In practical terms, Wang Huning is to Xi Jinping what Amit Shah is to Narendra Modi. That comparison should help situate for Indian audiences Wang Huning’s importance in the Chinese political firmament somewhat. 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 in government and a vision of modernity based on new technologies – digital India, smart cities and the like – there has been a similar makeover underway in of the Communist Party of China (CPC) under Xi and Wang for much longer. Only in the Chinese case, it has been of trying to convey the image the CPC as not only the best thing to have ever happened to China but also as an exemplar for the rest of the world.
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 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.
Close observers of China are aware of the sense of exceptionalism and often supercilious attitude towards other cultures that the Chinese possess – something that most old civilizations are 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. Both his early academic career and his short stint as a visiting scholar in the US in the late 1980s appear to have only solidified his belief that the ability to exercise hard power was an important perquisite of international relations and that rather than Western-style democracy it was only enlightened authoritarianism that would help China leave behind poverty and regain its rightful place in the world.
And under Xi, 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 only 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 earlier this month, his first major international appearance since being appointed a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC. He reiterated the concept ‘internet sovereignty’ – a position that subjects the Internet to the national laws of individual countries but is essentially 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. And it is well worth noting that these visits have hardly helped improve ties between China and the countries in question. 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.
If any country entertains notions that this is a China that can be reasoned with, they are badly mistaken. The US should take note on the South China Sea and North Korean issues and India on the issue of UN sanctions of Pakistan-based terrorists and the its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
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 spite and 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, however, China is also not yet unqualified No.1 and still has a balancing act to maintain of trying to get more countries and interest groups on its side and promoting its own political views and culture – think such leitmotifs as the ‘Chinese dream’ and the ‘community of common destiny’ – while combating the ‘spiritual pollution’ of the West. Once again, it would appear that it is Wang Huning that is on the job.
A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China’s Amit Shah Wang Huning is behind the scenes as Xi Jinping becomes president for life’, The Indian Express, 11 March 2018.