Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. …
Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.
A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.” Scrutinize any photograph of Xi on an important trip or at a key meeting and one is likely to spot Wang there in the background, never far from the leader’s side. …
But what is singularly remarkable about Wang is that he’s managed to serve in this role of court philosopher to not just one, but all three of China’s previous top leaders …
While it’s hard to be certain what Wang really believes today inside his black box, he was once an immensely prolific author, publishing nearly 20 books along with numerous essays. And the obvious continuity between the thought in those works and what’s happening in China today says something fascinating about how Beijing has come to perceive the world through the eyes of Wang Huning. …
In a 1988 essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” … he argued that the CCP must urgently consider how society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). While seemingly a straightforward idea, this was notably a daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.
Examining China in the midst of Deng’s rapid opening to the world, Wang perceived a country “in a state of transformation” from “an economy of production to an economy of consumption,” while evolving “from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture,” and “from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.”
Meanwhile, he believed that the modernization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was effectively leaving China without any real cultural direction at all. “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” he warned. This could serve only to dissolve societal and political cohesion.
That, he said, was untenable. …
A crucial visit to the USA in 1988:
In 1988, Wang … [wandered] about the [USA] like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.
What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.
Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.
But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.
“The real cell of society in the United States is the individual,” he finds. This is so because the cell most foundational (per Aristotle) to society, “the family, has disintegrated.”
Meanwhile, in the American system, “everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification.” This “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.” In the end, “the American economic system has created human loneliness” as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality. …
Reflecting on the universities he visited and quoting approvingly from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, he notes a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values” and actively rejects its cultural inheritance. “If the value system collapses,” he wonders, “how can the social system be sustained?”
Ultimately, he argues, when faced with critical social issues like drug addiction, America’s atomized, deracinated, and dispirited society has found itself with “an insurmountable problem” because it no longer has any coherent conceptual grounds from which to mount any resistance.
Once idealistic about America, at the start of 1989 the young Wang returned to China and … became a leading opponent of liberalization.
He began to argue that China had to resist global liberal influence and become a culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state. …
Wang’s timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Only months after his return, China’s own emerging contradictions exploded into view in the form of student protests in Tiananmen Square. After PLA tanks crushed the dreams of liberal democracy sprouting in China, CCP leadership began searching desperately for a new political model on which to secure the regime. They soon turned to Wang Huning.
The nightmare of lefty nihilism:
From the smug point of view of millions who now inhabit the Chinese internet, Wang’s dark vision of American dissolution was nothing less than prophetic. When they look to the U.S., they no longer see a beacon of liberal democracy standing as an admired symbol of a better future. …
Instead, they see Wang’s America: deindustrialization, rural decay, over-financialization, out of control asset prices, and the emergence of a self-perpetuating rentier elite; powerful tech monopolies able to crush any upstart competitors operating effectively beyond the scope of government; immense economic inequality, chronic unemployment, addiction, homelessness, and crime; cultural chaos, historical nihilism, family breakdown, and plunging fertility rates; societal despair, spiritual malaise, social isolation, and skyrocketing rates of mental health issues; a loss of national unity and purpose in the face of decadence and barely concealed self-loathing; vast internal divisions, racial tensions, riots, political violence, and a country that increasingly seems close to coming apart.
As a tumultuous 2020 roiled American politics, Chinese people began turning to Wang’s America Against America for answers. And when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, the book flew off the shelves. Out-of-print copies began selling for as much as $2,500 on Chinese e-commerce sites. …
The Chinese is indeed becoming more like the West:
But Wang is unlikely to be savoring the acclaim, because his worst fear has become reality: the “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” he identified in America seems to have successfully jumped the Pacific.
Despite all his and Xi’s success in draconian suppression of political liberalism, many of the same problems Wang observed in America have nonetheless emerged to ravage China over the last decade as the country progressively embraced a more neoliberal capitalist economic model.
“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has rapidly transformed China into one of the most economically unequal societies on earth. It now boasts a Gini Coefficient of, officially, around 0.47, worse than the U.S.’s 0.41. The wealthiest 1% of the population now holds around 31% of the country’s wealth (not far behind the 35% in the U.S.). But most people in China remain relatively poor: some 600 million still subsist on a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.
Meanwhile, Chinese tech giants have established monopoly positions even more robust than their U.S. counterparts, often with market shares nearing 90%. Corporate employment frequently features an exhausting “996” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) schedule. Others labor among struggling legions trapped by up-front debts in the vast system of modern-day indentured servitude that is the Chinese “gig economy.” …
As young people have flocked to urban metropoles to search for employment, rural regions have been drained and left to decay, while centuries of communal extended family life have been upended in a generation, leaving the elderly to rely on the state for marginal care. In the cities, young people have been priced out of the property market by a red-hot asset bubble.
Meanwhile, contrary to trite Western assumptions of an inherently communal Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it’s led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after oddly regular instances in which injured individuals have been left to die on the street by passers-by habitually distrustful of being scammed.
Feeling alone and unable to get ahead in a ruthlessly consumerist society, Chinese youth increasingly describe existing in a state of nihilistic despair … a prevalent sense of being stuck in a draining rat race where everyone inevitably loses. This despair has manifested itself in a movement known as tangping, or “lying flat,” in which people attempt to escape that rat race by doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to live, becoming modern ascetics.
In this environment, China’s fertility rate has collapsed to 1.3 children per woman as of 2020 — below Japan and above only South Korea as the lowest in the world — plunging its economic future into crisis. Ending family size limits and government attempts to persuade families to have more children have been met with incredulity and ridicule by Chinese young people as being “totally out of touch” with economic and social reality. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” asked one typically viral post on social media. …
But even those Chinese youth who could afford to have kids have found they enjoy a new lifestyle: the coveted DINK (“Double Income, No Kids”) life, in which well-educated young couples (married or not) spend all that extra cash on themselves. …
It’s true that China never remotely liberalized — if you consider liberalism to be all about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But many political thinkers would argue there is more to a comprehensive definition of modern liberalism than that. Instead, they would identify liberalism’s essential telos as being the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer.”
From this perspective, China has been thoroughly liberalized, and the picture of what’s happening to Chinese society begins to look far more like Wang’s nightmare of a liberal culture consumed by nihilistic individualism and commodification. …
Under Wang’s influence, China has changed direction:
Wang has now seemingly convinced Xi that they have no choice but to take drastic action to head off existential threats to social order being generated by Western-style economic and cultural liberal-capitalism—threats nearly identical to those that scourge the U.S.
This intervention has taken the form of the Common Prosperity campaign, with Xi declaring in January that “We absolutely must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider,” and warning that “achieving common prosperity is not only an economic issue, but also a major political issue related to the party’s governing foundations.”
This is why anti-monopoly investigations have hit China’s top technology firms with billions of dollars in fines and forced restructurings and strict new data rules have curtailed China’s internet and social media companies. It’s why record-breaking IPOs have been put on hold and corporations ordered to improve labor conditions, with “996” overtime requirements made illegal and pay raised for gig workers. It’s why the government killed off the private tutoring sector overnight and capped property rental price increases. It’s why the government has announced “excessively high incomes” are to be “adjusted.”
And it’s why celebrities like Zhao Wei have been disappearing, why Chinese minors have been banned from playing the “spiritual opium” of video games for more than three hours per week, why LGBT groups have been scrubbed from the internet, and why abortion restrictions have been significantly tightened. As one nationalist article promoted across state media explained, if the liberal West’s “tittytainment strategy” is allowed to succeed in causing China’s “young generation lose their toughness and virility then we will fall…just like the Soviet Union did.” The purpose of Xi’s “profound transformation” is to ensure that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position of worshipping Western culture.” …
Will it work?
The odds that his gambit to engineer new societal values can succeed seems doubtful, considering the many failures of history’s other would-be “engineers of the soul.”
It’s not often we get a glimpse into what it really happening in China. It’s a long article, but full of insight.
Fascinating article! However…
US capitalism is not collapsing because of the supremacy of rising individualism and nihilism.
Ever-greater state control in the US is, automatically, accompanied by ever-decreasing personal responsibility, ever-increasing nihilism and the increasing degradation of human ‘software’ – morals, traditions and hopes and dreams. In other words, US capitalism has been gradually morphing into socialism.
The problem in the US is indeed the same as the problem in China — too much centralised control, too many regulations. If this author has correctly articulated what is happening in China, that Xi is trying to centrally plan a redirection of the economy and build up Chinese ‘software’, then their collapse is coming even faster than I thought.
Civilizations are built from the bottom up; it is the attempt to mould them with top down control that destroys them.
People build civilizations; governments destroy them.