Chinese President Xi’s “Secret Philosopher” Analyzed America and His Findings Could Reverse Our Country’s Decline
Revolver News has an exclusive analysis of American culture as viewed by visiting Chinese scholar Wang Huning. Your Irascible Correspondent regards perspectives like this as intelligence that enables America to know our enemies so as to defeat them. Of course it must also be said that America’s worst enemies are in our midst, fulfilling Pogo’s prophetic remark, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.
Rivers if ink have been spilled analyzing America’s decline, so although Wang’s analysis is perceptive his entirely understandable China-centric perspective, and that thirty years out of date, must not be taken at face value and must certainly not be taken as a guide to our own foreign policy or cultural development.
Wang Huning has been tipped to head the National People’s Congress, per the South China Morning Post, meaning that American strategic planners would do well to seriously understand China’s top strategic planner.
China’s rise presents the US with a rival that is harder to understand than any who came before. China, with its challenging language, thousands of years of civilization, and bespoke mixture of Marxism with local innovations, is far more alien than Britain, Germany, or Russia could ever be. Even Japan, with its aggressive adoption of Western mores since the 1860s, is far more comprehensible than “The Middle Kingdom,” as the Chinese call themselves.
It’s no surprise then that Western takes on China, its goals, and its priorities often feel more like guesswork than substantive analyses.
But Americans hoping to understand the new global superpower have one excellent asset: a hitherto unknown power behind Xi’s throne has written an entire book revealing exactly what he thinks of America.
The book is America Against America by Wang Huning, the secretive grey eminence of the Chinese Communist Party.
Anybody who wants to understand modern China, how it sees America, and how it plans to overtake America by avoiding America’s mistakes, has a duty to familiarize themselves with this book. And anyone who wishes to reverse America’s decline would be well-served studying Wang’s thought.
A recent article in Palladium profiled Wang at length:
Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. It took former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s repeated entreaties to convince the brilliant then-young academic—who spoke wistfully of following the traditional path of a Confucian scholar, aloof from politics—to give up academia in the early 1990s and join the Chinese Communist Party regime instead. When he finally did so, Wang cut off nearly all contact with his former connections, stopped publishing and speaking publicly, and implemented a strict policy of never speaking to foreigners at all. Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.
Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.
A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.
Wang’s role as a top ideological theorist of a rising superpower would be interesting no matter what, but it is even more so thanks to the events of the last six months. Along with its growing economic and military power, China has also launched a dramatic social engineering effort meant to avoid the catastrophic social rot that has gripped America, South Korea, and other wealthy nations. Over the last few months, China has:
- Limited children to three hours of video games a week.
- Shut down the private school tutoring industry.
- Banned TV shows starring “sissy” men and all reality TV shows starring the children of celebrities.
- Restricted advertising for expensive cosmetic surgery.
As Revolver wrote last month:
This isn’t simply an effort to impose a more “serious” or “masculine” ideal on the population, and it’s not an attempt to crack down on fun. In fact, there appears to be a serious intention on the part of Chinese authorities to create a more balanced, healthy, and happier nation. In other words, a stark contrast to the dying, decrepit, neurotic malaise they see spreading in Westernized countries.
From his seat on the Standing Committee, Wang is likely a driving force behind these initiatives. And if he is, then the roots of this campaign are fueled by the understanding of the US he shows in America Against America.
Wang wrote the book in 1991, three years after a stint as a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa. His purpose for visiting and for writing the books was straightforward.
Wang explains in the book’s opening pages:
The “Chinese phenomenon” is why this ancient civilization with a long history of more than 2,000 years has declined in the modern era. Why is it lagging behind the modern nations of the world?
The “American phenomenon” has a different dimension, and people wonder why this nation, with a short history of only two hundred years, has become the world’s leading developed country today. I believe that a scholar living in the twentieth century has a responsibility to study these two phenomena. As a Chinese scholar, he has a dual responsibility to study both the “Chinese phenomenon” and the “American phenomenon. In this way, he can better understand himself and the world, and better explore the path to China’s strength.
Like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America a century and a half before him, Wang’s book is an insightful snapshot of a country the rest of the world was fascinated by. The vast majority of the book is purely descriptive, as Wang assesses everything from America’s urban-rural divide to its manner of conducting presidential elections.
Wang’s visit in 1988 came at the moment of America’s absolute apex as a global economic, cultural, and military superpower. As he wrote his book, the Soviet Union was not merely humbled but destroyed. America appeared invincible, yet beneath this façade of impenetrable strength Wang found critical vulnerabilities.
“We can say that the United States is a stable and developing society, but we can also say that the United States is a crisis-ridden society,” says Wang.
To understand the crisis Wang identifies is to understand why he has pointed China down the path he has. And to recognize them is to see a way forward for America as well.
Wang sees America in a values death spiral
Impressively, Wang is enormously well-read on American culture. At the time he wrote America Against America, he had clearly read more about American politics and society than most American PhDs. Wang’s book is littered with summaries of American books that the typical Chinese reader has likely never heard of.
Near the end of his book, Wang speaks positively and at length about Allen Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, and mulls whether a “spiritual crisis” exists at the heart of American society, even as America externally seems at the apex of its success.
Bloom’s main idea is that today’s university education no longer enables its subjects to grasp the traditional values that founded Western society.
[In the 1950s], cultural relativism succeeded in destroying the idea of Western centrism, but at the same time weakened the status of Western culture. Dominated by this spirit, university education resulted in young people with no concept of the past and no view of the future. The universities responsible for conducting higher education do not provide knowledge of the glorious history of Western philosophy and literature. Students are unable to understand the order of nature and man’s place in it through this knowledge. Universities do not provide the self-awareness needed for a serious learning process.
What is the result? The younger generation knows very little about the classic works of Western history. Bloom said that once in class he asked his students what book had impressed them most, and surprisingly none could name a masterpiece. One person said the Bible, but this book is not taught in college.
Students watch “Kramer vs. Kramer” to learn about divorce and sexuality, but few saw “Anna Karenina” or “The Red and the Black” as indispensable in their own lives. Feminists are the enemies of the classic writings.
[A]ll literature is gendered, and how could writers of the past, Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Stendhal, have the ideas of today’s feminism. With many forces at work, the classical masterpieces have become yesterday’s flowers.
Wang echoes Bloom’s description of a vast “nihilism” gripping America’s college-educated young adults, a worldview that could conceive of no unifying, bedrock truths and consequently has nothing to build society on top of.
The decline of the traditional value system of the West will eventually hit democracy. There is no value system in society that can be used as a value system to guide individual decisions, and university education does not provide such a system. There is a very close relationship between ideas and social development, and when ideas end, so do the social institutions and ways of behaving guided by such ideas.
As Wang visits various American cities, he sees the ramifications of this nihilism everywhere. Even though America is far wealthier than China, it has more drug addiction, far more crime, and its families are crumbling apart.
But instead of seeking values-based solutions to these problems, Wang’s America sees these problems as technological puzzles that can be solved with the right program, the right invention, or if all else fails, a boatload of money:
In the face of intricate social and cultural problems, Americans tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems. Or it is a matter of money (which is a result of the spirit of commercialism), rather than a matter of people, of subjectivity. This is also true in the political sphere. The approach to the growth of Soviet power was to desperately develop equipment superior to Soviet weapons systems, including the eventual proposed Star Wars program. The way to deal with terrorism is to strike the other side with advanced attack forces. The way to deal with threats in international waters is a powerful and well-equipped fleet. The way to deal with regimes you don’t like is to provide the opposition with a lot of advanced weaponry.
Remember, Wang wrote the above in 1991! Is it any surprise that China has stood aside in bemused silence while America has expended its wealth and well-being on decades-long wars to stamp out ephemeral dangers like “terrorism”?
Wang sees American “democracy” as transactional to the point of being fake
Early in the book, Wang writes:
The United States is also generally considered to be a Western democracy, and a typical Western democracy at that, and Americans are proud of it. The Constitution, election campaigns, separation of powers, citizen participation in politics, and so on and so forth show one side of this system, but on the other side, can commoners really dominate the politics of this country? My analysis in this book shows that the powerful groups that dominate politics are above the common people.
Often, Wang’s analysis feels constrained by the need to affirm Marxist doctrine. and the above is but one example. While corporate power does allow the rich to stand above “the common people,” any American knows that US politics isn’t that simple. The Globalist American Empire empowers many who are nominally not very wealthy and disenfranchises many who are.
Still, Wang is correct that American political culture has created a governing elite that is above and apart from the masses who nominally “elect” them. Wang is plainly fascinated by America’s network of lobbyists and activists who wield enormous influence over a small class of elected lawmakers.
Lobbyists are a very important phenomenon in American political life, and one cannot ignore this important area in understanding American politics.
There is nothing derogatory or dishonorable about the concept of lobbyists, and it is not sneaky or unseen. The lobbyists, all of them, were visible, even powerful. Frank Cummings wrote a book called Capitol Hill Manual. In this book, the author sagely teaches Congressmen that although many historical stories contain the implication that “lobbying” is a dirty word, there is no sin here. It is essential.
Wang highlights the range of interests that lobbyists can represent: Not just social welfare groups like labor unions or environmental organizations, but also private companies and even foreign nations (Wang cites AIPAC as one of the single most effective lobbies in the country). Interestingly, Wang also describes executive advisers to the president as, essentially, the president’s own “lobbyists” for negotiating with Congress, in direct cooperation (or competition) with those of private actors.
Wang clearly finds lobbyists to be an intriguing specimen of representative government. He tells the Chinese how lobbyists don’t just speak to lawmakers, but also conduct research, testify at hearings, draft legislation, make alliances with other lobbyists, and even answer letters from constituents. Their activities are so accepted that their behavior is governed by decades-old law, though Wang notes the law is “extremely flawed” and allows many who claim to not be lobbyists to still operate as such.
Ultimately, Wang sees America’s lobbying system as market capitalism imported to politics, with some advantages, but also crippling disadvantages:
One of the characteristics of American society is that the political arena has been turned into a big commodity market, and politics has become a kind of trading market like the economic market. You can sell your own “products” or buy other people’s products in it. Politicians bargain in it, you compete with each other.
The advantages are that in political competition it is generally easier to sell quality products, which forces those who want to compete to come up with good products. On the other hand, large companies can monopolize the market, promote their own products or promote inferior products, and obtain “monopoly profits”.
Another cultural factor reflected in this is the secularization of politics.
People engage in politics like anything else, such as doing business, scientific research, making money, etc. There is little sense that politics has a special status.
Ultimately, what Wang alludes to here is the reality of state capture. Because American politics is so transactional and so exposed to outside forces, the state can become the domain of powerful outside interests rather than a central authority secure enough in its power to seek the good of the entire country.
No doubt, Wang is unsurprised that in 2021 defense contractors shape foreign policy, tech monopolies set their own regulations, and the elite press dictates America’s level of censorship. And Americans in turn should not be surprised that in China, the Communist Party wants to ensure that no institution will ever be in position to contest its ultimate control of policy.
Interested readers might like to consult Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and assess how Wang’s observations about out of control commodification fulfill Tocqueville’s concerns about a specific type of “manufacturing aristocracy” that could arise in America. See in particular, Democracy in America Book II Section II Chapter XX.
Wang saw American society as increasingly incapable of reproducing the prosperity it depends on to survive
Wang finds many praiseworthy things about America. He admires how energetic and visionary its people can be, he admires the speed and innovation of its companies (Wang spends several pages marveling at the wonders of travel agencies), and he is awed by how much the country has accomplished in its short history.
At the time he wrote the book, Wang was clearly a visitor from a backwards society, deeply impressed by America yet also willing to lend a critical eye.
Yet precisely because he came from a country where the basics of life could not be taken for granted, Wang saw that flaws in our value system would erode the bedrock of America’s security and well-being.
When Wang traveled to America, the China he left behind was still 80 percent rural. Even today, 40 percent of Chinese live in the countryside, compared to 20 percent in America. Wang spends many pages early in the book breaking down America’s urban/rural divide and focusing in particular on the decline of farming in American life.
For Wang, one of the most remarkable things about America is, quite simply, that in America farmers are middle-class.
The farm I visited was one of many farms and was very typical. There were only two people in the farm owner’s family, he and his wife. The son was away at college and working in another state. In the middle of a large open field, they had a very nice house, in comparison with the house seen in the city, almost. The house had all kinds of modern equipment and everything, such as telephone, electricity, running water, etc.
This is a phenomenon worth discussing. Generally speaking, no matter where you go, this basic equipment is always available. There are times when you walk a long way to meet a family. This family will not lack anything. Various companies are also willing to provide services for this family, which actually kind of pays for itself. In terms of living conditions, the farmer is no less than anyone else. A “farmer” is, in fact, a farm owner. The farm is private and the land is private. When you talk about farms, you should never use the Chinese concept. We may have thousands of people on a farm; in the United States there are usually only two or three people.
Wang raves about the productivity of an American farm: A single farmer can raise thousands of pigs, plant hundreds of acres, and even run an agricultural bank in his spare time, all while remaining an active member of wider society as well.
Yet Wang also sees the problems of America’s system. Despite their middle class status, farmers live a tenuous existence, dependent on mechanized equipment whose cost might equal several years of output from their fields. But more importantly, farming is simply something most Americans don’t want to do.
Pig farming can be described as dirty and smelly. This farm is highly automated, but dirt and odors cannot be excluded. Pigs do not know about cleanliness, there is no way out. When we visited the pig shed, the stench was so bad that it was discouraging. But the farm owner had to do it. He said that after work every day, it takes several showers to wash the smell away. This is something that I’m afraid not many people can accept in the United States.
The third is the boredom of the younger generation, which aspires to urban life due to the above-mentioned problems and the attraction of big cities. City life has cultural and recreational facilities that are not available in the countryside. This farm owner told me that he was devastated when his son graduated from college and told him he didn’t want to come back for a while. But he believed he would come back eventually. If he doesn’t come back, the farm will be a problem because he has only one son and there is no one to succeed him.
[T]he high output of agricultural production ensures the stability of political and social life. Imagine what will happen one day when Americans do not have enough food.
One senses that, in the world Wang grew up in, there were millions of people who would be perfectly happy to stay on a farm all their lives, if it didn’t mean living on $300 a year and having a tapeworm infestation. Yet as he stares into American society, Wang recognizes there is something about modernity, something about the prosperity American capitalism creates, that makes people unsuited and unwilling to farm, and that this unwillingness is only distantly related to money.
Wang’s perceptive eye sees the long-term crisis that could be brewing. American political stability fundamentally depends on the unthinking, automatic availability of basic goods, food first of all. But what happens if those skilled farmers who make America’s land so productive with so little labor fade away?
Wang was right to worry. The average American farmer is 57.5 years old, and in dozens of counties the typical farmer is over 60. As these farmers age, America isn’t just losing workers. It’s losing a huge reservoir of experience and ability, something that can’t simply be replaced by importing former subsistence farmers from Oaxaca.
For Wang, the crisis goes beyond food production. It’s about a society capable of evolving such that critical knowledge and critical roles are no longer replenished, where demoralized youth flock to cities or pursue easier, service-based careers in search of a way of life that, thanks to their collective decision-making, will be steadily harder to achieve.
Wang’s observations add new context to China’s recent crackdown on powerful tech companies like Tencent and Alibaba. While foreigners often frame this crackdown as a general attack on monopolies or rival power structures, it’s not that simple. China is attacking companies that dominate the “soft” side of tech—video games, social media, and online shopping—while leaving the “hard” side largely untouched. It may very well be that this campaign reflects Wang’s desire to protect the core engines of Chinese well-being, while weakening the companies that pull young people into the land of the lotus-eaters.
“Thin” socialization as the nature of American life
One of the recurring themes to Wang’s work is the way modern life, in all its complexity and speed and intensity, reduces the intensity of basic bonds between individuals and, eventually, seems to make them something less as human beings.
In the abstract, American relationships are less complex, but interpersonal interactions are also less deep. … [I]t is rare to have a close friendship. It is easy for Americans to have a fast friendship, but not a deep friendship.
[O]ne-fifth of American families [move] each year, and material abundance creates the conditions for this choice. The high mobility creates two kinds of impetus: on the one hand, people move a lot and need mechanisms to find friends quickly, and on the other hand, this mobility makes it difficult to establish truly unbreakable friendships.
The mechanics of college also make it difficult to form deep friendships; college students are largely solitary, with no concept of classes, taking whatever class they choose and going their separate ways the next semester. Good housing conditions isolate people, as does college and as does society. Americans live alone for long periods of time, so that they often have an introverted and passive mentality, not knowing if they should deal with a stranger.
T]he concept of “foreigner” is foreign to Americans, they often cannot tell who is a “foreigner” and who is a “native”.
Some people think it is not good for the development of society, because there is no deep friendship between people, and human feelings are too thin, and social life is not harmonious.
This concept of “thin” socialization penetrates to the core of American life. Wang observes how the sexual revolution has turned relationships between men and women from a profound, lifelong bond into a temporary partnership in pursuit of shallow pleasure. From there, it is almost inevitable that even family bonds decay.
It is important to have a union of a man and a woman to form a family. For most American men and women, this union does not interfere with the privacy of each of them. Many couples treat each other with respect and do not interfere with each other’s privacy.
I personally believe that this is a problem for the future of American society. Marriage does not break the fortress that is built in everyone’s heart, especially young couples.
[C]hildren love their parents, but parents cannot depend on their children for their old age, and children cannot afford it, so children cannot love either. This relationship has far-reaching consequences for society. Parents have to rely on the social security or welfare system in their old age, but not on their children. The elderly must build a life of their own.
Aristotle said more than 2,000 years ago that the family is the cell of society. In the years since the war, the cell, the family, has disintegrated in the United States.
Of course, evenly atomized, thinly-socialized people might at least share a common culture and values. But as Revolver readers know, America no longer has that. Americans rather explicitly compete all-against-all not merely for relative status but for their basic livelihoods and the ability to fulfill pieces of one’s life script, such as owning a home, raising a family, or even holding a stable job. Meanwhile, enduring values are shoved aside in favor of an almost deliberate nihilism.
Today, China is terrified that the same fate may befall its people. The Middle Kingdom has undertaken a struggle to assimilate its ethnic minorities to ensure a shared national identity and values. It is promoting larger families, and attacking the addictive video games, apps, and TV shows that silo young people apart from each other, in cocoons of digital pop culture consumption.
Wang recognized that America uses technological progress to mask societal rot
With so much atomization and nihilism, what is it that keeps America confident and even arrogant about its position at the top of the world? For Wang, the most important thing is America’s technological prowess. For nearly a century America was by far the dominant power in industrial, scientific, and technological innovation; this dominant position has ensured material prosperity and practically defined America’s self-worth as a nation. But if that disappears, Wang sees that America’s shock will be profound.
Sometimes it is not the people who master the technology, but the technology that masters the people. If you want to overwhelm the Americans, you must do one thing: surpass them in science and technology. For many peoples it is different; having technology does not work; there must also be cultural, psychological and sociological conditions. Americans have been in a privileged position for a long time … and a psychological stereotype has been formed. As a result, the United States is also a nation that can not afford to lose. Technological superiority has gradually developed into national superiority, and they cannot imagine that any nation can surpass them.
Americans for a long time did not want to recognize the success of Japan. Harvard professor Fu Gao-Yi spent a lot of effort to make Americans understand this point. His “Japan Ranked First” woke up Americans like a dream. A similar situation, I think Americans will encounter again.
For half a century, America’s position at the leading edge of aeronautics, military hardware, electronics, medicine, and countless other fields has been the balm that covers obvious decay. It is revealing to read the above words from Wang, and then think about China’s intense drive to become the world leader in high tech fields like artificial intelligence, solar power, hypersonics, and nuclear fusion.
What happens when China’s push to be the world’s tech leader becomes a reality? Wang anticipates that, once its technological deficit is clear, America will suffer a profound crisis. It could be the shock the country needs to right itself… or it could jolt America into a disastrous confrontation as it seeks to reaffirm its vanished superiority.
Wang sees America’s racial time bomb… but fails to truly understand it
While the subtext of America’s racial divide permeates much of America Against America, Wang only explicitly addresses it very late in the book, when he turns to what he calls the “black challenge” or, more frightfully, the “black storm.”
“Some people have compared the black issue to the biggest social problem, saying that it will eventually become a fatal problem,” writes Wang. “In the United States, it can be deeply felt that there is some truth in this statement.”
Wang then launches a torrent of observations about American life, observations that are obvious but would of course be unthinkable to print in an American book or newspaper today.
I have been to black neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York, New Haven, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and the impression is extremely bad. Generally speaking, they are more dirty and poor than the areas where white people live, and it is obvious that they are poor areas. In front of many houses, there are some lazy black people sitting. [When] young people stand in groups on the street, people’s hearts beat [faster].
The black population is living in extremely poor conditions, and after desperate times, most of them take the path of crime. The crime situation of the whole society can be ranked among the top in the world, and blacks are especially strong.
[Black] criminals specialize in robbing Chinese people of their money. The NYPD had to put mounted police in front of the consulate, and the general police were no longer enough. … This was in broad daylight.
Bafflingly, though, after noting the cyclical and steadily-worsening nature of America’s race problem, Wang pivots and sounds like a delusional MSNBC commentator warning that the KKK will return any day. The likely endgame if America’s black neighborhoods remain poor and dangerous, Wang warns, will be a major wave of anti-black violence.
As a result of the system’s inaction, a wave of anti-blackness is emerging, in the sense of what neoconservatives call “inverted discrimination. Apartheid is history, but the black challenge is growing. The days of the KKK are behind us, but we cannot say that they are gone. If society fails to find fundamental ways to improve the situation of blacks, it is likely to end up with more violent anti-black actions.
This bizarre conclusion is the most jarring blunder of the book. Wang was unable to imagine or predict how America would actually respond to dysfunction in black neighborhoods: By indulging it, making excuses for it, and finally by attempting to export it to the rest of the country, while describing even the most violent acts as “mostly peaceful.” Perhaps Wang’s blindness reflected his Chinese mindset. Certainly, the PRC’s reaction to problematic minorities like Uighurs or Hong Kongers has been one of strict repression.
Interested readers might profit from comparing Wang’s thoughts on race in 1991 with the analysis Tocqueville presents on the very same question.
Wang’s misfire on American racial issues reveals the number-one shortcoming of America Against America: While Wang spots a great many of America’s problems, he totally fails to anticipate “wokeness.” This is a forgivable error; wokeness only became a highly-visible phenomenon around the time of Obama’s election in 2008, and it only became the dominant force in American life around 2012. However, bits and pieces of it were already present in the early 1990s, especially in America’s handling of race. Affirmative action was already rampant, and with it the pervasive sense that, if America couldn’t bring blacks up, it could at least shove others down.
Instead of anticipating this, Wang falls back on Maoist anti-colonial shibboleths to assess America’s racial dynamics. For him, the danger of America’s unsolved racial divide is that blacks might rebel or whites might crack down on them. He never considers that American elites might intentionally stoke this divide by indulging crime, riots, and academic failure, and embrace an ideology of attacking and dispossessing the white middle class in the name of “anti-racism.”
Now, today, wokeness is essentially America’s state ideology, and Wang is likely as surprised as anyone. And lo and behold, even today China struggles to comprehend or engage with woke America. The country’s comments on Black Lives Matter have been cringeworthy; they feel like a time capsule from the 1950s where China is still trying to rally the Third World against colonialism.
Yet in so many other ways, China’s 2021 agenda shows a deliberate rejection of wokeness. The Middle Kingdom has chosen to reject “effeminate” men and LGBT mania, revere national unity over multiculturalism, cultivate national pride rather than smash old idols, and celebrate talent and merit rather than elevate the ugliest, least capable, most parasitic aspects of society. Instead of acting like the weaker nation by taking pot shots at America for its problems, China could easily realize that it is an equal superpower and offer a real ideological alternative to what is happening in the United States.
But in 2021, the real lessons of America Against America aren’t for China. They’re for the United States. Studying Wang’s book is invaluable for Americans because it captures a key turning point in America’s existence vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Before Wang, America was studied by others for its successes. Wang, writing at the absolute zenith of America’s global power, studied America for its failures as well. In the same year the USSR fell, Wang anticipated the day many years in the future where the US might collapse as well.
As America’s decline becomes more obvious, there will be more smart foreigners who, at a distance, offer detached takes on the fall of a once-great nation. For Americans, defensiveness and denial are natural reactions, but also reactions that must be overcome.
The German polymath Johan Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote that “He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” Similarly, a person with no understanding of foreign countries cannot truly understand, appreciate, or assess his own country. Wang visited America from a country with thousands of years of history and achievements which had fallen into several centuries of poverty and backwardness. By studying the successes and shortcomings of America, he was able to envision a way forward for China. For the past 25 years, as a central figure in China’s ruling elite, he has put that vision into practice, and been very successful.
Like Wang’s China of 30 years ago, America is a highly accomplished country that has fallen off a step. In order to become “great again,” America must learn to view itself with the critical eye of a foreigner, and it must be willing to consider that other nations might even have developed values and priorities superior to our own. To simply fall back on “American exceptionalism” without the greatness and achievement to back it up is to embrace a crass and stubborn parochialism, a smug belief in one’s invincibility even as America’s buildings crumble and its society implodes.
The rise of Wang Huning’s China, then, is not a calamity for the United States. It is an opportunity for a deep, harsh, even brutal self-reflection. This is the necessary first step toward the fundamental transformation we need if we want future observers to look at us as a positive example for anything, rather than a cautionary tale of a once great empire that eagerly hurled itself onto the ash heap of history.