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Richard McGregor: Xi isn't the only Chinese leader worth watching

The rise of authoritarian ideologue Wang Huning signals China's global ambitions

New Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning, left, walks past China's President Xi Jinping as they and other new members meet with the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 25.   © AP

All eyes were on Chinese President Xi Jinping as he led out the country's new leadership onto the stage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 25 as the follow-up to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's quinquennial congress.

But for clues about how Xi is changing China and the CCP, a better place to start might be with the man who walked out in fifth place in the new seven-man Politburo Standing Committee -- Wang Huning.

At first, little seems to distinguish Wang from his colleagues, all of whom were dressed in the same dark suits and had the similar age-defying jet-black hair when they appeared in the ritual unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee.

Wang's appearance on the stage was overshadowed by the near-maniacal media focus on Xi, who had just been elevated into the pantheon of Chinese leaders, alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, while securing a second five-year term without nominating a successor.

It was much like the unveiling of a sports team which is overwhelmingly dominated by its single star player. The congress allowed the crowd to finally see what positions the other team members will play, but no one much thinks they will have a large role in the game. But that may not be the case when it comes to Wang.

The party has long set strict benchmarks that its leaders must hit if they are to rise through the ranks. Working in Beijing is not enough. They are also required to prove themselves in the provinces, especially the poorer ones, where they can gather the kind of experience needed to run a country of China's diversity and dimensions.

Wang's career path breaks that mold in telling ways. A bookish intellectual who taught from a relatively young age at Fudan University, Shanghai's most prestigious educational institution, Wang is in the Politburo as its chief ideologue.

The Politburo inner circle has always had someone who is responsible for party affairs and the like, but none has ever had a background like Wang. Nor have they left a paper trail like he has from his days in academia.

Wang came to Beijing initially with the patronage of former President Jiang Zemin, who also hails from Shanghai. Wang not only survived Jiang's retirement, he assumed a similar role with Hu Jintao, Jiang's successor, and then with Xi, who has promoted him.

NEO-CONFUCIAN APPEAL Wang represents a school of thought in China variously labeled neo-authoritarianism or neo-Confucianism, which provides intellectual ballast to the party's view that a Western-style democracy will not work in China.

Wang and other Chinese scholars nowadays argue that not only is a liberal democracy unsuitable for a country of China's size and stage of development, it is no longer even providing good governance in the U.S.

Wang's writings from the 1980s betray a deep cynicism about the U.S., which he portrays as nothing more than a collection of competing and often corrupt interests without any genuine ideology.

Wang has also been a perceptive writer about China's own structural problems, including the enduring tension between giving local governments a degree of policy leeway and the corruption and mismanagement that inevitably comes with it.

"If power is not transferred to the lower level, it will be impossible to invigorate the economy and move it toward modernization," Wang said in a paper authored in the 1980s, according to Beijing-based writer Jude Blanchette. "But the transfer of power to the lower level brings with it extremely great difficulties to the regulation and control by the political system."

The core of Wang's work, though, has been in expounding and developing ideas about China's own system, which top officials like him now seem to assert is not just right for China, but could serve as a rival model for democracies overseas.

A man buys newspapers featuring Xi Jinping and his newly elected members of the Politburo Standing Committee, at a news stand in Beijing on Oct. 26.   © Getty Images

The party once sought a lower profile, both at home and abroad. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping dictated that China "bide its time and hide its light" in foreign policy while the country gained strength. A similar credo prevailed with the party.

If the propaganda pouring out of the congress is any guide, the likes of Xi and Wang, his ideologue-at-the-elbow, are tossing such restraint aside.

TOP-DOG AMBITIONS "By 2050, two centuries after the Opium Wars, which plunged the 'Middle Kingdom' into a period of hurt and shame, China is set to regain its might and reascend to the top of the world," said Xinhua, the official news agency, at the congress' close.

"Though it will take immense work, the picture is clear -- China is set to become the world's largest economy, and incomes will be high with an effective social welfare system, a responsive and people-serving government, clean politics ensuring people's rights, and a beautiful country loved by its citizens," it added.

The official statements that have come out of the congress are remarkable from a party that has long tried to keep a low profile. Furthermore, while the party has always extolled the value of its system, it has never explicitly suggested that it was something that could be exported abroad.

Such bromides underline the true significance of the congress. Xi is not the story, although he has dominated media coverage. The real star of the congress is the Communist Party, which is just how the likes of Wang would want it.

Richard McGregor is a Washington-based journalist and author, most recently of "Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century" (Viking, 2017).

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