One day in August 2021, Zhao Wei disappeared. For one of China’s best-known actresses to physically vanish from public view would have been enough to cause a stir on its own. But Zhao’s disappearing act was far more thorough: overnight, she was erased from the internet. Her Weibo social media page, with its 86 million followers, went offline, as did fan sites dedicated to her. Searches for her many films and television shows returned no results on streaming sites. Zhao’s name was scrubbed from the credits of projects she had appeared in or directed, replaced with a blank space. Online discussions uttering her name were censored. Suddenly, little trace remained that the 45-year-old celebrity had ever existed.
She wasn’t alone. Other Chinese entertainers also began to vanish as Chinese government regulators announced
a “heightened crackdown” intended to dispense with “vulgar internet celebrities” promoting lascivious lifestyles and to “resolve the problem of chaos” created by online fandom culture. Those imitating the effeminate or androgynous aesthetics of Korean boyband stars—colorfully referred to as “xiao xian rou
,” or “little fresh meat”—were next to go, with the government vowing to “resolutely put an end to sissy men” appearing on the screens of China’s impressionable youth.
Zhao and her unfortunate compatriots in the entertainment industry were caught up in something far larger than themselves: a sudden wave of new government policies that are currently upending Chinese life in what state media has characterized as a “profound transformation” of the country. Officially referred to as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign, this transformation is proceeding along two parallel lines: a vast regulatory crackdown roiling the private sector economy and a broader moralistic effort to reengineer Chinese culture from the top down.
But why is this “profound transformation” happening? And why now? Most analysis has focused on one man: Xi and his seemingly endless personal obsession with political control. The overlooked answer, however, is that this is indeed the culmination of decades of thinking and planning by a very powerful man—but that man is not Xi Jinping.
The Grey Eminence
Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. It took former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s repeated entreaties to convince the brilliant then-young academic—who spoke wistfully of following the traditional path of a Confucian scholar, aloof from politics—to give up academia in the early 1990s and join the Chinese Communist Party regime instead. When he finally did so, Wang cut off nearly all contact with his former connections, stopped publishing and speaking publicly, and implemented a strict policy of never speaking to foreigners at all. Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.
Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.
A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.” Scrutinize any photograph of Xi on an important trip or at a key meeting and one is likely to spot Wang there in the background, never far from the leader’s side.
Wang has thus earned comparisons to famous figures of Chinese history like Zhuge Liang and Han Fei (historians dub the latter “China’s Machiavelli”) who similarly served behind the throne as powerful strategic advisers and consiglieres—a position referred to in Chinese literature as dishi
: “Emperor’s Teacher.” Such a figure is just as readily recognizable in the West as an éminence grise
(“grey eminence”), in the tradition of Tremblay, Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, or Vladimir Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov.
But what is singularly remarkable about Wang is that he’s managed to serve in this role of court philosopher to not just one, but all three of China’s previous top leaders, including as the pen behind Jiang Zemin’s signature “Three Represents” policy and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society.”
In the brutally cutthroat world of CCP factional politics, this is an unprecedented feat. Wang was recruited into the party by Jiang’s “Shanghai Gang,” a rival faction that Xi worked to ruthlessly purge after coming to power in 2012; many prominent members, like former security chief Zhou Yongkang and former vice security minister Sun Lijun, have ended up in prison. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League Faction has also been heavily marginalized as Xi’s faction has consolidated control. Yet Wang Huning remains. More than any other, it is this fact that reveals the depth of his impeccable political cunning.
And the fingerprints of China’s Grey Eminence on the Common Prosperity campaign are unmistakable. While it’s hard to be certain what Wang really believes today inside his black box, he was once an immensely prolific author, publishing nearly 20 books along with numerous essays. And the obvious continuity between the thought in those works and what’s happening in China today says something fascinating about how Beijing has come to perceive the world through the eyes of Wang Huning.
While other Chinese teenagers spent the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) “sent down to the countryside” to dig ditches and work on farms, Wang Huning studied French at an elite foreign-language training school near his hometown of Shanghai, spending his days reading banned foreign literary classics secured for him by his teachers. Born in 1955 to a revolutionary family from Shandong, he was a sickly, bookish youth; this, along with his family’s connections, seems to have secured him a pass from hard labor.
When China’s shuttered universities reopened in 1978, following the commencement of “reform and opening” by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, Wang was among the first to take the restored national university entrance exam, competing with millions for a chance to return to higher learning. He passed so spectacularly that Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s top institutions, admitted him into its prestigious international politics master’s program despite having never completed a bachelor’s degree.
The thesis work he completed at Fudan, which would become his first book, traced the development of the Western concept of national sovereignty from antiquity to the present day—including from Gilgamesh through Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Marx—and contrasted it with Chinese conceptions of the idea. The work would become the foundation for many of his future theories of the nation-state and international relations.
But Wang was also beginning to pick up the strands of what would become another core thread of his life’s work: the necessary centrality of culture, tradition, and value structures to political stability.
Wang elaborated on these ideas in a 1988 essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,
” which would become one of his most cited works. In it, he argued that the CCP must urgently consider how society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). While seemingly a straightforward idea, this was notably a daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.
Examining China in the midst of Deng’s rapid opening to the world, Wang perceived a country “in a state of transformation” from “an economy of production to an economy of consumption,” while evolving “from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture,” and “from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.”
Meanwhile, he believed that the modernization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was effectively leaving China without any real cultural direction at all. “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” he warned. This could serve only to dissolve societal and political cohesion.
That, he said, was untenable. Warning that “the components of the political culture shaped by the Cultural Revolution came to be divorced from the source that gave birth to this culture, as well as from social demands, social values, and social relations”—and thus “the results of the adoption of Marxism were not always positive”—he argued that, “Since 1949, we have criticized the core values of the classical and modern structures, but have not paid enough attention to shaping our own core values.” Therefore: “we must create core values.” Ideally, he concluded, “We must combine the flexibility of [China’s] traditional values with the modern spirit [both Western and Marxist].”
But at this point, like many during those heady years of reform and opening, he remained hopeful that liberalism could play a positive role in China, writing that his recommendations could allow “the components of the modern structure that embody the spirit of modern democracy and humanism [to] find the support they need to take root and grow.”
That would soon change.
A Dark Vision
Also in 1988, Wang—having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30—won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.
What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.
Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America
. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.
But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.
“The real cell of society in the United States is the individual,” he finds. This is so because the cell most foundational (per Aristotle) to society, “the family, has disintegrated.” Meanwhile, in the American system, “everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification.” This “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.” In the end, “the American economic system has created human loneliness” as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality. As a result, “nihilism has become the American way, which is a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit.”
Moreover, he says that the “American spirit is facing serious challenges” from new ideational competitors. Reflecting on the universities he visited and quoting approvingly from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind
, he notes a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values” and actively rejects its cultural inheritance. “If the value system collapses,” he wonders, “how can the social system be sustained?”
Ultimately, he argues, when faced with critical social issues like drug addiction, America’s atomized, deracinated, and dispirited society has found itself with “an insurmountable problem” because it no longer has any coherent conceptual grounds from which to mount any resistance.
Once idealistic about America, at the start of 1989 the young Wang returned to China and, promoted to Dean of Fudan’s International Politics Department, became a leading opponent of liberalization.
He began to argue that China had to resist global liberal influence and become a culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state. He would develop these ideas into what has become known as China’s “Neo-Authoritarian” movement—though Wang never used the term, identifying himself with China’s “Neo-Conservatives.” This reflected his desire to blend Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Legalist political thought, maximalist Western ideas of state sovereignty and power, and nationalism in order to synthesize a new basis for long-term stability and growth immune to Western liberalism.
“He was most concerned with the question of how to manage China,” one former Fudan student recalls
. “He was suggesting that a strong, centralized state is necessary to hold this society together. He spent every night in his office and didn’t do anything else.”
Wang’s timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Only months after his return, China’s own emerging contradictions exploded into view in the form of student protests in Tiananmen Square. After PLA tanks crushed the dreams of liberal democracy sprouting in China, CCP leadership began searching desperately for a new political model on which to secure the regime. They soon turned to Wang Huning.
When Wang won national acclaim by leading a university debate team to victory in an international competition in Singapore in 1993, he caught the attention of Jiang Zemin, who had become party leader after Tiananmen. Wang, having defeated National Taiwan University by arguing that human nature is inherently evil, foreshadowed that, “While Western modern civilization can bring material prosperity, it doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement in character.” Jiang plucked him from the university and, at the age of 40, he was granted a leadership position in the CCP’s secretive Central Policy Research Office, putting him on an inside track into the highest echelons of power.
Wang Huning’s Nightmare
From the smug point of view of millions who now inhabit the Chinese internet, Wang’s dark vision of American dissolution was nothing less than prophetic. When they look to the U.S., they no longer see a beacon of liberal democracy standing as an admired symbol of a better future. That was the impression of those who created the famous “Goddess of Democracy,” with her paper-mâché torch held aloft before the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
Instead, they see Wang’s America: deindustrialization, rural decay, over-financialization, out of control asset prices, and the emergence of a self-perpetuating rentier elite; powerful tech monopolies able to crush any upstart competitors operating effectively beyond the scope of government; immense economic inequality, chronic unemployment, addiction, homelessness, and crime; cultural chaos, historical nihilism, family breakdown, and plunging fertility rates; societal despair, spiritual malaise, social isolation, and skyrocketing rates of mental health issues; a loss of national unity and purpose in the face of decadence and barely concealed self-loathing; vast internal divisions, racial tensions, riots, political violence, and a country that increasingly seems close to coming apart.
As a tumultuous 2020 roiled American politics, Chinese people began turning to Wang’s America Against America
for answers. And when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, the book flew off the shelves. Out-of-print copies began selling for as much as $2,500 on Chinese e-commerce sites.
But Wang is unlikely to be savoring the acclaim, because his worst fear has become reality: the “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” he identified in America seems to have successfully jumped the Pacific. Despite all his and Xi’s success in draconian suppression of political liberalism, many of the same problems Wang observed in America have nonetheless emerged to ravage China over the last decade as the country progressively embraced a more neoliberal capitalist economic model.
“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has rapidly transformed China into one of the most economically unequal societies on earth. It now boasts a Gini Coefficient of, officially, around 0.47, worse than the U.S.’s 0.41. The wealthiest 1% of the population now holds around 31% of the country’s wealth (not far behind the 35% in the U.S.). But most people in China remain relatively poor: some 600 million
still subsist on a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.
Meanwhile, Chinese tech giants have established monopoly positions even more robust than their U.S. counterparts, often with market shares nearing 90%. Corporate employment frequently features an exhausting “996” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) schedule. Others labor among struggling legions trapped by up-front debts in the vast system of modern-day indentured servitude that is the Chinese “gig economy.” Up to 400 million Chinese are forecast to enjoy the liberation of such “self-employment” by 2036, according to Alibaba
The job market for China’s ever-expanding pool of university graduates is so competitive that “graduation equals unemployment” is a societal meme (the two words share a common Chinese character). And as young people have flocked to urban metropoles to search for employment, rural regions have been drained and left to decay, while centuries of communal extended family life have been upended in a generation, leaving the elderly to rely on the state for marginal care. In the cities, young people have been priced out of the property market by a red-hot asset bubble.
Meanwhile, contrary to trite Western assumptions of an inherently communal Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it’s led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after oddly regular instances in which injured individuals have been left to die on the street by passers-by habitually distrustful of being scammed.
Feeling alone and unable to get ahead in a ruthlessly consumerist society, Chinese youth increasingly describe existing in a state of nihilistic despair encapsulated by the online slang term neijuan
(“involution”), which describes a “turning inward” by individuals and society due to a prevalent sense of being stuck in a draining rat race where everyone inevitably loses. This despair has manifested itself in a movement known as tangping
, or “lying flat,” in which people attempt to escape that rat race by doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to live, becoming modern ascetics.
In this environment, China’s fertility rate has collapsed to 1.3 children per woman as of 2020
—below Japan and above only South Korea as the lowest in the world—plunging its economic future into crisis. Ending family size limits and government attempts to persuade families to have more children have been met with incredulity and ridicule by Chinese young people as being “totally out of touch” with economic and social reality. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” asked one typically viral post
on social media. It’s true that, given China’s cut-throat education system, raising even one child costs a huge sum: estimates range between $30,000 (about seven times the annual salary of the average citizen) and $115,000, depending on location.
But even those Chinese youth who could afford to have kids have found they enjoy a new lifestyle: the coveted DINK (“Double Income, No Kids”) life, in which well-educated young couples (married or not) spend all that extra cash on themselves. As one thoroughly liberated 27-year-old man with a vasectomy once explained to The New York Times
: “For our generation, children aren’t a necessity…Now we can live without any burdens. So why not invest our spiritual and economic resources on our own lives?”
So while Americans have today given up the old dream of liberalizing China, they should maybe look a little closer. It’s true that China never remotely liberalized—if you consider liberalism to be all about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But many political thinkers would argue there is more to a comprehensive definition of modern liberalism than that. Instead, they would identify liberalism’s essential telos as being the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer.”
From this perspective, China has been thoroughly liberalized, and the picture of what’s happening to Chinese society begins to look far more like Wang’s nightmare of a liberal culture consumed by nihilistic individualism and commodification.
The Grand Experiment
It is in this context that Wang Huning appears to have won a long-running debate within the Chinese system about what’s now required for the People’s Republic of China to endure. The era of tolerance for unfettered economic and cultural liberalism in China is over.
According to a leaked account
by one of his old friends, Xi has found himself, like Wang, “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveaux riches, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution.” Wang has now seemingly convinced Xi that they have no choice but to take drastic action to head off existential threats to social order being generated by Western-style economic and cultural liberal-capitalism—threats nearly identical to those that scourge the U.S.
This intervention has taken the form of the Common Prosperity campaign, with Xi declaring
in January that “We absolutely must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider,” and warning that “achieving common prosperity is not only an economic issue, but also a major political issue related to the party’s governing foundations.”
This is why anti-monopoly investigations have hit China’s top technology firms with billions of dollars in fines and forced restructurings and strict new data rules have curtailed China’s internet and social media companies. It’s why record-breaking IPOs have been put on hold and corporations ordered to improve labor conditions, with “996” overtime requirements made illegal and pay raised for gig workers. It’s why the government killed off the private tutoring sector overnight and capped property rental price increases. It’s why the government has announced
“excessively high incomes” are to be “adjusted.”
And it’s why celebrities like Zhao Wei have been disappearing, why Chinese minors have been banned from playing the “spiritual opium
” of video games for more than three hours per week, why LGBT groups have been scrubbed from the internet, and why abortion restrictions have been significantly tightened. As one nationalist article promoted across state media explained, if the liberal West’s “tittytainment strategy”
is allowed to succeed in causing China’s “young generation lose their toughness and virility then we will fall…just like the Soviet Union did.” The purpose of Xi’s “profound transformation” is to ensure that
“the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position of worshipping Western culture.”
In the end, the campaign represents Wang Huning’s triumph and his terror. It’s thirty years of his thought on culture made manifest in policy.
On one hand, it is worth viewing honestly the level of economic, technological, cultural, and political upheaval the West is currently experiencing and considering whether he may have accurately diagnosed a common undercurrent spreading through our globalized world. On the other, the odds that his gambit to engineer new societal values can succeed seems doubtful, considering the many failures of history’s other would-be “engineers of the soul.”
The best simple proxy to measure this effort in coming years is likely to be demographics. For reasons not entirely clear, many countries around the world now face the same challenge: fertility rates that have fallen below the replacement rate as they’ve developed into advanced economies. This has occurred across a diverse array of political systems, and shows little sign of moderating. Besides immigration, a wide range of policies have now been tried in attempts to raise birth rates, from increased public funding of childcare services to “pro-natal” tax credits for families with children. None have been consistently successful, sparking anguished debate in some quarters on whether losing the will to survive and reproduce is simply a fundamental factor of modernity. But if any country can succeed in reversing this trend, no matter the brute-force effort required, it is likely to be China.
Either way, our world is witnessing a grand experiment that’s now underway: China and the West, facing very similar societal problems, have now, thanks to Wang Huning, embarked on radically different approaches to addressing them. And with China increasingly challenging the United States for a position of global geopolitical and ideological leadership, the conclusion of this experiment could very well shape the global future of governance for the century ahead.
N.S. Lyons is an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Upheaval