This is a fascinating article about Wang Huning, one of the behind-the-scenes political influencers in China.
Born in 1955, family connections and poor health meant that Wang didn't have to do labouring work in the countryside, as many of his peers had to during the cultural revolution. Instead he studied at an elite school.
When universities reopened in 1978 the article tells us he scored so well on his entrance exam that he was admitted directly to a master's programme in international politics at Fudan University, skipping his bachelor's degree.
Interestingly, Wang was a younger (by four years) schoolmate of Mama's Uncle at Fudan University. Mama tells me that Uncle sat the university entrance exam in 1977 (after having been sent to do labouring work in the countryside of Hainan Island). Before receiving the results of their exam, students had to nominate their preferred university. Uncle, living as he was at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, applied for the English programme there as his first choice. Contacts in the university department said that Uncle would have been approved, but his name wasn't on the list of candidates. Instead, when the results came out he was surprised that he had been admitted to the politics department at Fudan. It appears that Fudan had special access to the student exam results and had picked students based on their results regardless of their own choices and that of other university departments. Uncle started his bachelor's degree at Fudan at the beginning of 1978 (Mama thinks Uncle was in the academic year ahead of Wang, who likely started mid-1978).
Wang was a full Professor by the time he was 30, and in 1988 spent six months in the US as a visiting scholar. Before this visit he had been hopeful that liberalism could be good for China, but his observations of the US changed that. He returned to China an opponent of liberalism, and his 1991 book America Against America was a tough critique of US society.
Similarly, Mama's Uncle spent time in the US and came away hating it. After completing his bachelor's degree and while teaching at Zhongshan University, Uncle was offered a scholarship to do a PhD at Harvard University, which he started in 1982. Struggling in the US, Uncle didn't complete his studies and instead returned to China. Later, he completed an MA in Hong Kong before getting his PhD from Oxford University.
In 1993, Wang was spotted by Jiang Zemin, and headhunted away from academia. Within a couple of years he was given a leadership position in the Chinese Communist Party Central Policy Research Office.
Unfortunately, Mama's Uncle was not so politically astute/lucky, and ended up in prison for 11 years, ostensibly because he revealed too much in his research publications on Korea. When Mulan was young she and Mama used to visit Uncle every month in prison, before he was finally released in 2011.
Since the mid-90s, Wang has been a key influencer behind the scenes for the past three Chinese leaders -- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. He has led a secretive life, cutting ties with his previous university career and no longer publishing or speaking publicly.
I don't know much more about Wang than what is in this article, so take what you will of what I write. I may have misunderstood Wang's outlook. Nonetheless, a couple of quick very general thoughts occur to me:
1. The story suggests that it was the visit to the US that changed Wang's attitude on liberalism. If this is the case, then Wang represents a very common Chinese attitude of over-focusing on the larger political powers when evaluating political theories/models. That is, for many Chinese it is either China or the US.
Clearly, Wang had a bad experience in the US. But I wonder what Wang, China, and the world would be like today if instead of visiting China he had have visited New Zealand or a Scandinavian country. While New Zealand is far from perfect, its version of liberalism is very different from that of the US, and hence does not have some of the problems that the US has (and that Wang correctly identified). If Wang had have studied and experienced a social democracy like New Zealand, instead of the US, would he have been so strongly critical of liberalism?
2. Without directly mentioning it, the article suggests that Wang is a Hobbesian. That is, he sees human nature as inherently bad, and consequently the only way to minimise the excesses that result is to have a powerful leader to resolve people's conflicts and maintain society.
Like Wang, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived though politically/socially turbulent times, and in particular experienced the English Civil War. Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) is his argument for a supreme ruler, justified by a social contract and assuming a pessimistic view of human nature.
The Hobbesian approach is most plausible if one is participating in a tragically broken society (such as a civil war or cultural revolution). In those (unusual) social extremities, any strong leader, regardless of their decisions, is the lesser of two evils. It is also an understandable psychological reaction to desire order amongst all that chaos.
If this is the case for Wang, who experienced the horrors of the Chinese cultural revolution, it is understandable that he has been working behind the scenes in China to strengthen the Chinese leadership. For example, it fits if it is Wang who has worked to end the time limit for Chinese leadership, allowing Xi Jinping to continue as leader for more than two terms. (He has also developed a more subtle and sophisticated form of power than what Mao had, including education, economics, information, technology and public approval.)
But once again there is the possible mistake of either/or thinking. In moderate, normal societies, it is not either all-against-all Hobbesian chaos or authoritarian control. Other political options are available and present. Similarly, human nature is complicated, having both altruistic and selfish parts.
A more serious problem is that the Hobbesian approach fails to adequately acknowledge the danger of leaders with absolute power. It assumes that any leader, regardless of what they do, is going to be better than the alternative.
But, even if, right now, Xi (with Wang) is overall not too bad for China, there is no guarantee that the next Chinese leader will serve China (and the world) well. Giving Xi more power also means giving future Chinese leaders more power, and who knows what they may be like. Do we really want to give any future Mao, Stalin, Hitler or Trump in China more power?
The Hobbesian pessimistic view of human nature may also be challenged. For example, last year I reviewed Rutger Bregman's book Humankind. As I have repeatedly said since I lived in China, if we have a pessimistic outlook on life, and if we distrust those around us, then we create a society that reflects that. But if we have an optimistic outlook on life, and assume the best of people, then we create a society that is better for us all. I see today's China as having been created by people who have a pessimistic outlook on life, and it may be that Wang is one of those people.
When I reviewed Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem in 2018 I also addressed this aspect of Chinese culture.