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 kongfz.com, 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.

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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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