Written by Niv Horesh.

In 1991, David Shambaugh famously damned China’s American-studies establishment as advancing a “shallow and seriously distorted” understanding of US culture, history, society and politics.1 Nevertheless, in the intervening two and a half decades, a new generation of experts has come to inform CCP thinking on the US. Shambaugh’s 1991 study focused on prominent figures like Zhang Wenjin (d. 1991), Han Xu (d. 1994) and their lesser-known policy-wonk contemporaries. Yet, by 2012, Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, who examined later generations of Chinese experts on US affairs, concluded that the latter “…seem to have achieved a good understanding of the American political system after about twenty years’ effort”.2

Zhang Wenjin’s expertise was undoubtedly critical to Sino-American normalisation, but he had not had much hands-on experience of the US. In fact, he studied in Germany before WWII, at much the same time that Deng Xiaoping had been studying in France. Zhang would nevertheless end up playing an important role in facilitating the Mao-Nixon rapprochement, and would later also advise Deng Xiaoping, and serve as PRC Ambassador to Washington. Han Xu, on the other hand, studied English in the early 1940s at the American-run Yanjing University in Beijing (known as Peiping then). In short, neither Zhang nor Han had had hands-on, in-country US experience before rising to the top echelons of CCP US policy-making.

Born well after the establishment of the PRC, China’s senior America watchers at present are nevertheless much better informed about the US, albeit not necessarily more pro-US. The best examples are perhaps Yan Xuetong (b. 1952) of Tsinghua University, who had actually studied for years in the US before gaining a PhD from Berkeley in 1992, or Wang Huning (b. 1955), who had held visiting fellowships at Berkeley as well as at the University of Iowa (1988-9).

Surprisingly, whilst Yan Xuetong’s thoughts on the US are not unfamiliar to Western readers,3 Wang Huning’s remain largely unknown. Yet, it is Wang who commands by far more influence within the CCP, as reflected in his 2012 promotion to the rank of politburo member. The purpose of this essay therefore is to better familiarise Western readers with Wang Huning’s formative experiences in, and impressions of, the US, as captured in a travelogue he published after returning from his visiting fellowship. We will elsewhere compare, in due course, Wang’s ideas with those of Zheng Bijian, the doyen of Chinese foreign policy in the Deng era and the putative architect of China’s taoguang yanghui (i.e.“keep low profile”) foreign policy in the 1990s. It is hoped that this comparison will offer clues as to the extent to which the current advisory shaping CCP thinking on the US differs from the previous generation; and as to whether CCP thinking is un-American or anti-American in essence.

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A Fudan University graduate who is fluent in both French and English, Wang Huning has had a remarkable career not least because his close relationship with Jiang Zemin did not result in side-lining by Hu Jintao. Wang is thought in fact to have intellectually shaped Jiang Zemin’s “three represents” reform; though often dubbed “hawkish” and anti-Western, and despite rumours of his advocacy of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown — Wang is also on record as supporting the rule of law.4

Leaving academia for officialdom in 1995, Wang has remained ever since in the inner circle of the CCP foreign-policy advisory, and is reported to have established a rapport with Xi Jinping too. One report even suggested that he played a role in shaping Xi’s new “China Dream” discourse.5 Zhou Qi, Wang’s ex wife, received a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) and currently serves as a research fellow in the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).6

So is Wang a genuine rule-of-law enthusiast, and to what extent is his worldview shaped by his experiences living in America? In 1992, well before Wang made the transition from academia to government, he published a memoir-cum-travelogue which shed light on these questions. Entitled America versus America (Meiguo fandui Meiguo), it is a book of recollections and formative thoughts penned against the background of the Bush-Dukakis presidential run-off. 7 Despite Wang’s prominence in the CCP later on, Meiguo fandui Meiguo never received the attention it deserved in the West, and it is therefore discussed below.

Right from the introduction, Wang is scathing in his portrayal of how vested-interest lobby groups and big business work to impede the American democratic process. Wang also denounces time and again what he sees as the litigious excesses of the American lifestyle. He alleges, for example, that reliance on expensive lawyers in all walks of life systematically erodes the presumption of individual freedom and equal opportunity.8

Here, we shall try to foreground what redeeming characteristics of American society he points to, alongside other revealing anecdotes he shares with his readers. Upon arrival in San Francisco airport for example, Wang is surprised at the hordes of “pushy” Japanese tourists he sees around him. To be sure, Wang was writing at a time when far fewer PRC passengers were seen in Western airports, and just before Japan’s “lost decade” had dampened the number of Japanese tourists worldwide. Presumably coming with very high expectations about American efficiency and advancement, Wang, who by then had become a seasoned domestic passenger, also reveals his disappointment at how long it took passengers to reclaim luggage from the carousel.9

He would consistently, from then on, express wonderment in the book at how tech savvy Americans were, whilst at the same time finding moral flaws with that very same feature. Thus, for example, he marvels at the facility of magnetic card use in lieu of cash in everything from public phone booths to supermarket credit cards, but observes somewhat sanctimoniously that this facility leads to spend-thriftiness on the part of ordinary Americans.10

The impression Wang might leave on Western readers is that he often over-simplifies the complexity of American multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. Whilst acknowledging the generally higher standard of living in the US, and whilst on occasion giving away his admiration for the American ‘can-do’ attitude, scientific progress and lack of hereditary nobility – Wang Huning is also at pains to point to Native Americans as an especially disenfranchised minority group. To him, Native Americans merely enjoy formalistic equality but are largely absent from the political conversation. Curiously, there is no sign in the book that this critical assessment of American society is stimulating him to draw any comparisons with the plight of ethnic minorities in the PRC.11 In that sense, as elsewhere, the book is devoid of reflective qualities.

Where Wang uniquely offers a glimpse into the makeup and thinking of senior CCP officialdom is in the personal and family realms. Wang suggests time and again that it is not just geo-politics that inherently divides China and the US, but also fundamentally different day-to-day behaviour patterns that feed, in turn, into fundamentally different world views. Coming from what was still a very poor country in 1991, Wang perceives Middle-American family life as insular and self-indulgent.12 His focus on selfishness and individuals shuts out, for the most part, alternative interpretations, and plays down the role of philanthropy and civic solidarity in American society. Similarly, it is an interpretation that does not invite much reflection on the real extent of civic solidarity in China behind the veneer of Marxist, and more recently Confucian, rhetoric in the PRC. Oftentimes, foreigners actually hear from their Chinese interlocutors just how materialistic and politically apathetic their society had become during the 1990s.13

Wang divulges perhaps moral outrage, perhaps amusement when portraying inter-generational relations in American society. For him, America is a veritable paradise for children and a battleground for adolescents. For the elderly, America, in Wang’s view, is hell when compared with their exalted status in East Asia.14 In much the same vein, Wang ridicules the American notion of marriage as something that would be an anathema to most Chinese and Japanese. In his view, most American couples treat each other to an excessive show of public endearment, yet are cold to one another in the privacy of their own homes.15

It is therefore no wonder, Wang infers, that the divorce rate in America is skyrocketing and family morality is in decline. With so many households broken, drug abuse and weapon possession atomise American society. Crime and homelessness further marginalise minority groups, leading, among other ailments, to wholesale African-American immiseration. Wang decries African-American poverty, and at the same time condemns the poor’s reliance on government benefits.16 Of course, this litany comes across as incorrigibly naïve in hindsight. For today, income inequalities have split PRC society asunder. The divorce rate in the PRC is also on the rise and single-parent families are not unheard of. President Xi Jinping himself had divorced his first wife because she allegedly wanted to live abroad, and many other CCP officials are re-married, including the now disgraced Bo Xilai.17

Then, Wang goes on to valorise the Singaporean experience as demonstrating how a society can industrialise whilst maintaining its Confucian mores and respect for the elderly.18 His thinking here speaks to an enduring fascination the CCP has had since 1978 with the Singaporean model of economic development as being better suited to China than the Western one. Indeed, far from neo-liberal, China’s reforms have been described by Leong Liew as “a loose hug rather than a warm embrace” of economic liberalism.19

As late as 2011, prominent political scientist and PRC government advisor Zheng Yongnian also observed that China’s economic and social experimentation in the reform era owes much to the Chinese cultural concept of zhongyong (‘the art of the mean’), and that therefore China has by and large rejected the excesses of Western neo-liberalism and market fundamentalism. Most importantly, China preferred a gradualist approach to reform. It did not let state assets (i.e. critical State-Owned Enterprises) be stripped, as happened in Yeltsin’s Russia under the influence of Western “shock therapy” advisors. Rather, China learned from Singapore how to lure in foreign investment without shrinking the size of its government or its political powers.20

Zheng then opines that China should continue to learn from Singapore how to cautiously facilitate the transition to consumerist civic society and empower its middle class; how to open up to the world whilst eschewing premature democratisation and unhindered press freedom; how to foster professionalism and meritocracy in public service by depoliticising senior appointments in government departments and elite universities; and how to curb corruption by matching officials’ salaries with private-sector norms and constraining long-term tenure in the same post. Notably, however, Zheng suggests that China’s ultimate aim should not be a Western-style system because not even Western-style individual freedoms can prevent wholesale corruption and abuse of power, as Berlusconi’s Italy shows.21

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Yet not all of Wang’s impressions of America seem immutably pre-conceived. Thus, Wang apparently arrived in America believing he would encounter a very progressive society. He thus found himself surprised: despite the stories he’d heard of San Francisco hippies, the mischievous rock-and-roll scene and gay-community outspokenness – he finds most of those he engages with to in fact be exceedingly conservative. Wang notes, for example, how rare interracial marriage is (in that sense, he might find a different San Francisco nowadays).22

Later on, Wang seems to admit that Chinese and other Confucian societies are actually encumbered by guanxi and rigid hierarchies when compared with American social dynamism and mobility. But, quite perceptively here, he notes in the same breath that despite the absence of hereditary nobility – family connections still matter in the upper rungs of US society. The power structure, he observes, is not always purely meritocratic when it comes to elite university admissions or presidential nominations.23

For Wang, the American preoccupation with privacy, in all walks of life, engenders superficiality. Americans, he avers, look much warmer, open and friendlier than the Chinese when first encountered. They willingly strike up conversations with strangers, but would rarely let a friend into their inner sanctum. During his stay, Wang concludes that it proved very difficult to form all-weather, true friendships (moni zhi jiao) with Americans. Most Chinese, he reflects by way of comparison, look aloof on first encounter. But once reciprocity is discreetly established through deeds – Chinese are more easily able to form meaningful friendships (shenjiao).24 Ironically, two and a half decades after the publication of Wang’s travelogue, the passage on friendship might, on a political level, point to a blind spot in Sino-Western communication more broadly. For, more recently, some Western and Indian politicians have been trying rather clumsily to persuade their Chinese interlocutors that true friendship between countries can in fact withstand mutual public criticism.25

Wang sounds particularly wrathful when lunging at the notion that corruption is less rampant in the USA due to transparent-governance norms in all walks of life. Firstly, he notes, even at the university where he was hosted, personal connections were all-important in, for example, mobilising funding for sabbaticals. He recounts, for example, how a certain Head of Department had approved an extended fieldtrip to Africa by another professorial staff member, only to be “invited” in return for a tour of that African country later on.26 When it comes to national politics, Wang is even more damning to the point of misrepresentation: for him, the two main parties in America are completely devoid of ideology or coherent platforms; rather they constitute an agglomeration of vested interests and lobby groups with a loose common denominator.27

Equally problematic is Wang’s portrayal of the American electoral system. He likens that system to pyramidal corporate shareholding where each share-holder has one vote on the board in theory, but in reality, minority-shareholders can amass a controlling stake, to the detriment of diffuse share-holders, because the former are better organised and better funded.28 For Wang, this amounts to broad-daylight gerrymandering which in turn leads to voter apathy and low participation. The system is further encumbered by what Wang sees as costly, protracted presidential campaigns and complex voter registration systems.29

Then, like many others in China, Wang alludes to the fact that the notion of professional civil service in the West may actually have borrowed much, or be historically derived from, the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. But the US variant thereof seems to him flawed in that an incoming administration can re-appoint, at will, the entire upper echelons of the advisory.30

Finally, Wang comes closest to discussing the realities of reform in China when decrying US managerial style as too rigid and intellectually restrictive (siban, yan’ge). He contrasts that style with what he sees as Chinese managers’ penchant for flexibility and dynamism (linghuo, jidong).31 To be sure, there is a touch of Occidentalism (read: Asian supremacism) in Wang’s portrayal of the American economy in the early 1990s. Whilst openly spiteful towards the Japanese Wang came across in America, he recounts with glee how Japan’s economic success had bewildered Americans to the point that Japanese collectivist managerial approaches are accepted as superior to American individualistic ones. Chillingly, he concludes the book with a prophesy: in the 21st century, another mighty Asian nation-race (minzu) would come to vigorously challenge American primacy; the American system would eventually implode, Wang avers, because the kinds of individualism, equality and freedom it champions are, at their heart, inherently contradictory.32

Interestingly, scholars like Yan Xuetong, who had spent a longer of period of time in the US than Wang, are not necessarily more complimentary in their assessments of US society. Chinese understanding of the US has, to be sure, improved a great deal since Zhang Wenjin. What has changed is that that understanding is, at present, less anchored in a Marxian frame of reference than it is coloured by a New Confucian nomenclature that draws on the Singaporean experience.33 Yet the tiny city-state of Singapore always sought strategic closeness with America; it never aimed to offer an alternative to US hegemony, whilst the PRC always has, either explicitly or surreptitiously.

In Wang’s 1992 book, what we can arguably trace out are the origins and formative intellectual underpinnings of what would later become – cloaked in a New Confucian mantle — the PRC’s aspirational narrative of global leadership. Whether that narrative foreshadows a genuine alternative to the current American-led world system, let alone an attractive one, is in the eye of the beholder. The narrative, at any rate, is hardly pro-American.

Niv Horesh is Professor of the Modern History of China and Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. His latest publication: Toward Well-Oiled Relations: China’s Presence in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Embassy The Hague /Flickr.

1 David L. Shambaugh, Beautiful Imperialist: China Perceives America, 1972‐1990 (PrincetonUniversity Press), p. 41.
2 Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security (Columbia University Press), p. 54.
3 Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton University Press, 2011).
4 http://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/clm16_lc.pdf
5 http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323728204578513422637924256
6 http://www.brookings.edu/about/centers/china/top-future-leaders/wang_huning
7 Wang Huning, Meiguo fandui Meiguo (Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1992). Hereafter, WHN.
8 WHN, p. 45-46.
9 WHN, p. 1.
10 WHN, p. 9, pp. 126-130.
11 WHN, pp. 48-49, 249, 293.
12 WHN, pp. 68-69.
13 For a study of consumerism in contemporary China, see e.g. Minglu Chen and David S.G. Goodman eds., Middle Class China: Identity and Behavious (Edward Elgar, 2013).
14 WHN, p. 284.
15 WHN, pp. 344.
16 WHN, pp. 353, 356-360.
17 William Callahan, China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 20.
18 WHN, p. 347-348.
19 Leong Liew, “China’s Engagement with Neo-liberalism: Path Dependency, Geography and Party Self-Reinvention”, The Journal of Development Studies, Vol.41, No.2, February 2005, pp.331 – 352.
20 Zheng Yongnian, Zhongguo moshi: jingyan yu kunju (Beijing: Yangzhi wenhua, 2011), pp. 133-152.
21 Ibid., pp. 287-308.
22 WHN p. 73, 91, 99.
23 WHN, p. 114-116 (Dan Quayle’s nomination is for Wang a case in point)
24 WHN, p. 114-116.
25 See e.g. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/rudd-may-come-unstuck-over-china-relations/story-e6frg6zo-1225966571679
26 WHN, p. 116-117.
27 WHN, 155-158, 165, 169-173.
28 WHN, pp. 182-185.
29 WHN, p. 210-211.
30 WHN, p. 248.
31 WHN, p. 269.
32 WHN, p. 384-390.
33 Daniel Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2015).