Faced with a political crisis that would determine the future of China, two young intellectuals each made a choice. As the student democratic movement of 1989 was poised to be smashed in Tiananmen Square, one chose to stand with the Party; the other, with the students.
Wang Huning seems to have been a chameleon as long as anyone has known him. Now occupying a seat on the powerful Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang has managed to remain a trusted adviser to three successive Communist Party leaders—a remarkable feat given the divided loyalties that are a defining element of factional politics in China.
Xia Ming, a New York-based professor of Chinese politics who shared an adjacent dorm, then office, with Wang throughout their graduate schooling and afterward, straddles the line between being a scholar and a democracy activist—a position in which many Chinese intellectuals with a strong sense of conscience find themselves.
The two entered Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the most elite schools in China, a few years apart—Xia at age 16 in 1981, Wang at 22 in 1978. They lived and worked in close proximity for almost the next decade. Years later still, Xia remained close friends with Wang’s ex-wife, hosting her at his home when she visited the United States for academic conferences. Xia has observed Wang’s ascent over the decades coolly, not exactly surprised that a man of Wang Huning’s character and temperament would go so far in a system that is as opaque as it is brutal.
The stories of the two men are a vivid demonstration of the fate of the intellectual in modern China: The scholar-mercenary, content to fashion theoretical weaponry for the ruling class on demand, will go far; but those who wish to reprise the traditional role of the Confucian intellectual—where intellectual integrity is prized, and it is “the moral duty for the intellectual to criticize the ruler abusing power,” as put by scholar John Minford—can only do so by making their way in exile.
“He is a very cautious man. He does not want to take a stand on anything,” Xia Ming says of his former colleague. “He’s going to question you, provide some of his observations, but he’s not going to reveal his true colors,” he continued.
“That’s his personality. He does not want to reveal his true nature.”
Chen Kuide, another scholar in exile, was the first PhD candidate in philosophy at Fudan University in the post-Mao era, entering the same year as Wang Huning. They shared the same dorm rule for three and a half years. Chen now edits China In Perspective, an online journal for political and intellectual debate.
“We were friends. Close friends,” Chen says. “He wrote modern poems. We’d go out together and had fun. But he didn’t like to speak much. He was extremely careful.”
A photograph of the combined graduate classes of political science and international politics in 1988 shows Xia Ming and Wang Huning with the rest of the cohort. The classes they were part of were among the most competitive in the nation. Xia, for instance, was one of just 22 students from his province of Sichuan, which had a population of about 100 million at the time.
When Xia was an undergraduate, Wang was a graduate; by the time Xia had graduated, Wang was taking on teaching roles. At one point, both of them were the political commissars of their respective classes, writing reports on the ideological reliability of their classmates.
“Wang lived at the end dorm room, four rooms away from me. Noon and morning we’d go to the same dining hall to eat.” Later, when they were both teaching, Xia would pass Wang’s open office a couple of times a day, often stopping to poke his head in and chat. Their interactions throughout the 1980s were characterized by a mixture of mutual suspicion and admiration, and for the most part, China was big enough for both of them.
But as some of the most defining events of modern Chinese political history approached—the 1989 student protests and their violent termination—the ideological landscape in China began to quickly shrink. Bourgeois sentimentalists who drank Coca Cola and wrote romantic fiction were out; dissemblers who promised a theoretical buttressing of totalitarianism were in.
By April of 1989, Shanghai was feeling the ripples from the the student protests in Beijing, with hunger strikes, teach-ins, and marches held across the Fudan campus. Xia, at the time a prominent teacher, Party member, and political commissar, gave an impassioned speech in front of hundreds of students at an auditorium in late April.
The next day, students from other universities in Shanghai began marching and hunger striking, showing their solidarity with the protesters in Beijing. Participants at Fudan sensed that all the agitation might eventually come back to haunt them, so they sought to “dilute our responsibility by making the trouble bigger and bigger,” Xia said.
As junior faculty, they went in search of senior professors to sign their petitions, managing to enroll the son of Yan Beiming, one of Fudan’s most well-known philosophers. “We asked Wang Huning to sign, but of course he didn’t sign.”
Wang instead did the opposite, signing his name to an anti-reformist document speaking out against the protest.
“He made his political stance clear—he didn’t support the student movement,” Chen Kuide says.
Those who didn’t toe the line either went into hiding, or worse. Xia Ming holed up near the Huangshan mountain range until he heard it was safe to return. His friend, the student activist Wen Jiangpin, was caught and sent back to Hunan Province to work at a fertilizer factory, producing ammonia. He eventually committed suicide.
Xia had a good class background, and this bought him some leniency. His father was a first generation communist air force pilot who helped Lin Biao secure control of the northeast during the Chinese Civil War, and his wife’s father was a communist nuclear scientist; her mother’s family in Jiangsu had helped fund the revolution, lending cash to Zeng Shan, the father of China’s former vice chairman Zeng Qinghong. This convoluted history swirled in the background as Xia was forgiven for his naivete.
“But once I came back, I lost my freedom,” he says. “I wasn’t put in a jail cell, but I had to report for a political study meeting each day and wasn’t able to leave campus.”
Climbing the Ladder
Wang Huning could not boast of such family credentials, and so, as Xia puts it, he did the next best thing: married them. During the 1980s Wang took the hand of the promising student Zhou Qi, whose father was a vice-minister ranked cadre in the state security apparatus.
“Wang is a very deliberate and calculating person. When Zhou Qi was young, he was nobody, but she was from an established family,” said Xia Ming. “Imagine if you’re a young professor at Harvard Kennedy School and then you marry the daughter of the president of Brookings, or the national security adviser. Wang quickly became the youngest associate professor in our department.”
While positioning himself personally for greater influence, and lining up politically behind the emerging new party line, there’s the possibility that Wang was tipped off by China’s intelligence agencies about which way the wind was blowing before the June 4 massacre.
Overseas Chinese publications including the Hong Kong-based Open Magazine, and Boxun, citing a retired professor of international relations at Fudan, describe it as “open knowledge” that Shanghai state security agents had been in contact with Wang. Xia Ming also describes rebuffing aggressive recruitment advances by intelligence personnel.
One of the most iconic instances of Wang’s obeisance is reported to have taken place in the auditorium of the Jinjiang Hotel, an institution of Old Shanghai that had been taken over by the communists in the early years of their rule. Jiang Zemin, then the Party secretary of the city, had called a meeting with scholars, writers, newspaper editors, and others in the cultural sphere, to explain the “rectification” of the well-known liberal newspaper World Economic Herald.
The Herald had throughout the 1980s been home base to many of the era’s intellectuals and writers, and featured essays from both Xia Ming and Wang Huning, among many others, about economic and political reforms in China. Its support for the protesting students in Beijing, however, led to Jiang taking a hard line against it (scholars believe that this was in part crucial to his appointment as the general secretary of the Party, following the Tiananmen massacre, after the ousting of Zhao Ziyang.)
While those assembled at the Jinjiang Hotel mostly spoke out against the attack on the Herald, Wang Huning was openly supportive. This caught the eye of Zeng Qinghong, often known as Jiang Zemin’s hatchet man and political mastermind, who called for Wang to stay behind and introduced him to the boss.
Xia Ming said he heard this story told by a participant at the meeting; Chen Kuide said he had heard the same story through another source; Zhang Weiguo, a former journalist and editor at the Herald, knew of the meeting but had not been apprised of the anecdote.
While not confirming this incident, Party publications are on record showing Zeng’s admiration for Wang. “Wang Huning’s brilliance in political science had caught the eye of some leaders before the 13th Party Congress” in 1987, says China News Service, a state-run media. “Our Party especially needed insight into political science for reference.”
The article says that Zeng, at the time involved in personnel work in Shanghai, went to visit Wang at Fudan University and spoke with him for over two hours. “The two men discussed many topics of interest and reached a meeting of minds. The atmosphere of the discussion was extremely enthusiastic, almost as though they had forgot who was the leader, who the scholar.”
Belly of the Beast
After he was brought to Beijing in 1994—at the personal insistence of Jiang Zemin, the China News Service article says—Wang got to work on the kind of political theory that would be useful to the Communist Party’s rulers. It is this period of his life with which foreign observers are most familiar, a whole series of the regime’s theoretical advancements having been ultimately attributed, or traced back, to Wang Huning.
These include Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents,” the opaque articulation in 2000 that the Communist Party “represents advanced social productive forces,” progress in culture, and “the fundamental interests of the majority.” The key outcome attributed to the theory was to allow capitalists to be Party members, thus paving the way for the entrenched crony capitalism that came to characterize China’s economic development for at least the next decade.
Wang is also thought to be behind Hu Jintao’s anodyne theory of the “scientific outlook on development.” This theory means to “integrate Marxism with the reality of contemporary China and with the underlying features of our times, and it fully embodies the Marxist worldview on and methodology for development,” says state media.
Wang’s influence has even extended into the Xi Jinping era, a rare demonstration of staying power for a personal adviser to top Party leaders. He is often spotted accompanying Xi on overseas trips and in key political meetings in China, and his former colleagues think his fingerprints are also on some of Xi’s theoretical contributions. These include Xi’s “shoe theory,” which, in deflecting criticism over strong-handed communist rule over China, says “you only know if a shoe fits once you wear it.” Wang Huning was a close student of the American political theorist John Dewey, famous for the comment “The man who wears the shoe knows best… where it pinches.”
His erstwhile peers now living abroad express dismay with how Wang has put his intellect to use.
“He was obedient and smart, and was willing to be used,” says Chen Kuide. “Once he went to Beijing he needed to get used to the political environment and follow the rules. It’s not that he has his own values.”
The tendency to line up behind the powerful seems to have been present in Wang’s work from early on. “It can’t be said absolutely which cultural state is better than another,” he remarked in a book on comparative politics.
Chen responded, citing the line in a review of the volume in 1987: “If that’s so… then we’ve fallen into a totally passive cynicism in which we can only confirm with political realities and abandon all hopes for social progress.”
“Wang Huning has hijacked so many good ideas,” says Xia. “Originally the Dewey line was about how to empower individuals, but now he’s made it the antithesis of Dewey, using it to defend the Chinese government. The original democratic idea is castrated. That’s Wang Huning intellectual work.”
Anecdotes passed around among his former schoolmates say that Wang would often sleep in a couch in his office, ready to attend to the needs of the top leadership at a moment’s notice.
Xia Ming recounts an incident in 1997 when a group of Wang’s old friends from Shanghai went to Beijing as part of the annual political meetings, and invited him to a big dinner. Wang only stopped by briefly to give his greetings to the group, forgoing the customary banquet and heavy drinking. Xia’s reading of it is that “he didn’t want to cultivate connections with anyone except his boss—he’s given his whole body and soul to the boss.” And this would explain why he has been able to last three administrations: Wang Huning, having rendered dedicated service to whoever was in charge, simply never formed his own power base or connections, and thus never posed a threat to either Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping.
Wang Huning, then, comes across as a one-dimensional cipher—content purely to serve power, whoever may be wielding it. He is also, Xia believes, genuinely ideologically committed to the Communist Party, and buys into the idea that it has scientifically grasped the “red line” of historical development. This may be the propulsive force behind Wang’s single-minded commitment.
Unexpectedly, he also helped to propel the overseas career of Xia Ming, who had been trying to leave China for over a year. Xia’s full scholarship at Temple University in 1991 was only possible with the agreement of Wang, his boss at Fudan University at the time, whose permission was essential for Xia to leave the country.
Crushed Children and French Wine
Perhaps the biggest difference between the intellectual outlooks of Wang Huning and Xia Ming is simply their willingness to change.
Despite his pro-democracy sensibilities as a young idealist, Xia still considered himself something of a neutral and unaligned scholar after his arrival in the United States.
The first step in his political awakening was done: after the failure of political reform in China by the end of the 1980s, he knew that he had to seek his fortunes abroad.
The second phase came much more unexpectedly, and was the opposite of what had been intended by those who sought to win him over.
In 2008, Xia traveled to the remote southwest Chinese countryside to help a documentary crew show the truth of the fallout of the massive Sichuan earthquake, in which genuine rescue efforts took a back seat to political control. The regime also went to great lengths to cover-up the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Chinese schoolchildren, who were crushed due to flimsy school buildings, the fruits of abject corruption in the building process. The film “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province,” was nominated for an Academy Award and won an Emmy.
But it wasn’t the corruption he witnessed, the suffering of parents he felt, or the smell of rotting bodies, that thoroughly soured him on official China. That took place at a fine French restaurant in the Jin Mao Tower, as he dined in a private room with sweeping views of the Shanghai skyline.
Xia had stopped in Shanghai to see old friends and students on his way back to the United States. As they were served delicate French cuisine and expensive wine by beautiful waitresses, his colleagues asked about his time in Sichuan. He explained what he’d seen.
Their response was unanimous: “We’re sure that whatever you saw was not the real China,” Xia recalls. “The real China is here, when you’re spending time with us.” They invited him to come back, even take an academic post again in China, and then “we’ll show you the real advantages of socialism.”
The strangest part about the experience, apart from the vast contrast between the dinner and what he’d seen in Sichuan, was “their attempt to deny the authenticity of my reality. I thought it was very interesting.”
His friends hailed from government and finance, including a deputy-bureau level official who ran investments for the Shanghai city government. The disillusionment with this experience was another key turning point in Xia’s intellectual journey. “If I say what I want, then the price is that I can’t come back to China anymore.” This fate he embraced.
Buddhist Prayer Beads
Xia slowly came to conceive of his role as an intellectual much more expansively—not merely to analyze politics, but do something to nudge China toward greater freedom.
Part of this process involved actively rebelling from Party indoctrination and control. He announced his resignation from the Communist Party over a dinner in Flushing, New York, in 2010, he recalls, and began to reflect deeply on the subtle influences that Party ideology had had on him.
“I really believe that we’re all the victims of communist brainwashing. How can you sanitize yourself?” Xia said. “I’ve spent 20 years trying to cleanse my own thinking. I realized I had so much darkness in my heart.”
Years of introspection led him to an attempted, but failed, embrace of Christianity. He began reading the classic Buddhist scriptures, the Heart Sutra and Lotus Sutra, and delving into traditional Chinese philosophy, including Confucius, Mencius, and Mozi. He also developed an affinity for the Dalai Lama, reading his books, and wearing a brown prayer bracelet on his wrist.
“All this gave me a new understanding of the world. I made a choice to do things that are in alignment with some universal truths,” Xia said, echoing the holistic vision of a traditional scholar, distinct from the mere technocrats that often rule China’s regime and academies. His personal website includes a quote from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Xia often appears on Voice of America, a Chinese-language broadcasted funded by the U.S. government, as well as New Tang Dynasty Television, another overseas broadcaster with a dissident bent. He contributes articles to democracy-minded publications, and regularly appears at and hosts discussion fora with other scholars who also found that only by leaving China could they express themselves.
“Those who know brother Xia Ming will have seen his change over the last few years—some friends are even astonished,” wrote Chen Kuide in a 2011 preface to Xia’s book “Political Venus.”
As Xia wrote in the same book, “None of the things I write are purely done for academic reasons—everything is directed to the great events taking place in China, in order to influence China’s politics, social progress, and to help China be more democratic, fair, and free. That’s what I work towards.”