Wang Huning, China's Singular Presidential Spin Doctor

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his "spin doctor," Wang Huning
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his "spin doctor," Wang Huning
Johnny Erling

BEIJING — Wang Huning is on time, standing alone. The lean man, who looks as if he might be a university professor, doesn’t stand out in the lobby of the luxury hotel. He is waiting for the sign that it’s time for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s delegation to leave.

The protocol officers who’ve come to fetch the presidential entourage note that he greets those who say hello to him, but he’s sparing with his words. The impression he gives is of someone who plays a background role.

Not long afterwards, in the sumptuous reception room at the Élysée Palace where President François Hollande is receiving President Xi, it becomes apparent just how wrong that appraisal is. As chief presidential advisor, Wang is not only seated right next to the Chinese head of state but also occasionally pushes little notes his way or whispers something in Xi's ear.

An American diplomat once compared the role of the trim Chinese adviser to that of two heavyweight presidential advisors. Wang, he said, was Karl Rove and Henry Kissinger rolled into one.

Unlike the Americans, however, the 58-year-old Wang avoids being too conspicuous, even if he was seated next to Xi during the Chinese president’s visit with President Barack Obama last June. He was the second one to toast Russian President Vladimir Putin after he made the recent gas deal with Xi in Shanghai. The next day, he was sitting with Xi on the podium at Shanghai's communist party meeting.

The Financial Times characterizes Wang as China’s "spin doctor," while the Wall Street Journal describes him as a more "traditional Confucian scholar-official who dedicates his life to the emperor." But Wang hasn’t been advisor to just one leader. Next year he’ll be celebrating his 20-year anniversary as advisor to three heads of China's Communist Party.

A ringside seat

Wang first worked for Jiang Zemin, who brought him from Shanghai to Beijing in 1995. He then worked for Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao, before signing on for the latest strongman Xi. Over the course of those two decades, China has become a super power economically, politically and militarily.

Under Jiang, ideology focused on the “Three Represents” to modernize the party. Under Hu, economic development became a priority. And under Xi, the goal has been to realize "the Chinese Dream" and to "revive the Chinese nation." All three worked toward the same underlying objective — to turn the communist People’s Republic into a rich modern, sustainable socialist world power.

Last June, Beijing’s China Newsweek was the first to lift the veil on Wang’s role as éminence grise. Wang had earned a lot of merit for his role in the development of the new theories, it said. Under Jiang, he was admitted to the Policy Research Office. Under Hu, he became a member of the 204-person Central Committee, and under Xi he joined the 25-member Politburo. With regard to his 2002 appointment as director of the Policy Research Office, the magazine characterized him as "head of China’s most important brain trust.

But that’s not all there is to his career. Although he doesn’t accommodate interviews or engage in self-promotion of any kind, Wang studied French for five years in Shanghai and perfected his English as visiting scholar in 1988 and 1989 at the University of Iowa and Berkeley. And he has a lot to say.

Wang attended Fudan University in Shanghai, eventually becoming chairman of the Department of International Politics and dean of the law school. He is an excellent public speaker. Along with his team of Shanghai students, he won first prize in a debating competition held among Asian universities in Singapore, and in 1993 won the international university prize. He showed little emotion when accepting the award, saying, "I don’t easily show my feelings."

Extensively published

He was more expansive in his books, at least in the ones published up to 1995, before he was called to Beijing. The books are much sought after on, an online second-hand book dealer. Many Chinese are curious about his views back then in order to get better insight into what Beijing’s leaders are presently doing. His Anti-Corruption: China’s Experiment, published in 1990, can fetch up to 240 euros.

Hunan's A Political Life (1995)

Wang published it 10 months after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. One of the issues behind the student demonstrations was corruption, and the problem is more relevant than ever today. Party chief Xi has said that fighting corruption is a priority.

Many of Wang’s published views are typical of critical intellectuals, particularly his 1986 essay, "Afterthoughts on the Cultural Revolution and Political Structural Reform." Wang called on the nation to hold such catastrophes up like a mirror to keep learning from them.

He enumerated 10 reasons why the Cultural Revolution happened, ranging from unreformed political structure to the absence of independent courts. After 28 years, none of his recommendations has been implemented.

But Wang maintained his distance from the 1989 demonstrators in Beijing. One of the reasons for that was a theory he developed in 1984 that later came to be called "new authoritarianism." Wu Jiaxiang, a representative of this newly popular school of thinking, remembers that Wang pioneered the theory.

Its supporters believe that comprehensive reforms only succeed when central authority is strengthened in new ways. Only then can the stability of society be guaranteed and objectives realized. Practically, what that means for China in a period of transition is not more, but less, democracy.

Party chief Xi appears to be going along with that. He is concentrating ever more power in his own hands. At the same time, critical debates about the history of the People’s Republic, from the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen massacre, have become more strictly taboo, and critics are arbitrarily imprisoned.

Wang does not express his present-day views. His 1994 diary, published in 1995 as A Political Life, offers some insight. In it, he warns that the transition from a planned economy to a market economy will mean that ever-faster economic and social changes will have negative effects on spiritual development that will become ever more "sensitive and brittle."

Wang, who enjoys spending the early morning hours reading, noted how Alexis de Tocqueville’s book about the French Revolution impressed him: "It’s worth reading." Eighteen years later, at the end of 2012, China’s Politburo suddenly recommended reading Tocqueville. The book answered questions relevant to present-day China, it said.

In 1994, Wang was the first to apply to China the term "soft power," which was developed by American political scientist Joseph Nye. Several of his earlier books deal with comparing political systems and are critical of the internal affairs of the United States. He thanked his then-wife Zhou Ji in many forewords (the two separated in 1996). Wang remarried but is believed to have no children. The life of one of China’s most influential men remains in the shadows.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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