As the National People’s Congress in China cleared a constitutional amendment on Sunday allowing President Xi Jinping to remain president for life, here is a look at Xi’s closest confidante and politburo member Wang Huning, who is also known to be the brain behind President Xi.
Wang has been speechwriter and ideologue to three successive General Secretaries of the CPC –- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi. Many key concepts for these three leaders have been fashioned and refined under Wang’s watch in the Party’s Central Policy Research Office since 2002 and later as a member of the Central Secretariat.
Indeed, one might wonder if China’s – and President Xi Jinping’s — slow turn towards a more assertive stance has not been influenced also by Wang’s personal ideological proclivities conveyed through the mouths of China’s leaders.
In practical terms, Wang Huning is to Xi Jinping what Amit Shah is to Narendra Modi. If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimizes Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system.
If Modi and Shah have together turned a political party otherwise identified with religious extremism and vested business interests into one that appears to espouse a new work ethic based on new technologies – Digital India, smart cities, the expansion of Aadhar -– there has been a similar makeover underway in the Communist Party of China (CPC) under Xi and Wang for much longer.
In the Chinese case, the CPC is being promoted not only as the best thing to have ever happened to China but also as an exemplar for the rest of the world. Close observers of China are aware of the sense of exceptionalism and often supercilious attitude towards other cultures that the Chinese possess –- something that other ancient civilizations are sometimes guilty of. With China’s decades-long rapid economic growth and the rise in hard power capabilities especially over the past decade or so, however, these attitudes have hardened.
Wang is no exception to this trend but he did not wait for China to be rich and powerful to start articulating his views. His early academic career as well as his short stint as a visiting scholar in the US in the late 1980s appear to have solidified his belief that the ability to exercise hard power was an important perquisite of international relations and that enlightened authoritarianism, rather than democracy, would help China eradicate poverty and regain its rightful place in the world.
Under Xi Jinping, it is clear that the exercise of power is very much a defining characteristic of Chinese foreign and security policies. It is also equally clear the Chinese believe their rightful place is at the top of the global hierarchy.
Despite Xi selling China as a leader of globalization following the inward turn of American foreign policy under Donald Trump, there are no real signs of the open-mindedness or genuine respect for other peoples and or for foreign political and economic systems.
Take for instance, Wang’s speech at the 4th World Internet Conference in December 2017, his first major international appearance since being appointed a member of the Politburo Standing Committee during the 19th Party Congress. He reiterated the concept of ‘internet sovereignty’ –- a position that subjects the Internet to the national laws of individual countries — but is actually code for limiting its use and growth as a platform for free expression.
Foreign Policy Adviser
Wang Huning has been at the side of Xi Jinping on nearly all of the latter’s major foreign visits including to the US and India. If Wang’s beliefs and Xi’s own views of China’s role and place in the world are any indication, then the rivalry with the US is set to continue and to intensify.
Despite China’s constant rhetoric of seeking and promoting global public goods through its espousal of globalization or its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, in practice it ignores those aspects of global norms it perceives as inconvenient. In fact, this is a China that seeks to actively deny its rivals as a way of self-legitimation and showing power. And there is reason to believe that Wang is at the forefront of articulating this near Manichean worldview.
At the same time, China isn’t the world’s most powerful country yet and must balance the promotion of its own views and culture – think of slogans such as the ‘Chinese dream’ and the ‘community of common destiny’ – even as it aims to combat the “spiritual pollution” of the West.
As Xi Jinping seems set to become China’s president for life, it would appear that Wang Huning is on the job.