brainiac from the sticks of Nebraska, once explained to me the power of the top speech-writer. At the end of a difficult policy meeting, with the military fighting the diplomats fighting the media advisers fighting the White House staff, president Kennedy turned to the young Sorensen and said: “OK Ted, put that all altogether. For that speech in Brussels.” And out the next day it would come, fully baked in the cognitive oven of the speech-writer’s brain, all differences melted down into one nice cake.
Still, upgrading the rationale for Mao’s Marxism to Xi’s Chinese dream while not making a hash of communist doctrine – that’s hard work. Wang loves the challenge, as did Sorensen, because to the serious speech-writer, the challenge is inherently patriotic: “Unity of leadership is the prerequisite for the existence of any country,” Wang once argued. “Where there is no central authority, or where the central authority is in decline, the nation will be in a divided and chaotic state.”
Wang has probably never heard of Sorensen, who might have explained to his fellow wordsmith our messy democratic process better than anyone; but even Ted would have had a tough time making a case for the poisoned polity today.
Even so, keeping crude anti-Americanism down to a minimum would be in China’s interest, and could be a significant contribution from the man who is the intellectual life of the party. As Sorensen might have said to him: ask not what your party can do for you, but what you and your party can do for your country and the world. A mature China-US relationship is crucial to global stability. Speech-writers only need to find the words for it.
Columnist Tom Plate, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, is author of Yo-Yo Diplomacy