The Hidden Ruler: Wang Huning and the Making of Contemporary China
The article provides the first comprehensive examination of the life and thought of Wang Huning, member of the Politburo, advisor to three Chinese leaders and important contributor to major political conceptual formulations in contemporary China. In doing so, it seeks to derive insights into the role of intellectuals in China, and what this says about Chinese politics. It argues that, although initially reluctant to enter politics, Wang has become in effect a ‘hidden leader’, exercising far-reaching influence on the nature of Chinese politics, thereby revealing the fundamental tensions in contemporary Chinese politics, shaped by major political debates concerning stability, economic growth and legitimacy. Understanding the character and aspirations of China’s top leaders and the subtle and complex shifting of alliances and authority that characterizes politics at this highest level has long been the focus of students of Chinese politics. But much less attention is paid to those who advise these leaders, perhaps because of the anonymity of these advisors and the view that they wield limited authority within the hierarchy of the state and the Party. Such neglect, however, is not justified in the case of Wang Huning. Wang, former Fudan University academic, was invited to advise President Jiang Zemin (1993–2003) in 1995 and since then has assumed an increasingly important role in advising subsequent leaders Hu Jintao (2003–2013) and Xi Jinping (2013–present). He is presently in the Politburo and is said to have been instrumental in formulating the ‘Three Represents’, ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ and ‘Chinese Dream’, some of the major political policy initiatives in contemporary China. By any measure, therefore, Wang has been significant in shaping contemporary Chinese politics. Yet there have been few systematic studies of his role as intellectual and political advisor. This article presents the first comprehensive account of Wang, his life, his intellectual background and political career, much of which is only available from a range of fragmented sources and only in Chinese. This account will be useful for those who wish to understand who Wang is and what his intellectual views were before taking up formal office when he ceased publishing in his own name. But Wang and his thought warrants closer examination for two additional, related reasons. Because of his tenure and influence, Wang allows us to see the extent to which intellectuals can be said to be influential in contemporary Chinese politics. Equally important, Wang’s political role provides a valuable means for understanding the character of contemporary China, especially its core concerns regarding what it is and what it aspires to be. This article argues that Wang as political advisor has come to exert unprecedented authority in determining major political questions. This influence has been such that it is possible to describe him as a ‘hidden ruler’, whose advice and counsel can have great influence on politics, just as influential as the foremost political leaders. Yet this influence is not due solely to his abilities, which are considerable. It is because of the unique circumstances that include the rapidly changing political and economic conditions, the legitimacy challenges facing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the contest over the future direction of the PRC that Wang has come to exert this influence. To this extent, Wang as hidden ruler has been possible only because of the crucial challenges facing China regarding its stability and legitimacy and the uncertainty of the future direction it should take. In the discussion that follows, the first section provides a brief biographical introduction to Wang and then attempts to understand his role as academic and advisor by reviewing the different theoretical approaches adopted in China and the West regarding the role of intellectuals in politics. This includes an overview of the role of advisors and public intellectuals in modern Chinese politics. Having developed this conceptual framework for understanding the role of thinkers in politics, the next section then examines the role of Wang as both a public intellectual and political advisor in contemporary China, outlining in detail his extensive publications that are predominantly in Chinese, as well as his contribution to Chinese politics as advisor to three Chinese leaders. The concluding remarks note how the unique contemporary circumstances provide unprecedented, though often fleeting, opportunities for advisors to wield extraordinary influence in shaping the political landscape, revealing the major challenges and uncertainties in contemporary Chinese politics.
Journal of Contemporary China
This publication has been entered into Griffith Research Online as an Advanced Online Version.
Asian Cultural Studies