Who is the real Wang Huning?

Society & Culture

Wang Huning is the most important political theorist in Xi Jinping's China. But what kind of ideology does this man, who ascended to the Politburo Standing Committee after decades of advising different CCP leaders, actually believe in?

Wang as Cardinal Richelieu, as Machiavelli, and as Zhuge Liang in pop art style
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

[Editor’s note: Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast episode with prominent China scholars Timothy Cheek, Joseph Fewsmith III, and Matthew Johnson.]

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our site at supchina.com, including reported stories, editorials, and regular columns, as well as a growing library of videos, and of course, podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim people in China’s Xinjiang region to China’s ambitious efforts to eliminate poverty. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor. I’m Kaiser, coming to you from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Of the seven men on the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, only one has never actually run either a province or a provincial-level municipality as Party secretary. In fact, that one man has not even served as mayor of any city, though he was a hell of a debate coach at Fudan University. The man in question is, of course, Wáng Hùníng 王沪宁, who as the Party’s leading political theorist, has perhaps not surprisingly been the object of some fascination of late in China-watching circles. After all, not only has ideology very much returned to the foreground in China with the current focus on common prosperity in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress a year from now, but it’s also gained prominence in the discourse on Sino-U.S. relations. This isn’t just happening on the Chinese side, either. President Joe Biden has spoken on several occasions of this great global contest, ultimately an ideological one, between democracy and authoritarianism with little doubt as to which nations are the chosen champions from either side.

So today I’ve invited three prominent China scholars to talk about Wang Huning, his worldview, and how it has evolved, and its impact on the Party since the time of Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 during his tenure. Wang was first appointed to the central policy research office. There is a range of opinion out there, from people who believe his influence is vastly overestimated to those who seem to think that for 1.4 billion people, at least, it’s Wang Huning’s world and they just live in it. First up, I’m excited to welcome back Timothy Cheek, a professor of history at the University of British Columbia, truly among the top intellectual historians of China working today. Tim is the author of The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History, among many, many works, and was on our show a few months ago, along with Elizabeth Perry, to talk about the volume that Tim co-edited and that Liz contributed to, The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives. Tim, welcome back to Sinica.

Timothy Cheek: It’s great to be here.

Kaiser: I am also delighted to welcome to the show somebody I have long admired, Joseph Fewsmith III. Joe is a professor of international relations and political science at Boston University, and recently published a book titled Rethinking Chinese Politics, which is actually something that we’ve all been doing a lot recently — rethinking Chinese politics. If you have taken a Chinese politics course at the university level in what, the last 40 years, you have certainly read his work. Joe Fewsmith, welcome to Sinica. And assuming this goes well, we’re going to have you back on to talk about that book.

Joseph Fewsmith: Well, thank you very much, Kaiser. It’s a pleasure being here, but you do give me a sense of fear with the threat that I have to talk about my own work.

Kaiser: Not this time, just down the road.

Joe: Not this time.

Kaiser: And finally, I’m very happy to welcome Matthew Johnson, who is founder and principal at AltaSilva, LLC, a China-focused consultancy as well as visiting fellow at the Hoover Institute. Matt did his Ph.D. at UC San Diego in modern Chinese history and has written quite a bit on our subject today, Wang Huning: The intro essays to the Wang Huning pieces that David Ownby has translated on Reading the China Dream, as well as an excellent piece on Martin Hala’s Sinopsis, out of Prague. We’ll make sure to drop you links to all of that stuff. Matt, welcome to Sinica.

Matthew Johnson: Thanks a lot, Kaiser. It’s really exciting to be on your podcast.

Kaiser: Well, I’m very excited to have you here. Before we get started, let me prostrate myself and knock my head thrice to David Ownby for doing really the yeoman’s work of all these translations. David, I hope that all the listeners out there are reading, reading, reading the Chinese Dream and David, I hope that we’ll have you eventually on the show. So let’s start off with a quick biographical sketch of Wang Huning, and Joe, seeing as there is a very good one in your 2001 book, China Since Tiananmen, why don’t you start off and give us the outline of Wang’s life?

Joe: Well, the outline, such as I understand it, is basically that Wang Huning was born in Shanghai in 1955. I believe that his father was in the PLA, which probably gave him some preference when during the Cultural Revolution, he was not “sent down” to the local level to do hard labor in part because he tended to be a sickly person. He was able to stay home and do a lot of reading and then was named as a worker, peasant, soldier, student in 1974, which allowed him to go to Fudan University. Well, actually it wasn’t at Fudan University, it was someplace else…

Kaiser: Right, it was Shanghai Normal Eastern University.

Joe: …where he studied French of all languages. And then after three years of studying French, he studied for a master’s degree at Fudan University’s Department of International Relations and then was kept on as a teacher in the program, and eventually headed the Department of International Politics and the law school. And then of course in 1995, he was brought to Beijing by Jiang Zemin. And that’s just the basics of the outline of his biography.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah. You’ve got some really funny anecdotes in that book about him. One in particular that I recall was that he first shows up in the mid-’80s during that big debate on neo-authoritarianism, he pens this essay all about it. And it was brought to the attention of then- Part Secretary Hú Yàobāng 胡耀邦 in ’86. Apparently, Hu Yaobang just sort of scribbled “rubbish” in the margins and apparently was very dismissive of that, but that was Hu Yaobang for you. He didn’t have time for those neo-authoritarians.

Joe: Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳 did.

Kaiser: Yeah, Zhao Ziyang sure did. Yeah. He sure did. Yeah. It was interesting because we’ll get to this, but he was brought in, he was brought to the attention of Jiang Zemin actually by Zēng Qìnghóng 曾庆红. And it’s interesting that he’s able to survive all of these pretty tortuous factional struggles through a couple of decades, and we’ll talk about that. But first, Tim, I want to turn to you. You are our resident intellectual historian. How do you rate Wang’s intellect? I remember on our hundredth-anniversary show, you were pretty clear that you didn’t think that Xi Jinping qualified as one, and I’m sure he’s still smarting from that because he’s a little…

Tim: He’ll never get over it.

Kaiser: He’ll never get over it.

Tim: He doesn’t have Tim Cheek’s approval.

Kaiser: So you’re known for your work on establishment intellectuals, isn’t Wang kind of the ultimate establishment intellectual?

Tim: Absolutely. He can be a poster child. Of course not all establishment intellectuals are the same and some work at very high level, some work in the medium and some work in their local areas. But the core attribute is to use their intellectual skills to serve the government to make a better China, or what they think in their own lights is. And from what I’ve read of Wang Huning, and of course his open writings are limited to the earlier period, he’s smart, he’s thoughtful. We’ll be talking about America Against America. That’s not a screed, that’s an intelligent book. Doesn’t mean we would necessarily like his conclusions. And I know we’ll talk about his thinking on the role of culture and cultural security. So yes, I rate him as one of the top establishment intellectuals in modern Chinese history. And we’ve got some background that we can talk about like earlier examples, but we might want to talk about that a little later.

Kaiser: Yeah, we will definitely get into it quite a bit, but before we go on and plunge into his oeuvre, Matt, I’m really curious. What do we know anecdotally or otherwise about Wang’s personality, about his temperament? Does he have a reputation for political savvy? Is he a personable guy? Is he an extrovert, an introvert? Is he bold? Is he timid? Anything at all to give the guy a little more damn color?

Matt: Sure. So, his external reputation is as a kind of Rasputin-like figure. And we know this from a lot of the recent writing on Wang that’s coming out. He sort of whispers in the ears of top Chinese leaders and has done so since the early 1990s. I think that’s probably a one-sided and somewhat romantic depiction. There’s a fair amount of information on Wang out there, including his own so-called political biography, and so I think it’s possible to triangulate a bit. There are also writings of classmates, all of which create, I think, a very carefully constructed image of Wang. It’s an image of Wang as somebody who is just an absolutely devoted scholar, someone who calls himself a reader rather than calling himself a professor, someone who has, as we’ve mentioned, been able to navigate all the different twists and turns of Chinese politics in part because he keeps his head down.

And I think that seems fair, again, without actually being able to peek behind the curtain, what we do see, he has that side, but certainly there’s another side, which is he appears to be an incredibly ambitious person. He came out of the Cultural Revolution. He distinguished himself in university. He tested into graduate school which would’ve been no mean feat. So he went from Shanghai Normal University to Fudan, which would’ve been a pretty big leap at the time. He earned the attention of local Shanghai politicians. During the ’80s, he earned the attention of China’s public sphere, so to speak. He, in the early ’90s, led a debate team to national victory. And in other words, he’s somebody who has worked incredibly hard on cultivating a career across a range of areas.

So to think of him as an academic who was parachuted into Beijing doesn’t really get at the reality of who Wang Huning is, I don’t think, is an ambitious political person who really has just moved his way up the ladder rung by rung and distinguished himself at every level for the reasons that Tim has mentioned, which is he appears to be truly bright. He’s an autodidact. He reads widely, he reads eclectically, and he absorbs and he synthesizes. And so that’s important to understand about him. His personal details, like a lot of top Party leaders, are not totally clear. So he’s apparently been married several times. He may have connections to the Ministry of State Security through one of the relatives, I think, maybe the father of his first wife. There’s a lot of backstory to Wang in between when he graduated and then joined Fudan, he worked for a state publisher. He worked for the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. So he’s a complex figure, certainly. I think if I had to make one key point about his personality, it’s that he’s somebody who clearly understands the system, including being able to navigate its factional intricacies and who is sort of pure and devoted enough intellectually and is competent enough, both as an intellectual and as a leader — because he’s been a secretary in Beijing for years now — that he’s risen to the top. So actually we should think of him as a very ambitious politician who began with a sort of academic background, but even in his earliest years, he wasn’t really a pure academic so much as he was somebody who was in a broad intellectual world.

Kaiser: Excellent. I went on YouTube and I found various televised speeches that I thought it’d be interesting for those of our listeners who haven’t heard his voice to actually hear what he sounds like. So here he is in December, 2018, delivering a speech commemorating the 3rd Plenum of the 11th Party Congress — the official dawn of reform and opening — 40 years later.

Wang Huning: [speech excerpt]

Kaiser: First of all, no trace of an accent, really standard putonghua. Kind of a deep, basso profondo voice. It was really surprising. He doesn’t sound like a wimpy intellectual at all.

Matt: He may have been from, or his family may have been from, Shandong.

Kaiser: Shandong. Yeah.

Matt: Yeah, right.

Kaiser: Yeah, they’re from Shandong.

Tim: So he sounds like he has the cajones.

Kaiser: Yeah, he does.

Tim: Xi Jinping’s nánzi 男子.

Kaiser: Yeah, he’s a nanzi. He’s no “sissy man.”

Tim: Yeah.

Kaiser: Sounds like a smoker to me. He does. Xi is known to take a puff.

Joe: Kaiser, can I just add one comment on what Matthew just said? But what’s really striking to me is that you would expect an intellectual really to attach himself to a particular political leader. And Wang Huning seems to have been able to both be attached and detached from Jiang Zemin. He must have been somehow able to separate the advice that he was giving from that sense of personal loyalty or otherwise he never could have moved over to Hu Jintao and then especially to Xi Jinping.

Kaiser: That’s right.

Joe: You would think that Xi Jinping would be really rather skeptical of anybody who had worked for either of the previous two leaders, and yet Wang Huning accompanied Xi Jinping on all of his trips. And he seems to have this ability to remember policy and verbiage that was used so that when Xi Jinping or anybody else is meeting a foreign leader, he can say exactly what happened last time and give advice on what he should say this time.

Kaiser: That’s fascinating. So let’s talk about that. Since we’re on this topic already, what seems to account for his ability to remain in favor and to continue to climb, as we’ve said, rung by rung, all the way up into the PBSC, to weather the vicissitudes of all that factional infighting? Is there a thread that can connect what on their face appear to be some quite different theoretical contributions that are all somehow attributed to Wang Huning? Look, we’ve all separately remarked on this distance intellectually between Three Represents and what we’re seeing now, Common Prosperity. Is this not maybe explainable simply in terms of his response to the exigencies of these very different periods and the opportunities that they represent, thus, this may be just the product of a very pragmatic and flexible thinker?

Joe: Well, I think he is a pragmatic leader. He seems, well, sort of like Hú Qiáomù 胡乔木, who I think he perhaps should be compared to. To be able to take the thoughts of whichever leader he is serving and be able to package them in a productive way, in a coherent way, and imbue them with some thought. And he seems to be able to do this for each of the leaders without attaching himself to any one leader. I don’t think that is quite contradictory to the idea that he has certain tenants that he’s probably held since he was young that continued on through today. And yet, he does seem to have this flexibility to be able to match whatever his leader is thinking.

Tim: I would say that Wang Huning is an example of post charismatic leadership loyalty. Hu Qiaomu, that Joe rightly raised, he was dedicated to serving Mao. And he did over a long period of time, also got on the central committee. The other historical person is Zhāng Chūnqiáo 张春桥.

Kaiser: Tim, I think not everybody’s going to know who Zhang Chunqiao was, so maybe quickly ID him.

Tim: So he’s one of the Gang of Four who rose to top power in the Cultural Revolution and was legislating Party theory from the Politburo in the early 1970s, mid 1970s. And so the difference between those two is key and what Joe was pointing to, which is that Wang Huning’s loyalty does not seem to be to the particular supreme leader, but actually to the Party and to his idea of what the Party should do. And as the next elected official comes in it’s like, Yes, Minister. He’ll handle the next one, and he clearly has.

Kaiser: So unprompted, we’ve already raised a number of historical comparisons, both from figures from Chinese history and from outside of China. Matt has already raised Rasputin for example, and Hu Qiaomu, which I think is a particularly apt comparison from Joe. Or me, I’ve heard everything from Wang Huning is Cardinal Richelieu to Xi’s Louis the XIII. I’ve heard Chen Boda to Xi’s Mao Zedong, or Kissinger to Xi’s Nixon. And, Tim, you’ve mentioned Zhang Chunqiao, not Yáo Wényuán 姚文元.

Tim: Yao Wenyuan, no. Yao Wenyuan wasn’t smart enough. No, he was the kind of Rush Limbaugh of the ultra left.

Kaiser: My dad went to junior high with that guy!

Matt: How about Dèng Lìqún 邓力群? He was Deng Xiaoping’s hatchet man during the Anti- Spiritual Pollution campaign, and who’s on the hard left. There’s actually a parallel there, which is both Deng [Liqun] and Wang are deeply steeped in the Party’s worldview of American liberalism as being the corrosive force that threatens to undermine socialism. And so Deng has written about this. Wang has also written about this. It seems to be one of the key features of his thought. Just throwing it out there if anybody else wants to pick up on it as well.

Joe: Well, it seems to me that…

Kaiser: No, it’s a good one.

Joe: Deng Liqun, what distinguishes Deng Liqun is his remarkable inflexibility. He really was a true believer in Marxism-Leninism. During the Cultural Revolution, when he was out of power, he was said to have read Das Kapital through three times. I can’t imagine Wang Huning reading Das Kapital through three times. He might read a summary once, but he seems to have just a much broader desire for knowledge. He reads widely, and as I think Kaiser said, synthesizing this knowledge.

There’s always some comparison in my mind between Wang Huning and Talcott Parsons, at least in the sense that for Talcott Parsons, who younger people don’t remember, he was a preeminent sociologist at Harvard, and he linked everything to everything, which is probably why he’s not much remembered, he didn’t have much of a sense of causality. But you look at what Wang Huning writes about culture and structure, and the way it fits with the political system, and he’s trying to relate everything to everything. I don’t think that Deng Liqun has that sort of intellectual sophistication.

Kaiser: Guys, are there other party intellectuals in the CCP’s century long history who’ve risen to where they were, where they got to, not on the strength of military or revolutionary bona fides? Any other pure theoreticians?

Tim: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It was Hu Qiaomu who made it to the Central Committee.

Joe: He made it to the Politburo, Tim.

Tim: Yep. Yeah. Yep, you’re right. And he’s the one who lasted so many years because you say how Wang Huning, we say how Wang Huning has gone through different policy changes and stayed there. Well, working for Mao, you could stay with Mao and go through equally humongous policy changes.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Tim: And Hu Qiaomu had his down period, but he lived to fight another day. What I’m struck by, and I know we’re going to turn to Wang Huning ideas on culture which I think are absolutely central and are shaping what Xi Jinping is doing. And that is the idea of culture and modernism. Their relationship is not limited to the party. So I like to look at Chinese revolutions beyond the Communist Party.

Matt: Sorry. Sorry. Could I just drag it back real quick though, Kaiser? Because I think there’s a huge point here that readers might be interested in also. And I know in terms of the translations that David and I worked on, when David did those translations and I wrote the introductions for them, one of the points that people seemed to really have picked up on, which is key, is that Wang was a huge reader of U.S. modernization theory and seems to have been deeply influenced by Samuel Huntington, who was — even though he was responding to modernization theory — was still really a big part of it and was coming out of that tradition. And so when we say that Wang thinks systemically and his thought is reminiscent of Talcott Parsons, I think it’s important to see that Wang, in terms of intellectual dialogue, in terms of the world that he occupies, is actually probably thinking about Talcott Parsons and is thinking about Samuel Huntington as well as thinking about maybe Marx, or more recent thinkers like Deng Liqun who were sort of deeply interested in cultural and ideological issues but from a very different standpoint. And so Wang has both, and the systemic way in which he thinks about culture is influenced I think pretty deeply by those two streams. And so this gets to the political survival point, which is that especially for his generation, Wang has something that very few other top CCP leaders ever would’ve had, which is he has had broad experience in the United States. He’s had broad experience in the thinking of major intellectuals in the United States. During his visit to the US, he built a network of colleagues, friends, other thinkers.

So he’s coming back into Beijing politics with this huge breadth of experience. And he’s able to both diagnose the American threat through these new perspectives that he’s gained, and at the same time he’s able to update the Communist Party’s own language in ways that are more informed by post Cold War realities of globalization than any CCP leader of his generation I think arguably would’ve understood at the level that he understood them.

So he’s absolutely unique in terms of China’s ideological sphere, but I just think it’s important to draw this connection between his ideas and those of American social science out because they are part of his intellectual world. They informed his thinking.

Kaiser: Absolutely. Let’s get into that now, and let’s talk first about this book America Against America. My reaction to the buzz around this book when Bloomberg first reported that there were original editions of it selling for $2,500 in China was to think, “oh no, these guys think they found the Chinese communist Sayyid Qutb.” Didn’t take long before there were actually comparisons being made to that Egyptian Muslim Brother who also wrote about his two years spent in the US, all this was in 1948 to 1950. Others have maybe more generously compared the book to Tocqueville. Anything to either of these comparisons? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but let’s talk about this.

His observations of America, it strikes me, are often through this lens of political technology, right? And as we said, he was really interested in modernization. And one of the things that he really gloms onto is, well, first of all, the way that the U.S. government regulates rather than manages the economy, this is a big theme in America Versus America. And how the market seems to take up functions that the government would ordinarily take up in an authoritarian state. He’s really also impressed with the educational system in the United States and how it produces what he describes as “modern knowledge,” produces a distinctly modern ideology.

So it’s not by any means just the indictment of America. Although just, I don’t know if you guys have read Sayyid Qutb, but it’s full of loathing, right? There’s this famous scene that gets described over and over again, how he attends this dance and he sees these lascivious American women sort of shimmying and moving… Anyway, this is not Wang Huning at all. What does this say about this man? Well, we’ve talked about this quite a bit, about how he’s able to… It’s sort of this know yourself, know your enemy, win a hundred battles or whatever, but how has this conflicted impression of America manifested itself in his thinking?

Joe: Well, can I take up at least part of that question?

Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely, Joe.

Joe: Because the young Wang Huning of roughly 1988 was interested in political modernization as Matt suggested. And by political modernization, he meant something like stability. He did mean to a certain extent checks and balances within the system. Nothing societal about that, but within the system that for instance, the People’s Congress should play its role. The Party should play its role, technocrats should play their role, but he was really interested in the peaceful transfer of power. And one can imagine coming out of the Cultural Revolution, that would be a really important topic for Wang Huning and for people of his generation. And so he talks about his desire for peaceful transfer of power in China in some of his essays. But the scene in America Against America that really grabbed me was he attended the inauguration of [George] H.W. Bush and describes the inaugural ceremonies in really, almost loving detail. He was really impressed by the public ceremony, the roles that people played. And then he comments that the new President Bush goes to the White House and Ronald Reagan is no longer there. He’s already left, And that symbolizes for him that peaceful transfer of power. And he says, and I wish that Americans could still hold this thought, that it was simply unimaginable that Ronald Reagan would try to hold onto his office or still be in the White House. And he’s just really impressed. And that is part of what he means by modernization, that you would have that type of system. So he’s critical of the United States in all sorts of ways, which we can get into, but this idea of the political stability and the ability to pass power from one generation to another, deeply impresses him. And one wishes one could interview him now, as he is about to be by the side of a political leader, who seems to be going on for lifelong tenure. I guess he has to suppress some of his thoughts, or they have evolved.

Kaiser: Both are possible. What do we see as the significance of his defense of the classical canon a la Allan Bloom? Should we see in this, the roots of his championing of a kind of cultural conservatism in the Chinese context? Is it maybe a vestigial fear of what happened during the Cultural Revolution that he doesn’t want to see repeated? What’s going on there? Why is he, in the American context, such a cultural conservative?

Joe: All the ideas that he has in that book do seem to be championed by neocons, right? You mentioned Allan Bloom and there’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the breakdown of the American family. You don’t get a sense that he is citing people like Schlesinger or Galbraith or any number of liberal intellectuals that he could have cited in that period. And so yes, there is something in those neocon thinkers that talks about the breakdown of American society, or the tendency toward that, which he clearly does not like. He may hope in some sense for the breakdown of American democracy. But in another sense, he’s trying to think about why would it break down, which as you say, resonates with his Chinese experience.

Tim: I might take a stab from the Chinese side, Joe.

Joe: Okay.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah.

Tim: I think that Wang Huning’s interest in neoconservatism and its role in the United States, and the power of culture, and the cultural challenge of the breakdowns that he sees in the United States, absolutely speaks to his Chinese experience. I often think in terms of Meiji Japan, the 1860s, everything Western was great, you know, the beefeater. In the 1870s and ’80s and ’90s, the Matsukata recession, they turned back to their spirit. So Wang Huning reflects at least a cultural turn for China’s modernization. We can build the stuff, we’re rich, but who are we? And I think that Xi Jinping’s focus on culture, cultural uniformity and all these issues of cultural security, I trace to Wang Huning, I’d be interested to see what Matt says.

Kaiser: Matt, you have actually written quite a bit about Wang’s concept of cultural security and cultural sovereignty. Can you summarize his ideas in layman’s terms? What’s he on about? And where this idea comes from — because it seems to connect with his interest in Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” idea. So maybe we can talk about that idea, how Wang engaged with Huntington and maybe what lessons Wang seems to have taken away also from both his sojourn in America, and what he saw as forces eroding American culture, but also from the end of the cold war and the collapse of Soviet communism.

Matt: Yeah, huge, huge question. Important question. It sounds to me like the overarching theme here is culture. So why is culture so important to Wang Huning? You can read it definitely from the perspective of his immersion in American modernization theory and the Huntingtonian response to modernization theory, which is to put values and culture at the center of the modernization argument, as Tim was saying. And so, in other words, if a society is to become modern, it has to shed all of its traditional baggage. And so I was struck actually by reading some of Wang’s early writings, how down he is on Chinese village culture. He, like many Chinese intellectuals before him, sees villages as more or less an impediment to building an orderly political system in which because political values are widely shared in a sense, and in a sense uniform throughout society, that kind of supercharges the nation, which is what he’s really interested in, and orients people’s wills towards some kind of common purpose.

Now you could find lots of antecedents for this. It doesn’t just come out of American social science. It’s obviously in the intellectual history of every country that’s ever gone through a self-conscious modernization period. You could probably find a lot of premodern examples also. But I think the point is, is that in Wang’s moment, anyway, what is important about culture is that it allows political systems to basically harness social energy and use that energy for the good of the national interest for building a more economically dynamic society, et cetera, et cetera. So when he visits America, even though he finds a lot to admire, and one of the things that he likes is the way that information and energy just seems to kind of circulate throughout American society which you pointed to also, Kaiser. He sees that as very important to understanding American success, but he doesn’t want to believe that it’s the secret of American success. And so he sets up this opposition between individualism and collectivism. And on the one hand, America has sort of energy resources, information, et cetera. But it’s too divided by the forces of individualism or political particularism, et cetera. Whereas when he looks to — and I haven’t seen anybody pick up on this, but it’s a great point and probably not forgivable in today’s climate — but when he looks at Japan, Japan is the “good” modernization. So it’s very interesting that Tim brought this in also because Japan has modernized without forsaking collectivism. And again, he’s writing this at a time when Japan then, like China today, was seen as a legitimate economic challenger to the United States. There was a sense that Japan might ultimately surpass the U.S., and this for Wang is a very appealing model.

Now to go to the other point about culture, which is why is he worried about US cultural infiltration? I think it’s because that’s the threat to his whole scheme, right? Is if Western liberalism comes in — and he was far from the first person to say this. Mao said it, Deng said it, Jiang Zemin also thought it, and a host of other intellectuals and lesser figures who were attached to those leaders, all sort of iterated the same ideas, right? Which is that Western liberalism corrodes internal political unity, and it destroys the foundations on which China’s socialist system is based, which really emphasize again, the sort of channeling of social energy for the good of the whole so to speak. And I think it’s a fascinating aspect of Wang’s thought. It’s obviously one that in the contemporary U.S. cultural sphere right now is being picked up on by newer thinkers. And they’ve really injected a lot of life into this debate, I think. I’ve been interested in some of the work that I’ve read, but what they’re really seeing is the critique of the United States. But I think as we’re trying to draw out here, it’s not just the critique of the U.S. that’s important, it’s that there are aspects of US society that Wang really finds impressive and important. And of the U.S. system that Wang finds impressive and important, but they’re not exactly what he’s looking for. He wants something that is more suitable for China’s model because he knows that in the context of Chinese society — and these are his own prejudices and biases, it’s not that this is an absolute truth — but that this kind of individualism can’t work. It can’t be the whole answer.

Kaiser: It’s a pity that he never seems to have engaged with that, what was he? 14th century, Arab thinker, Ibn Khaldun and this idea of asabiyyah. He would’ve found it to be a really useful concept, I think. But Matt, sticking with you for just a second here. It strikes me that there’s a kind of paradox in his thinking about culture. He seems to think of it as this autonomous thing that constrains the possibilities of political structures, right? He also, though, sees it as malleable, something that can be engineered. Does Wang make any effort at resolving this? And also, is he aware of that contradiction, but also for Marx, culture is just superstructure. It’s supposed to be determined by social relations of production. Right. Does Wang recognize also how much he’s departed from Marx? That he sees the superstructure as kind of determining structure?

Matt: Yeah. So many ways of coming at this, but I think that some of the key ones are, one, in modernization theory, there is bad culture and good culture. Bad culture is like the vestigial traditional culture that prevents modernization. Good culture is the culture of modernization and of national loyalty, political unity, et cetera. So there’s that sense of bad and good culture. Also, I think if we want to take it over to China and the era that Wang in a sense grew up in, Mao did not in any sense believe that culture was a limiting factor in terms of social change. As a matter of fact, it was exactly the opposite. Tim and Joe know this far better than I do because they’re more steeped in the debates, but Mao was a voluntarist, Mao was a utopian. This comes out of Maurice Meisner, at least as I read it in graduate school.

Kaiser: Yeah, it’s great.

Matt: And so he thought that by changing people’s minds, you could actually change history. Xi seems to think this also whether this is Wang’s influence or not is another open-ended question. But certainly the idea that if people believe enough, if they’re loyal enough, if they make sacrifices and they make sacrifices because of that belief and that loyalty that they have, then history will change in ways that allow, for example, China, to break through some of the other constraints that it faces like on the resource front, on the population front, on the technology front, et cetera. So the idea that you could will a nation to greatness comes definitely from Mao. Wang, seems to believe it too. And then we also get into some other intellectual eddies that I at least think are worth raising, which is for Wang in the 1980s, cybernetic theory, the idea that information could change society. So if enough people have the right information, they can sort of autonomously function as agents of whatever the political program is. And Wang is really steeped in it. I see it everywhere in his thought, personally, when I look at my bookshelf and the ideas that I see in his work. I don’t think he would’ve missed these parallels. He’s very interested in them.

Kaiser: So, guys, I’m going to stick with Matt for just one more question here before I turn to you, but I want to talk about this concept of cultural security. Is cultural security in Wang’s mind a defensive concept or an offensive concept, or is there even a meaningful distinction? In other words, in order to preserve Chinese cultural security against the infiltration of the west, is it necessary to subvert its force or to take the fight to the enemy, to undo American cultural supremacy? Or is it enough to just simply prevent it from taking too much of a hold in China because you describe it as a “preemptive defense?” I’m not sure. Anyway, these ideas are very, very much in play right now in today’s China. And so they seem to be very worth looking at.

Matt: Sure. Yeah. I think that the main concept of cultural security, again, comes from a longer debate and to a certain extent, fear within Chinese politics about what Mao would’ve known as peaceful transformation or peaceful evolution. Right? So the idea that one of the advantages of Western liberalism is it panders to people’s base instincts. It is a distraction. And if allowed into a society like China’s will undermine socialism both as an ideology, but also literally in a sense pull people apart from one another and apart from the Party as they chase their materialist desires, et cetera. So the sense of cultural security that Wang has, and in a sense that he innovated, is this sense that China has to build barriers against this Western infiltration. And that side of his thinking would not have been unfamiliar to Mao, Deng and others.

What Wang sees also though, is that globalization is like peaceful evolution 2.0. And so there’s this new danger and we can see it. Now, an option that that Mao had was to essentially — I don’t want to go too far with this because there are historians who would quibble with it — but from a broad strokes perspective, Mao had the option of being able to cut off China from the outside world. And so the China of the ’80s, ’90s, now is not a China that necessarily has that option. So what Wang has to figure out is how to have globalization, but not have all the cultural detritus which is what…

Kaiser: The flies and the mosquitoes.

Matt: Yeah, yeah, that comes along with it. Right. And so that’s a kind of interesting intellectual problem. And so Wang’s solution, at least in this 1994, essay that I’ve looked at for a long time. It was very cool that David was able to translate it for his blog because I think it’s something that people should seriously look at, is that the only real security comes from changing the external system so that things can’t come in anymore. That’s basically Wang’s conclusion.

Kaiser: There’s that, but there’s also building yourself up so that you are a more attractive option culturally, right? And this is something that I see possibly happening right now. So there is that defensive element. There is that pointing out all the flaws in the American system, but there’s also, and I’m seeing that this is happening, that post COVID, the scales are tipping in their direction. Beijing feels like it has stress tested its system with its COVID response, basically cratering the economy and bouncing back quickly. Beijing feels like it has more regime support than before 2020, that it has a greater sense of national confidence, more state capacity and political capital, all on ample display for the people to see.

They all feel like this is actually increased because of the pandemic. And there seems to be more confidence. At the same time, they are literally kind of closing themselves off in so many ways. I cannot help but think that they are secretly glad that so many of the academic exchanges have been shut down, that so many of the journalists are no longer there, that there are fewer foreigners buzzing around in Beijing and Shanghai. So, Tim, why don’t you — how do you feel about this stuff? Do you feel that this is a moment?

Tim: Kaiser, I’m going to jump in because I think it was something that you raised that’s apt here, and that’s the difference between hardware and software. Why is culture and why do ideas matter so much? I think we could think of this in terms of the Party saying, we’ve handled the hardware, we have a strong industrial base and military. Now the key contradiction is the software. Look, when America was so great in the ’80s, it had these software problems. Look where America is now. Wake up and smell the coffee, or the Oolong.

Joe: I think you’re right, Tim. What changed in part is the rise of the new left in the 1990s. And what they introduced very specifically was cultural concerns. They’re building off of Edward Said and people like that, this phrase of huàyǔquán 话语权, the discourse authority was introduced. And I remember reading this, what is that, 25 years ago? And thinking sort of, well, that’s cute. A few literary critics bringing up this postmodernist language and so forth, and it’s grown over the years. This is what’s been so interesting about it. And when you look at Chinese attacks on universal values, America can’t tell us about democracy as a universal value, we have our own values, and it’s grown over the years so that when you talk about this huàyǔquán, that becomes, I guess in your language, offensive. And I think they’ve become increasingly confident that you can defend socialism, you can defend the so-called Chinese model against American values. And obviously, we see this reaching some, I think, extremes when you criticize an NBA general manager for criticizing Hong Kong. That seems to be a reach too far, but they’re going there and it’s fascinating to have watched this discourse. And I think it does match a lot of what Wang Huning, but it also matches Xi Jinping’s sense.

Kaiser: So, Joe, do you think that there’s evidence that Document Number Nine was Wang Huning’s handy work? Because it sure does seem to reflect his concerns about Western cultural power. I think five, and arguably six out of the “Seven Noteworthy Problems” that are detailed in Document Number Nine are all about the intrusion of Western cultural power, are all about Beijing’s vulnerability to Western huayuquan, to Western discursive power.

Joe: I think you’re right. How much of a hand that he had in that, I don’t know. I think that there are an awful lot of people in the propaganda xitong that would agree with that thought, but it doesn’t surprise me that he would’ve had a major hand in the drafting of that, or at least the final language of that. It’s interesting. Remember Deng Xiaoping saying, we open the doors and we know the flies are going to come in. We just need to close the screen, a defensive reaction in your terms. And now things with huayuquan have gone really quite a bit farther. And as you say, Document Number Nine, you kind of look at that at the time and you say, oh, we have a periodic crackdown, a shou [tightening]. We’ll wait for the fang [loosening] when things will loosen up in a few years and I’m still waiting for that fun. It just hasn’t loosened up and…

Tim: Don’t hold your breath.

Joe: If anything, offensive language seems to have gotten much stronger.

Matt: I think one thing to add there is there’s also a sense in which one of the reasons why we’re so focused Wang Huning right now, and I’m not the first person who made this point, and why Document Number Nine itself seemed to come out of the blue, was because I think in part, there was not a lot of attention outside of China being paid to all of the things that Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were saying about culture and cultural security, et cetera, during the bulk of their time as general secretary. If people had paid more attention, it’s possible that that document wouldn’t have been as surprising. When people talk about document number nine, there’s another theory which is that Xi was behind it somehow. And maybe if you buy this sense of Wang Huning as a kind of advisor to Xi, then maybe Wang was whispering in Xi’s ear. But I don’t think you…

Kaiser: No, no, it was already very much in evidence.

Matt: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I don’t think you need that theory to explain where Document Number Nine came from. That ground swell was already building well before.

Kaiser: So, I have my own theory about how all this happened, this is my hypothesis. And there was a real confluence of factors that created the sense of crisis over Chinese cultural power and the heightened awareness of the overwhelming cultural power of the West, their discursive power, but also its hostility to China. And I think one fact, if you look at what Meng Jianzhu, what he was saying back then about the amplification potential of the internet and the dominance. By the late aughts, especially in the run up to the Olympics, you saw this. They were not unaware that that threat was being boldly proclaimed almost daily in the op-ed sections of all major English language publications in the U.K. and the U.S.

And then there was the Olympics themselves that just the moment when you get this critical mass of educated Chinese people who had themselves been taught enough English to know what was being said about China, what the coverage was, whether it was disparaging, whether it was offensive — suddenly there was also this surge in interest in China from the outside world with China’s… What do they call it? Its “coming out party,” Right. So after September 11th, there had been this period of six years where there was just no dust-ups at all. There had been no major incidents between China and the US. And well, you had these WTO cases involving dumping of underwire bras, you had the poison pet food, you had Darfur, maybe that was the worst thing that was happening. But you had Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham complaining perennially about currency manipulation, but…

Matt: So for scholars in China just speaking from personal experience, that was a real golden era for…

Kaiser: It was. Yeah, no, absolutely. We’ve talked about that.

Matt: For research, for the cultural scene. When I was in China doing my research, underground culture was pretty above ground.

Kaiser: Oh yeah, no, no doubt. But then what happened? It’s like, I feel like there was… So there was pent up demand, right? For an opportunity to present, especially on part of human rights activists, especially for Tibet. It’s like, this is the opportunity now. We got the eyes of the world on China. We’ve been quiet for a long time. After September 11th, the U.S. has enrolled China in the “Global War on Terror.” But now it’s our opportunity. And it was just at this moment where you have the internet, you have the comment sections, and people who can read it and suddenly it’s like, hey, I hear they’re all talking about us. They find themselves with the wherewithal to listen and to actually understand. And suddenly it’s like, oh my God, we have no soft power authority here. It’s pretty…

Joe: There was also the Soviet Union, the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Kaiser: Absolutely.

Joe: And if you read the journals, the specialized journals, peaceful evolution is the fear. And they see U.S power as behind the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Kaiser: Color revolutions.

Joe: And then you get the color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia…

Kaiser: And then the Arab Spring.

Joe: Again, US influence. One of the things, you mentioned the Olympics. One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Olympics was do a comparison with He Shang, River Elegy, and that is society kind of rewriting the history of China. And you look at the opening ceremony and it’s the state rewriting and imposing a different interpretation of Chinese history on society. And that’s when they sort of tightened up the ideology and said, “we can’t fool around with these harebrained intellectuals telling us the bad things in Chinese culture. This is how it was.” And taking back their narrative. And I think this all fits of a piece.

Kaiser: Absolutely.

Matt: That’s a good point. The one thing I would add there also is that a lot of the discussion that we’re talking about in terms of the reaction to cultural change was taking place in parts of China’s system that are very deep and in a sense inaccessible from a research perspective. So it’s becoming clearer now that within the security state, within the propaganda apparatus, the reaction against opening has always been there. And the dangers of the internet and of the kind of possibility for real political loss of control as information spreads without appropriate, so to speak, checks, has always been really, really high on the list of top leaders like Meng Jianzhu in those systems as issues that they have to address. And so it sort of took them a while to build, I think, the momentum that they needed, but I totally agree with the sense that that’s really where the reaction started to come from. It came from those deeper parts of the party and of the state that were not like the NDRC and the more reform oriented parts of China’s political system. But they’re the old key pillars of the party control apparatus that sensed a kind of… Their leader’s sensed, their antenna sensed a real loss of control, and so therefore they swung back into action. And so you get more of this kind of tightening move that Joe just talked about that is still ongoing even now.

Joe: I agree with you.

Tim: The party’s limbic brain.

Kaiser: Indeed, the party’s limbic brain.

Joe: I would just cite the old saying that goes way, way back about if Marxists do not occupy the propaganda front, then the bourgeois people will. And so there’s always been that sense of, are we on the offensive? Do we control it or not? And that waned, but it was a fight even in the ’80s, but certainly in the ’90s — that sense that we’re no longer occupying this propaganda front, I think grew.

Kaiser: So China, as we’ve mentioned just now, believes itself to be a democracy. It seems to have grown increasingly bold in this assertion during Xi’s tenure thus far. Democracy is actually right up there among the “12 socialist values,” one of the “four core national values.” Matt, you note correctly that Wang never actually defines it. And Joe, you write that his idea of democracy seems to be more substantive than procedural, that there — of the kind of consultative or elite democracy.

Joe: Right.

Kaiser: He seems, Wang does, sometimes to treat democracy as a kind of a mindset. And at other times he thinks of it as sort of a quality of a system in which popular sentiment is taken into account in this decision making process. And yeah, technologically they’re very capable of this. We know that they do constant sentiment analysis using social media, using feedback on the Little Red App, and all that stuff. But what, as far as you can tell, does Xi Jinping’s main theoretician, the man who we’ve been talking about, what does he mean by democracy? I’m just going to throw that to anyone who wants it.

Tim: I’ll start with mass line — think that Wang Huning is very consistent in Chinese political thought in the 20th century from Sun Yat-sen’s “Foreknowers,” the xiānzhī 先知,” all the way down. And that for him, democracy is about the results. And the mechanism is the transformational bureaucrat who has properly cultivated. Please pull out your Liu Shaoqi volume.

Joe: Yep, I agree.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It’s the mass line then. It really hasn’t changed much.

Tim: But it’s transformational bureaucrats. It’s technocratic and it’s elite, and it’s moved from doing engineering of dams and roads and factories to engineering of thought consciousness and huayuquan.

Matt: Right, no, the engineering of souls. Absolutely. I think that this draws out another important part of the way that democracy is defined, at least in Wang Huning’s writings, which is that it’s about political participation. It’s not about uncontrolled political participation, but there has to be something active about it. In other words, Wang’s main focus is how to bring people into the nation-building project, how to bring them into the modernization project. And so we need to know what they think so that we can make informed decisions. Absolutely. But we also need to catalyze them as agents of this transformation. And so then the question is, how do we do that without losing control over society? Well that I think is what gets us to some of the more troubling aspects of Wang’s thought — not his alone, but since we’re talking about his thought — which is that you have to change their minds so that they don’t want to sort of go off in different directions. And so it’s democracy, but it’s a kind of unitary democracy. It’s not a pluralistic democracy.

Kaiser: And how is this any different from consultative authoritarianism which is something that has very deep roots in, call it Chinese history or culture. You could look at the Imperial system and say that there had always been mechanisms by which knowledge elites have tacit access to channels of consultation that they stand in for these technocrats that we’re talking about today, that there were sort of ways to remonstrate, that there was a scripted set of responses that were within bounds, but ultimately if they were opposition, they were loyal opposition. They still bought into the system. It seems to be new wine in old bottles or old wine in new bottles.

Matt: Well I think scholars on 1911 would argue that China was ready for constitutional democracy. So it’s important not to see this as just a new iteration of China’s deep political traditions and reflecting a political mentality, or even system, that it is, in a way, democratic in the way that people living in more liberal democracies would understand or talk about. I don’t really think that it’s possible to reconcile those two. This is just speaking from a personal perspective. And I also don’t think that even in the context of China, that liberal democracy hasn’t had moments to flourish before it was crushed in the case of the 1911 revolution by people who wanted a strong unitary state and had military power on their side. So there’s some historical contingencies here.

Wang is not interested in any of this stuff. The view that Wang has is that, one, China needs to become stronger, two, the Chinese communist party is the primary instrument of this change, right? So you can’t have cultural change without organization. And so this actually gets at the other side of Wang’s political role in Beijing, which is, he’s not just a thinker, he’s an organization guy. He’s the top secretary in the secretariat, he’s been doing Xi Jinping’s, and I think under Xi, more than under any other leader, he’s an organizer. He keeps the Party in line. He’s been at the forefront of launching all of these ideological rectification campaigns that first started inside of the party, and now like the socialist education movement, maybe spreading outside of the party. That’s not necessarily Wang either in that he’s not necessarily the originator of those ideas, but he is an instrument as the ideological constriction in China takes hold as it’s been doing under Xi for a decade now, basically.

Kaiser: Joe, how confident are we in ascribing to Wang a major role in shaping some of these other pieces of the current program? I think we’re all pretty much on the same page that we think that his fingerprints are all over this “Common Prosperity” agenda. What we’ve been calling this Red New Deal, but what about earlier things like the Chinese Dream, The Belt and Road Initiative, or more generically on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era. I have to take a breath in the middle of that.

Joe: I’m less confident on the BRI. Maybe Matthew has greater confidence in that. I think the BRI came more out of financial and other interests, diplomatic sort of interests. I’m not sure that it has an ideological component, but I wouldn’t say that maybe Wang Huning has now figured out how to attach his ideas there too. Obviously, he played a great role in sāngedàibiǎo 三个代表, “the Three Represents”, and scientific development…

Kaiser: Under Hu Jintao.

Joe: Which I’ve always read by the way as sort of an anti-Jiang Zemin thing. If you’re a scientific planner that sort of suggests the guy before you was not. So I’ve always seen that as a shot across the bow which — that’s part of where I think Wang Huning has some flexibility. I’m serving my master and my master wants a little bit of distance with my last master.

Xi Jinping Thought for a New Era sounds to me very Wang Huning-ish. The China Dream, I don’t know exactly where that came from, but it wouldn’t surprise me that that came from Wang Huning. But again, there’s always a group of people that we shouldn’t forget that it’s not just one person who summarizes these things. I think there are lots and lots of meetings and maybe he goes at home at night and wordsmiths these things. As a lot of Deng Xiaoping’s favorite phrases were wordsmithed afterwards. We shouldn’t expect Deng to have ever said them. And I think Wang Huning is probably a great wordsmith among other things.

Kaiser: Yeah, I imagine so.

Joe: And wordsmithing is really, really important because it does summarize the thoughts often in memorable phrases, which is really good for propagandizing. I wanted to go back. One thing that I really appreciated Matt for bringing up was historical contingency. And we forget, because there have been three revolutions, that you have… It’s a revolutionary history, 1911, 1927, 1949. And no revolution can really accept procedural democracy because it would undermine the whole reason for having a revolution. Revolutions are almost by definition solipsistic. We have an ideology that cannot be empirically verified. I know because I know, and that’s really important. The very nature of the revolution obviates procedural democracy.

Kaiser: I wanted to ask Tim while we were on the subject of things that may or may not have Wang Huning fingerprints onsd them. We’ve been hearing quite a bit about the second generation mínzǔ policy, dìèrdài mínzǔzhèngcè 第二代民族政策, and that’s one that holds up this idea of this zhōnghuá mínzǔ 中华民族, into which all the other minzus are expected to assimilate. It’s like “melting pot” rather than the salad, whatever tossed salad that we now hold up in America. Now this isn’t explicitly a Han ethnic polity but yeah, it effectively is. So we usually talk about Mǎ Róng 马蓉 , from Minzu Daxue [correction: Peking University], and the two Hus, Hú Āngāng 胡鞍钢 and Hú Liánhé 胡联合. Should we add Wang Huning’s name to this list? Is this a thing for him because he does talk about it.

Tim: I don’t know if it’s a core thought for Wang Huning, but it’s certainly consistent because this is more about cultural security and being able to keep the country together. Wang Huning, like the leaders of China, are all dealing with the post-Qing problem, which is you’re trying to run a multinational empire as a nation state. And so in my job as the guy with the old names, one more name, Zhāng Bǐnglín 章炳麟, or Zhāng Tàiyán 章太炎. Wang Huning, and those who are talking about zhonghua minzu, are using a term that Zhang Binglin coined in the early 1900s, and his most famous essay is explaining the Zhonghua minguo. It’s the Republic of China, explaining it, in 1907, so it’s before when it is.

And Jian Binglin is absolutely saying that the Manchus and all the other non-Han have a job to do: they need to become Han and then they should have citizens rights. And boy, what I see in Xi Jinping’s policy, you see it in 1907. In between, Sun Yat-sen tried to do the five minzu, the five ethnicity flag and all that kind of stuff. So in other words, it’s what Schwartz would call, Benjamin Schwartz would call a “problematique.” It’s an enduring issue for 20th century China. Are we going to be a single nation state or multiethnic state? And Wang Huning seems to be quite consistent with the thought that no, everybody needs to assimilate because that’s what America did.

Matt: That’s brilliant, Tim. I think just to add to that as historians, good to be humble, good to always think about where we might be wrong, and I think barring either another party coming to power or a very different leader coming to power in China, someone who like Gorbachev might allow for the study of Stalin, right? We’re not going to know a lot about policy making in China, particularly during the Xi Jinping era. And so it’s extremely difficult to speculate on one, what role Wang had in crafting theory, as opposed to just drafting theory because again, even though we can’t see it, and even though there’s a lot of focus on Xi, clearly there is some kind of, at least quasi consensual mechanism by which elite politics works it has to, or the system would not hold — there’re just too many interests. The other thing is that we don’t know which policies Wang has been more or less influential in. He didn’t join the Politburo Standing Committee until…

Kaiser: 2017.

Matt: Yeah, yeah. Thanks. So, the idea of him as a decision maker really can’t precede that point because he wasn’t part of the top decision making body until that point. So I think we’ve got to be careful about saying that Wang really crafted any of this so much as he may have been involved in the framing, which is something that even as an academic in Shanghai, he was supposedly already involved. He’s always had this kind of speech writer, draftsman side to his portfolio. And again, this kind of exceptional mastery of the discursive language of the Party, and then also of the ability to kind of update it in very clever ways that capture more contemporary nuance as China’s political system is forced to respond to new realities on the ground.

So that seems to be, I think, a point that’s fair. But we don’t and probably will not know what role as an individual he’s had on top of which there are very few historical theories that would support the idea that even a very prominent state intellectual, or even a single official within an institution like the PBSC actually sets the course of history. So the idea of Wang as a kind of — and this is what’s been in a lot of the articles that have been written about him recently — as really shaping China’s political course. I just can’t find a single shred of evidence to support them, and I don’t think we should look at Wang through that lens at all. I think what is important is to see Wang as a kind of rare and unique window for looking at the party, generally speaking, for looking at ideology in the party, for diagnosing some of the features of Xiism as it’s really taken form, particularly after 2017. That’s all stuff that we can do with Wang, but we have to be humble about what we think we know about the policy making process in Beijing because sometime in the future, when those archives finally open, they’re going to tell us all kinds of stuff that we never would’ve guessed, basically. Some of it we can intuit, but that there’s a lot in terms of these specifics that we don’t know.

Kaiser: Well, I’ll ask him next time I’m in Beijing and we get a beer together.

Matt: Yeah, please do.

Kaiser: I think me and Han Zheng are going to get a beer with Wang Huning, and it’ll be good. Well, guys, that is going to have to do it for now on Wang. This has been incredible fun. And thanks to all three of you for taking the time. Before we say goodbye, let’s move on to recommendations. And first, you know the drill, if you like what we’re doing with Sinica and with the other shows, subscribe to SupChina Access, our newsletter, that is what keeps the lights on here at SupChina, and for the Sinica Podcast. I mean, where else in the world are you going to hear an hour long exploration of the worldview of some party ideologue? So, yeah. Thanks a ton. Let’s move on to recommendations and let’s start with you, Matt, what do you got for us?

Matt: Sure. So I think because we’ve talked about culture, we’ve talked about, now, archaic social science, there are two books still that I think are worth the attention of people who want to explore some of the ideas that we’re talking about, but not necessarily from the perspective of Wang Huning. They’re two of my favorites. One is Karl Deutsch’s The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control, which is a book that I think should be read by anybody who wants to understand how Leninist systems work without necessarily thinking through all of the Leninism. And another, which I find really useful when looking at what comes out of Beijing, thinking about its relationship to the propaganda apparatus versus whether this is really telling us something, is Robert Jervis’s The Logic of Images in International Relations, which is a book that’s all about signaling, which is I think a very important concept to keep in mind when we’re trying to parse Party discourse.

Kaiser: Wow. That’s heavy. So Deutsch and Jervis.

Matt: Thanks Kaiser.

Kaiser: Thanks. Thanks a lot. Joe you’re next, what do you have for us?

Joe: Well, I’ve been reflecting as we’ve been talking about how much we’ve explored Chinese culture, cultural security, how at least some of these concepts have extended back, well, at least to 1907, have been powerful in various periods. And how little of this that we’ve explored matches up with what the U.S. government understands about China. And I think that there is a fundamental cleavage there that needs to be explored preferably about 10 years ago, but maybe never too late.

Kaiser: Amen.

Joe: I just think that there is still an image that somehow China is going to become like the United States, and that’s not likely to happen in our lifetimes. And if that’s your assumption, then policy is simply wrong. And we’ve got to figure out how to deal with the challenge of China, and it is a challenge. And China does a lot of things that we don’t like, but we have to figure out how to deal with it on the basis of some realistic understanding of China. And it seems to me that we’re farther and farther away from that. And that’s not particularly a swipe at either the Trump or the Biden administration, but at, I guess, policy makers of both parties that just seem to me to be missing the boat.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Or unfortunately if they conclude that China is not likely to converge, they throw up their hands and say, well, then they are our enemy forever. And then the only option is to confront, which is just, it’s insane.

Joe: Yeah. We have a military response. Maybe we need to go back to huayuquan and our own discourse authority that seems to be lagging in recent years.

Kaiser: Well, it’s lagging because really the ultimate determinant of it is how we do, not what we say.

Tim: Maybe we should put our house in order.

Joe: That’s basically what I’m saying.

Kaiser: Well, Biden has said that at least. Right, right, right. Great, great recommendation. So not so much a single work or book, but just an attitudinal recommendation, and that’s one that I endorse.

Joe: You could look at things like Kurt Campbell’s Pivot, that would be a book. Obviously the article that he wrote with Ely Ratner on…

Kaiser: Boo.

Joe: On the failure of American policy or whatever it’s called in… What was that?

Kaiser: Yeah, it’s Foreign Affairs.

Joe: Foreign Affairs a few years ago. There are books and articles I could attach to that that would be taking off points to explore that point.

Kaiser: Fantastic. Tim, what you got for us?

Tim: Well, I’m going in your tradition of something different.

Kaiser: Yeah!

Tim: And so for my break and this probably reflects my age, I’ve been reading In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova. So it’s a half memoir, half fiction, half philosophical reflection, beautifully written, Russian writer, contemporary woman just wondering what is it that we know about history? And so maybe we can say that that riffs off of the humility question that Matt raised before, but a good reflection on what is memory and what is it for?

Kaiser: Fantastic Maria Stepanova, In Memory of Memory.

So first let me give an enthusiastic re-recommendation of the Netflix show that Shelley Rigger had plugged when she was on our show recently. It’s called Giri/Haji, which was every bit as good as Shelley had said. So don’t miss that, Giri/Haji.

I have been on a Guy Gavriel Kay kick recently. And I think I’ve recommended several of his books of late, but I just finished one called River of Stars, which is set in a fictional China, which is confusingly called Kitai. And it’s especially confusing because this one is set in a fictional Northern Song dynasty and the early part of the Southern Song, just before the Jurchens, who in this book are called the Altai, destroy the Khitan Liao dynasty which is called the… I can’t remember. It’s like the Xiaolu or something like that.

Anyway, it’s an actually outstanding book. It manages to blend elements of Shuihu Zhuan — The Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh — with the Yue Fei story and all the court intrigue surrounding the Wang Anshi reforms. So you have characters based on Su Dongpo, you have a Song emperor who’s pretty faithful to Song Huizong historically, but there are magical elements in it as well. This Kitai is the same Kitai as he did in this earlier novel called Under Heaven, which was set in the Tang dynasty basically between the Battle of Talas and the An Lushan Rebellion.

So it’s for anyone who knows Chinese history well. It gets a bit much with all the explication of Chinese humanities, name “the four treasures of the studio” and all this stuff. And there’s a little too much of that, but it’s actually fun to solve the little who, what historical character is this guy based on? Or what does this refer to, or how does this geography match up? And it’s actually quite a bit of fun. So I highly recommend it. It’s called River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. Got to have some novelistic fun in my life.

Gentlemen, thank you so much. What a blast that was. Matt, thanks so much for taking the time and for all the hard work that you’ve done working on this Wang Huning stuff.

Matt: This was really great, Kaiser. And to speak with Tim and Joe, a huge moment because I don’t get to talk to real intellectuals enough these days now that I’m drifting outside of academia.

Kaiser: The water’s still warm! Come back in!

Matt: It’s all applied.

Joe: Who’re you calling an intellectual?

Kaiser: Joe, great to have you on, and let’s talk about your book next. I’ll get through it and then let’s get you back on the show.

Joe: Kaiser, I’ll tell you. Tim already knows this, but I’ve got another book coming out in the spring.

Kaiser: Wow.

Joe: Forging Leninism in China: Mao and the Remaking of the Chinese Communist Party, 1927-34. You will enjoy that and your Chinese audience will find it startling.

Kaiser: Oh, wow. Well, I look forward to reading that. Get me a galley copy.

Joe: I’d be happy to send you a copy.

Kaiser: And Tim, thanks once again. It’s great to have you on as always.

Tim: It’s a pleasure.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com and tell us how we’re doing or just as good give us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. This really does help people to discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews, and make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica network. Thank you very much for listening. We will see you next week. Take care.