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Wang Huning’s Neo-Authoritarian Dream

In late July of 1994, Wang Huning was nearing the end of a brilliant – and relatively brief – career as a political scientist at Shanghai’s Fudan University. That summer, he was in the beach resort of Beidaihe, 300 kilometers east of Beijing, to join China’s leadership elite for their annual seaside conclave.  

According to Wang’s journal entries from the trip, it was the topic of official corruption occupying the 39-year-old academic, specifically what he called “ultra-corruption,” a phenomenon that posed a distrinct threat to the CCP. “High-level corruption is rare," he wrote, “but if it occurs, its influence towers over petty corruption, and so it should be the focal point of anti-corruption work.”  

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With the twin conflagrations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union no doubt fresh on his mind, this reflection on the toxic nature of corruption was perhaps unsurprising. Wang, however, focused on the subject at a much deeper level than most. “What is trust in government?” he wrote in his diary just a few months before his trip to Beidaihe. “Trust in government means that a governmentcan fulfill its basic pledge to govern the people,” he wrote. His conclusion was clear – without a foundation of trust, China’s political system remained vulnerable to the same forces of change that had torn apart the Soviet empire.  

Now, more than twenty years later, Wang Huning is at the core of a decision-making apparatus which, in the eyes of many, is finally eradicating high-level corruption, and thereby safeguarding trust in the Party-state.  Since being summoned to Beijing in 1995 by then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin, effectively ending his academic career, Wang has become the “pen” of the Communist Party of China (CCP), the driving force behind the major ideological slogans of China’s top leaders, from Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”, to Hu Jintao’s theory of “Scientific Development”, and most recently Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” As head of the CCP’s highest-ranking think tank, the Central Policy Research Office, he has also become one of the closest confidantes of General Secretary Xi Jinping.  

Before his move to the capital, Wang Huning’s scholarly output was prolific.  He was the author of at least a dozen books, and had published more than 50 academic articles. Since 1995, and his transition to Beijing, this number has dropped to near-zero, a casualty of the “black box” which renders Chinese politics a whirl of mystery and rumor to us outsiders.  While we don’t know much about the debate taking place within the walls of Zhongnanhai, fortunately, we do have the paper trail left by Wang Huning before his journey to the capital.  

Regardless of Wang Huning’s future career prospects, one thing is clear: if we want to understand we the ultra-conservative political moment China is now in, we need to understand Wang Huning’s theory of “neo-authoritarianism,” which he helped develop in the years before his disappearance into the Party.

Born in Shanghai in 1955, his poor health kept him largely isolated from the high Maoism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which, in a 1988 interview, Wang would condemn as “an unprecedented political catastrophe.” One of the first students to take advantage of the re-opened universities after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Wang entered Fudan University’s international politics department in 1978, graduating three years later with a Masters’ degree. He would spend the next 14 years at Fudan, authoring books and articles on comparative politics and governance.   

By the mid-1980s, Wang began to focus on the relationship between the central government in Beijing and the local governments who nominally answered to it. Specifically, he was concerned with how the “reform and opening” policies were contributing to a hollowing-out of Beijing’s control over its far-flung territories. 

Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the relative autonomy of the local authorities had increased in tandem with the dismantling of the planned economy. The newly found flexibility and permissiveness helped propel a rapid rise in living standards as peasants moved out of the collective economy and into individually-managed farm plots and the fledgling market economy.  Yet from Beijing’s perspective, economic and political decentralization had downsides. As control was relaxed, the propensity of the localities to protect their interests at the expense of Beijing-dictated policy increased, a phenomenon derided by Party mandarins as “policy above is met with countermeasures below.”  

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This dynamic was captured in a 1984 analysis by the CIA: “Although Deng [Xiaoping] and his allies have placed supporters in key central and provincial positions, their political and economic reforms remain controversial and have been implemented unevenly. In Beijing’s analysis, the main locus of resistance is at the middle and lower levels of administration. Through political connections and long, undisturbed tenure in office, many local officials are immune to central discipline; consequently, they often defy Beijing without fear of retribution. Unless local officials are absolutely certain that the national leadership is united beyond a measure, they often respond to central initiatives in ways that suit their own personal interests.” 

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which would serve as a constant thorn in the side of the economic reformers throughout the 1980s, was also unenthusiastic about the side-effects of economic reforms. As opportunities in the countryside increased, many existing soldiers wanted to return to their hometowns to help their families work the land. Likewise, recruiting new solders became more difficult as economic opportunities expanded. Those households with children serving in the military were likewise disadvantaged relative to those without any serving members, and thus the pressure on sons to leave the low-paying PLA was great. As one PLA political commissar remarked in 1980, “the new rural policy has caused consternation in the ranks."    

As he watched the atrophy of Beijing’s authority increase along with the reforms, Wang Huning worried that if the decentralization of power continued apace, it would usher a return to a “feudal economy,” with localism and anarchy of the kind that typified the “warlord period” of the 1920s and 30s. In a August 1988 article, he warned of China being split into “30 dukedoms, with some 2,000 rival principalities" owing to the decentralization of authority following reform. While reform of the economy was undoubtedly needed, he argued, it created a dilemma for China’s rulers. According to Wang, “If power is not transferred to the lower level it will be impossible to invigorate the economy and move it toward modernization; but the transfer of power to the lower level brings with it extremely great difficulties to the regulation and control by the political system.”   

This was not a new problem, of course.  As a Yuan Dynasty-era (13-14th century) saying notes “the Emperor is as far away as the sky is high.” But after the disorder and chaos of the Cultural Revolution, many in China, Wang Huning included, were determined to finally draw the Emperor much nearer.  

This was to become one of the central questions for the CCP as it navigated its post-Mao era: how to balance openness (of ideas, goods, and people) with the requisite political control needed to ensure stability and, most importantly, the CCP’s monopoly on power. Wang was determined to find a balance, and in a series of articles in sparsely-read academic journals and popular newspapers, he began to tease out a new framework of governance, one that allowed for the requisite flexibility needed for bottom-up initiative with the imperative for oversight and intervention needed by a central authority to ensure economic and social stability coupled with political unity and authority.

To begin with, Wang argued, one needed to look past the reform-era mentality of seeing the principle struggle as one between the government on the one hand and the market (or enterprises, 企业) on the other. As he said in a 1995 interview with Exploration and Free Views (探索与争鸣), because the Center abandoned so much of its direct intervention into local government affairs and management of the economy, “although there was no real plan to expand the role of local governments, the actions of local governments resulted in the de facto expansion of their roles, and even ‘role inflation.’” Local governments had become empowered in the wake of Beijing’s withdrawal from local life, a result that made it harder for central government planners to push national-level policy down the system. This was not just a matter of policy implementation. “Unity of leadership is the prerequisite for the existence of any country,” Wang argued in the same interview, “Where there is no central authority or where the central authority is in decline, the nation will be in a divided and chaotic state.”  

Wang’s writings of the 1980s were to form the foundation of what came to be known as “neo-authoritarianism” (新权威主义). The doctrine held that political stability provided the structure for economic development, and that considerations such as democracy and individual liberty were to come later, when the conditions were appropriate. As Wang wrote in a 1993 article entitled, “Political Requirements for the Socialist Market Economy,” (社会主义市场经济的政治要求) “The formation of democratic institutions requires the existence of specific historical, social, and cultural conditions. Until these conditions are mature, political power should be directed towards the development of these conditions.”  

Others joined Wang in fleshing out this strong-state theory of governance. One of the most forceful advocates was Wu Jiaxiang, an economist at the CCP Central Committee General Office. “Before democracy and freedom ‘get married’,” he observed, “there is a ‘flirtation period’ between autocracy and freedom. If one says democracy is the life-long partner of freedom, then autocracy can be seen as freedom’s ‘lover’ before marriage.” Writing in the Beijing Youth Daily, an important organ of the neo-authoritarians, Liu Liqun, a researcher at a State Council think tank, argued, “Without social order, there can not be freedom or democracy. If one pursues freedom and democracy without first establishing order, then society will go backwards.” Even more radical intellectuals, such as humanist Marxist Su Shaozhi, argued for forceful leadership, albeit one that provided space for intellectual experimentation. As he told the Robert Sullivan in 1986, “What China needs today is a strong liberal leader.” 

One source of inspiration for the neo-authoritarians was the other developing East Asian nations (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong), which seemed to show that economic modernization necessitated (or at least could co-exist with) an iron-willed political system. Moving to such a system was not, the neo-authoritarians argued, a return to China’s authoritarian past, but rather represented a transition phase, wherein an enlightened governing elite with reformist tendencies would oversee the development process in the belief that the “masses,” if left to their own devises, would wreck the entire project.  In other words, modernization needs stability and order, but all in the name of good governance and, ultimately, some form of democracy.  

By early summer 1989, neo-authoritarianism was one of the hottest intellectual trends around as many came to question the direction and speed of the economic reforms. (One poll from 1988 reported that 60% of respondents felt the reforms were moving “too fast,” up from 20% in 1987.) So hungry were people for answers that in April 1989, nearly 2,000 students, intellectuals, and faculty crammed into a lecture hall at People’s University in Beijing for a four-hour debate on the topic. One account from Hong Kong reported that Zhao Ziyang told Deng Xiaoping in March of 1989, “there is a theory about neo-authoritarianism in foreign countries, and domestic theoretical circles are now discussing this theory.” To which Deng replied, “This is also my idea.”  

After the June 4th crackdown and the purge of Zhao Ziyang, however, neo-authoritarianism needed a brand makeover. Its call for a “transition” to a more democratic form of political system (albeit vaguely outlined) was jettisoned, leaving only the call for strong and unchallenged leviathan in the form of the CCP.  Neo-authoritarianism thus lived on, reborn as “neo-conservatism,” which remained a dominant ideological force in 1990s. One influential promoter of this new ideology was the princeling Chen Yuan (Chen Yun's son), who called for the CCP to ditch Marxism (which few seemed to believe anyhow) and instead anchor its legitimacy to more primal forces – nationalism and political order. “We are the Communist Party,” Chen once said, “and we will decide what communism means.” 

The legacy of Wang’s neo-authoritarianism and its cousin, neo-conservatism, lives on today under the reign of Xi Jinping.  Look at the first five years of Xi Jinping’s administration through the neo-authoritarian lens, and we see a consistent theme: clawing power back to Beijing. State-owned enterprises, which in many cases had become economic empires unto their own, have been pulled back into the Party’s embrace. Highflying private companies, such as Anbang and Fosun, now pay heed of Beijing’s commands. Cadres throughout the country now pay homage to the “core” of the Party’s Central Committee, Xi Jinping.  

Wang Huning hasn’t written anything on neo-authoritarianism in more than twenty years, but then again, why would he need to? Order and stability have triumphed, and while the sky may still be high, the emperor is now closer than ever.