In the days​ after the Capitol riot of 6 January 2021, copies of an out of print travelogue started selling for 16660 RMB – more than £1800 – on Kongfuzi, a Chinese website for second-hand books. America against America was published in 1991, three years after its author, a young academic called Wang Huning, returned from a six-month visit to the US. He was on a scholarship from the American Political Science Association, intended to show academics from newly open China the American way of life. He travelled to cities across the US; he went to a Coca-Cola factory in Atlanta and a meeting of the Board of County Commissioners in Johnson County, Iowa. In his account of the trip, Wang argued that the reality of American democracy fell far short of its ideals. The corrosive nature of individualism meant a constant undercurrent of crisis. Now, thirty years later, the crisis had surfaced.

The reaction in China to the events of 6 January was mocking. On 8 January, the Shaanxi provincial library posted an article to its public WeChat account recommending America against America as its book of the day. It included an extract from Wang’s chapter on the Capitol, and dotted photographs from the storming throughout the text. ‘The Capitol is a freely accessible place, and every visitor can go inside. When not in session, visitors can also sit in a seat and get a taste of what it’s like to be a congressman.’ Under these lines was a picture of the rioter Richard Barnett with his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. The nationalist blog Guancha claimed that ‘everyone will feel admiration for Wang’s prophecy … Looking at the United States today, it has fallen even further.’ The general feeling was that America was getting what it deserved: ‘Since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States has engaged in colour revolutions in other countries, incited unrest, caused uprisings, and now it has finally hit itself.’

In the years since his visit to the US, Wang has risen to the top of the Chinese Communist Party. His official title, Chairman of the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilisation, obscures his importance: since 2017, he has been one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the CCP’s highest decision-making body, and is currently fourth in the party hierarchy. When Xi Jinping walked on stage at the Twentieth Party Congress last October, Wang followed closely behind him. Unlike the other members of the Standing Committee, he has never run a province or ministry, and has no experience of local politics. His significance lies in the influence he had on China’s last three presidents. He is sometimes referred to as guoshi, the nation’s teacher – a title formerly bestowed on a monk or eminent scholar by the emperor of the day.

Wang’s experience of the Cultural Revolution was unusual. While most of his contemporaries were sent to work in the countryside, he was allowed to stay in Shanghai and continue his education, reportedly because of health problems. When the College Entrance Examination (gaokao) was reintroduced after Mao’s death, he performed so well that he was allowed to skip undergraduate study altogether. At the age of thirty, he was appointed professor of international politics at Fudan – the youngest appointment in the university’s history. This attracted the interest of the American Political Science Association, and an invitation followed soon after.

When Wang left China in 1988, GDP per capita was $283. America was nearly a hundred times richer. He was shocked at the pace of the cities and the number of cars. This ‘modern rhythm’ provoked in him an ‘inexplicable sense of nervousness’, and he wondered whether this sensation could occur on a societal level: ‘The question of whether a nation, as a whole, will have a “modernisation stress reaction” … is a problem facing developing countries.’ He included China in this. In the decade since Mao’s death, people had poured into the coastal regions to find work in the new factories. A capitalist class grew wealthy overnight.

Many looked to America as a roadmap. But as the novelist Yu Hua has argued, there was more than one America in the Chinese imagination. There was the imperial America of the Mao era, ‘which oppressed its own people, and people all over the world’. But that vision of America had faltered when Deng Xiaoping visited in 1979. Images of everyday life in the US were broadcast on state television. Everyone had a car, a refrigerator, a TV. A society capable of producing so much for so many must have something figured out. Wang wasn’t so sure. The America he saw was neither an imperialist paper tiger nor universally prosperous. He kept noticing its contradictions. ‘On the night Bush was inaugurated as the 41st president,’ he writes in America against America, ‘I saw homeless people sleeping in doorways of the buildings lining Bush Street in San Francisco.’

Though much has been made of Wang’s predictions of American decline, his account is surprisingly balanced. He records many innovations from which China might benefit: credit cards, think tanks, the interstate highway system. Some of his descriptions convey a sense of wonder: ‘In the evening, when you climb the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world, and look out over the blue lake in the far distance and the interlocking buildings below, you can better appreciate the power of science and technology to create miracles.’ There was plenty, of course, that he didn’t admire. He thought presidential elections were ‘problematic, to say the least’. He hated celebrity culture – ‘the biggest human flaw’ – and Times Square. But it’s useful, he writes, ‘to understand what methods different human societies use to resolve contradictions, mitigate conflicts and meet needs’.

The greatest contradiction, as he saw it, was between Americans’ supposed desire for equality and their fixation with freedom. ‘Equality in the economic and social spheres has been slow to advance,’ he writes, ‘because it is considered to be in the realm of liberty, and freedom is inviolable, especially the right to freedom of private property.’ This explained the phenomenon of family breakdown, and America’s inability to address systemic racism (which Wang describes as the ‘black challenge’). Because liberty trumped all, the US was doomed to suffer the worst effects of individualism.

Wang’s academic work of the late 1980s and early 1990s outlines a very different model of politics and society. In a series of papers that formed the basis of neo-authoritarian thought in China, he argued for a ‘necessary concentration’ of power in the CCP, which would allow China to modernise without collapsing. ‘For a society to have long-term stability, it must have a good political system,’ he wrote in his diary in 1994. But ‘a sound political system must adapt to certain national conditions and must be rooted in the deep soil of that society.’ As he watched the former USSR descend into kleptocracy and chaos, he advocated the continuation of CCP rule at all costs. The party’s legitimacy had to be shored up through regular reinvigoration of its ideological platform.

In 1995, Wang was invited to a meeting with Jiang Zemin, who had replaced Zhao Ziyang as general secretary after Tiananmen Square. It wasn’t just his academic work that had caught Jiang’s eye, but his performance as captain of Fudan’s debating team, which he had led to victory against the National Taiwan University by arguing that humans are inherently evil. He joined the CCP’s Central Policy Research Office that year and was made its head in 2002. Wang is credited with shaping the ideology of the last three Chinese leaders. Jiang’s ‘Three Represents’ is said to be his formulation. This concept opened up CCP membership to entrepreneurs and capitalists, admitting to the fact that the socialist project would have to embrace the market. In the face of the spiralling inequality that created, the ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ of Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, was supposed to ensure more equitable change. But it is under Xi Jinping that Wang’s centralising vision has found its fullest expression. He is said to have come up with the phrase the ‘Chinese Dream’, which Xi has used to characterise his leadership since 2012. The term is a way of reflecting the aspirations of a once fragile and poor nation that now boasts a strong economy and an ability to project power on the world stage. These phrases aren’t ideological precepts, but show the way the party seeks to articulate itself and signal its vision for the country.

In 2018, Xi began the process of removing the two-term limit imposed on the presidency after Mao; the way is now clear for him to be leader for life. In America against America, Wang marvels at the smooth transition of power in the United States. After Bush’s inauguration, ‘a helicopter takes the Reagans directly to Andrews Air Force Base, where they will be flown directly to their home in Los Angeles. The Bushes and the Quayles see the Reagans to their plane: the Reagan era is over.’ It was that simple: the ‘fundamental problem of any political system’ was resolved without ‘chaos or bloodshed’. So far, at least, Wang has survived the ruthless internal workings of the CCP. He has spent two decades at the top of Chinese politics and has earned the trust of successive premiers. This says something about his value to the party and about his character. His books were taken out of print as soon as he rose within the party. When one of the academics he met in America saw him again in Beijing years later, Wang refused a private meeting. ‘I’m inside the system now,’ he said. Perhaps his background in academia has been an asset: not having worked his way up the ranks from the local level, he has no power base of his own, and so has never been considered a threat.

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