By Kumar David –
Wan Huning (王沪宁) is an exceptionally brilliant individual or so says N. S. Lyons in a piece on 11 October in the website Palladium. No surprise in a nation of 1.4 billion souls.
Wang represents a school of communist theoreticians underpinning the ideological continuity of Chinese Communist political-economy as it evolved from the Deng era. Jiang Zemin first spotted Wang, who then worked through the presidencies of jellyfish Jiang and apparatchik Hu Jintao to the now powerful Xi Jinping. He is currently the CCP’s top theoretician and lead-ideologist behind Party ‘thought’. He is in the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo and unofficially ranked fifth in precedence. Surprisingly, little has been written about him; even in China he remains an enigma. Though he has authored 20 books they have not been much discussed and a Chinese language web search threw up little useful information. To use Lyons’ imagery, Wang and his theoretical cognoscenti constitute an unobtrusive party Machiavelli-cluster standing behind the throne and making sure the emperor does as he is told. Did the ambitions Zhu Rongji, Jiang Zemin’s “capitalist roader” finance minister, have the approval of party theoreticians at that stage in China’s politico-economic transition, or were there factional tensions? I think the latter; divergent theoretical-ideological factions are unavoidable in a huge entity like the CPC (80 million strong) and this implies tensions. At present however Wang-theory, for want of a better term, has come to the helm.
My columns are fact-and-theory laden and boring to read. I will quit droning and try this time at least to make it more person oriented. But old habits die hard, so I need to summarise my perception of Chinese political-economy before getting down to the readable bits. If you had the misfortune to read my 26 September piece “Category-5 Typhoon in China” you can breathe a sigh of relief and skip the five following bullet points.
* China is not a capitalist state in any rational sense that the term capitalism can be used.
* The Deng Xiaoping “revolution” was the use of market mechanisms and capitalism as tools, side by side with state direction, to achieve economic growth. The strategy was successful beyond expectation and China became a vibrant economy and a powerful nation; in the process a rich capitalist class emerged.
* Power remained in the hands of the CPC, unchallenged at all times; the emerging capitalist class could never contest the hegemony of the Party. The CPC core and the nouveau-riche capitalist class, by and large, inhabited different spheres.
Authoritarianism was the bedrock method of political control.
* In late 2020 and in 2021 the CPC initiated a sharp course correction which is ongoing. The changes consist of: (a) Greater state direction of the economy, (b) reigning in the big tech-sector, finance-capital and limiting foreign listings, (c) greater government intervention and scrutiny of companies, (d) tighter regulation of culture-stuff such as Star-Personalities and cleaning TV shows of “undesirable” content, (d) supervising internet access and access to foreign sites, (e) grater control of educational content and opportunities, and (e) enhanced tightening in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Wang who is 66 years old has an intensely intellectual personality. “Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential public intellectual alive today” [L], says Lyon, and I think he means not just in China but in the world. (Quotes from Lyon’s article are marked [L] hereafter). Wang’s official title is First Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Communist Party; previously from 2002 to 2020 he was Director of the Central Policy Research Office of the Party. His books include Logic of Politics – Principles of Marxism, and America against America, the latter written after six months touring the US in 1988 as a visiting professor when he became disillusioned that the country was tearing itself apart. To see this in 1988 was certainly prescient, maybe prophetic. “While Americans perceive that they face intricate social and cultural problems, they think of these as scientific and technological issues to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere; their problems are inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause; a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism”: [L]. I doubt if any of his books are available in English, leaving me dependent on obliging Chinese friends.
One quote from Wang is such a striking a reminder of Marx’s concept of alienation that I was stunned to have it from a CPC Politburo member. “The real cell of society in the United States is the individual. The cell foundational as per Aristotle, the family, has disintegrated. Everything has a dual nature, the glamour of commodification abounds; human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and the law are targets of commodification. The system has created loneliness as its innermost product, along with spectacular inequality. Nihilism has become the American way, a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit”; [L]. Elsewhere Wang breaks with orthodox Stalinist-materialism and asserts that social values and culture too are crucial in social and historical dynamics. He is clearly a disciple of the 18-th Brumaire and the Civil War in France.
Wang argues that “China has to resist the global liberal sway and be culturally unified, self-confident and led by a strong, centralized party-state. He reflects a desire to blend Marxism with traditional Confucianism to synthesise a foundation for long-term stability” [L]. This is in line with a CPC precept that a strong central state was needed to unify the country. In this he found an influential ally in Xi Jinping who in any case had no option but to reign in nihilistic bourgeois-liberalism, be wary of alien Western culture and take harsh measures against the scourge of corruption. The Party, opportunely, is in the serendipitous position that what it has to do for material success, for social cohesion, and to consolidate its own power have come neatly into congruence.
The immense success of market-reforms have transformed China into a high income (for some) and at the same time an unequal income, unequal opportunity society. [See Technical Note below]. The richest 1% hogs a third of the country’s non-state-owned wealth. Though grinding poverty has been wiped out, most rural folk survive only moderately above subsistence and city employees toil for up to 72 hours a week and earn less than workers in the West. Competition for education and housing is intense, medical care is poor. Individualism is rising as a bogus substitute for genuine liberalism. The 2020-21 course-correction, identified with Xi Jinping, no doubt sprang from within the Party’s ideological core which was alarmed by these trends.
Apart from mass social pressures to which the Party is always sensitive, there was a threat of an unbalance in the power-structure that an assertive capitalist class could have provoked. Above this was competition with America for global hegemony. Chinese capitalism is nowhere near strong enough to compete against the deep pockets, sophistication and experience of American capitalism, or to take forward the Belt & Road Initiative sans the state taking the leading role. The BRI is a state led initiative – for example the multi-billion dollar railway from China to Europe. The contours of the where and the why of the course correction and the reasons for the Party’s bold assertion of hegemony are clear.
There is however an ineluctable tension in Wang Dunning’s conceptual constructions. Can society leap from the “domain of necessity to the domain of freedom”, or in less grandiose words from the crassness of consumerism and nihilist individualised liberalism, to a higher civilisation as the literati call it, sans transition via a free and democratic polity? Can society leap-frog from authoritarianism, over quotidian freedoms, to socialism? The logical answer is NO.
At this time only two nations-societies are paradigms; only two will be influential global models or archetypes. (Whether China’s state-led economic strategy is a better economic track for backward countries is, in comparison, a separate question of trivial dimensions). In the post-WW2 period there were two global paradigms, capitalism sometimes with liberal features (numerous copies) and variations on the Soviet model (Eastern Europe, Maoist China, Cuba and a few others). At the present time I am inclined to the view that my instinct expressed last week (“United States and Social Democracy”) that the US, with has both extraordinary wealth and everyday albeit flawed democracy peeping through the crooked legs of rumbustious populism, is in pole position. Of course this is predicated on the expectation that the visible drift to increasing social-democracy, not some Trump-style malady will profile the USA of posterity.
Technical Note: Everyone’s income and social inequality can increase simultaneously! Consider A, B and C with incomes of 5, 10 and 15 respectively. The mean is 10 and the largest disparity is 10 (15-5). Suppose A, B and C double to 10, 20 and 30. Everybody gets more, the average has risen to 20 and at the same time inequality has increased from 10 to 20 (30-10). The trick is a generalised increase in incomes.