In unprecedented times, much can be gleaned from the books we read. After the 2016 election, Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” went out of stock on Amazon as Americans tried to place their sense of doom within the arc of Western history. After the U.S. Capitol Hill riots, last year, a similar meaning-making unfolded in China. On January 12, 2021, Wang Wen, a columnist for Guancha, a nationalist news Web site based in Shanghai, noticed that an out-of-print book had shot up more than three thousand times its original price. On Kongfuzi, an online secondhand bookstore, used copies of “America Against America,” a 1991 travelogue by the political theorist Wang Huning, at one point cost twenty-nine hundred dollars. In the following days, scanned pages began circulating around the Web, and, throughout the course of the year, China’s online forums and comment sections teemed with discussion of the book’s observations on American cultural decline.
Wang Huning, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, a seven-person entourage of the highest-ranking officials in the Chinese Communist Party, is a household name in China. Chinese netizens call him guoshi (literally, “teacher of the state”), an honorific bestowed upon powerful state councillors in China’s imperial past. A former academic, he is the only member of the Standing Committee who has never run a province or city, but he makes up for his inexperience with vision and craft. In the nineteen-eighties, Wang helped devise what became known as the theory of “neo-authoritarianism”, the idea that developing countries like China needed a heavy-handed state to guide their market reforms. In a 1986 report that set off a cascade of debate inside the upper echelons of the Party, Wang argued for a “necessary concentration” of central authority to carry out market reforms. He helped pen the main slogans of three Chinese Presidents: Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents,” Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development,” and, most recently, Xi Jinping’s “new era” of global ascendency. In the international press, Wang has a somewhat theatrical, villainous reputation: he is a modern-day Machiavelli, a “dream weaver” of the Communist state, or a Rasputin-like figure ruling China from behind a veil. A Vulcan of ideology, the pen as his forge, Wang smelts Marxist vernacular into Xi Jinping Thought.
In August, 1988, under the pall of the Cold War, Wang, then a professor of international politics at Fudan University, was invited by the American Political Science Association for a six-month academic visit. He toured dozens of cities and enterprises, from Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill delivered his fabled Iron Curtain speech, to the Coca-Cola headquarters, in Atlanta. He observed the Presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis and pondered the meaning of America’s libraries, museums, space program, and even the Amish community (whom he mistakenly refers to as “Armenians”). Though he was struck by the gadgetry of American modernity—its architecture, highways, monuments, and skyscrapers—he detected, beneath it, an “undercurrent of crisis.” More than hundred and fifty years after Alexis de Tocqueville’s visit, Wang believed that America had traded its soul—the connective tissues of community, tradition, and family—for the glory of national wealth and power. Strong but weak-spirited, individualistic but lonely, rich but decadent, America was, as the title suggested, a paradox headed for disaster.
Wang writes his chapters as if he had been in conversation with some of the West’s most prominent thinkers. On equality and individualism, he wrestled with Tocqueville, concluding that the unrealized dreams of women, Blacks, and Native Americans belied what the French aristocrat called America’s “equality of condition.” Meanwhile, the defiant individualism of Tocqueville’s sketches had become “an overwhelming presence” in American life. Apparently drawing insights from Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 report on the Black family, Wang wrote that “the family was being hollowed out,” leading to loneliness, hedonism, broken families, and “stray teens.” Citing the high percentage of single mothers and the gap in educational attainment in the report, he asked, “Can overly loose-knit families be conducive to social progress?”
Wang looked askance at American democracy, regarding its promise of popular representation as elusive, if not illusory. Choices for President were scant, government agencies hoarded public power, and well-funded interest groups could easily “determine the fate of another group.” As he witnessed the pageantry of the Bush-Dukakis Presidential race—the bloated promises, the staged deference to the voter, and the flashy debates that prized spectacle over substance—his initial wonder congealed into disillusionment. Political parties are simply “hawking a commodity—the candidates—on the market,” he wrote. Voters are just “shopping among the available commodities.”
If Tocqueville located the virtues of America in its democratic culture, Wang now attributed America’s success to its “spirit of eccentricity,” which he saw as the basis for its technological innovation. He wrote glowingly of the space program and admired how the same ethos had touched the mundane: there were “machines for opening envelopes and cans” and “electronic pencil sharpeners.” Yet Wang also concluded that Americans had come to rely too much on technology. He pointed to the American approach to disabilities: technical stopgaps such as “electric wheelchairs, adjustable beds, and assistive glasses for the blind.” “People with disabilities are free to move about,” he wrote. “But as human beings their problems are not solved.” In America, Wang wrote, “it is not the people who master the technology, but the technology that masters the people.” This had lessons for geopolitics: “If you want to overwhelm the Americans, you must do one thing: surpass them in science and technology.”
Of the numerous Western writers referenced in his book, Wang seemed to identify most with the conservative philosopher Allan Bloom. Drawing on the central thesis of Bloom’s best-selling jeremiad “The Closing of the American Mind,” Wang lampooned a “generation of youths ignorant of traditional Western values.” “There’s a sense of moral panic that runs through the book,” Matt Johnson, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution who has written extensively on Wang, told me. “He senses cultural decay all around him and there’s some strong reactions there.” Wang’s affinity for Bloom grew out of his own experience. In the sixties, as the Soviet Union began forsaking Stalinism, and U.S. foreign policy pivoted to the subversive tactic of “peaceful evolution,” Mao Zedong came to see the greatest threat against him as insufficient faith in his movement. An entire generation of Chinese leaders, forged in the crucible of the Cultural Revolution, came to associate the survival of a political system with the faith that people had in it, and faith was kept up through traditions—what Wang called the “cultural gene.” In “America Against America,” Wang asked, “If the value system collapses, how can the social system be sustained?”
“America Against America” established Wang as a shrewd analyst of democracies. In 1993, two years after the book’s publication, Wang was promoted to the chair of his department at Fudan University. Today, Chinese readers see him as one of the earliest apostates of the church of American exceptionalism, which spurred many families to immigrate to the United States during the heyday of market reforms. “Chinese have finally started to see the real America instead of being blinded by our fantasies,” one reviewer wrote on Douban, a popular book-discussion platform. “Our guoshi broke that myth long ago.”
In the United States, Wang’s work has attracted interest across the political spectrum. In October, a profile of Wang, by a Washington-based foreign-policy analyst writing under the pseudonym N. S. Lyons, was published in a “governance futurism” magazine called Palladium. Wang, Lyons wrote, “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.” The conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt highlighted Lyons’s profile in a column in the Washington Post, saying that it “ought to be on the desks of every institution tracking the Chinese Communist Party.” The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently called Wang “maybe the most important intellectual today.” Thirty years ago, “he saw all the deadlocks already that led to Trump, populism, and social disintegration.” In an e-mail, Lyons told me, “There is now an acute sense, including in Washington, that liberalism may currently be imploding.” On both the left and the right, “there is I believe a growing fear that in at least some ways Wang may have been correct.”
As China marches toward what Xi Jinping calls “the great rejuvenation,” it has become increasingly plain that Western political ideas no longer hold any currency within the Party. Wang, who has the ear of the most powerful Chinese ruler since Mao Zedong, holds the revised blueprint. Last August, the Party unveiled a new slogan. The “Common Prosperity” campaign purports to redress China’s widening wealth gap. The concept was introduced after a year-long regulatory assault on the private sector, as well as a cap on real-estate borrowing that led to the default of one of China’s largest property developers, China Evergrande. But beneath the program’s economic emphasis lies a deeply cultural, Wang-esque logic. In his speech outlining his new campaign, Xi warned against the “tearing of the social fabric” that had befallen certain unnamed countries. In these countries, he said, the divide between the rich and poor had degenerated into “political polarization and rampant populism.” Fang Kecheng, a journalism and communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told me, “In Xi’s conception of the ‘new era,’ wealth inequality and the über-rich are important challenges, of course, but there is something the Party sees as equally necessary: a unified system of values.” Last fall, education authorities banned the use of foreign textbooks in Beijing elementary and middle schools, placing the emphasis instead on books espousing the philosophy of Xi Jinping. In the edition for first and second graders, one chapter packaged a lesson on conformity into a sartorial tip: “Cultivating the right values is like buttoning shirts,” it read. “If you get the first one wrong, the rest will be ruined, too.”