As head of the Central Policy Research Office for almost two decades, Wang Huning (王沪宁) is China’s most influential political theorist, the chief architect of the political thought of three generations of top leaders. He was the key drafter of Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society,” political banner terms framed during a period when China’s CCP-led political system seemed to be progressing toward a more deliberative form of collective leadership. He is behind the theoretical confections of the so-called “New Era,” political phrases including “Xi Jinping Thought” that point to the unravelling of collective leadership and the consolidation of personal power under an increasingly authoritarian General Secretary.  

But before he was theorist-in-chief, writing speeches for China’s top leaders, Wang, who since October 2017 has served on the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, was a professor in the politics department at Shanghai’s Fudan University. In the balmier reform days of the 1980s, he once appeared on the cover of the Party’s official China Comment journal under the headline: “China’s Youngest Associate Professor.” What ideas did he espouse as a young thinker in that old era of reform?

“Life in Politics,” a collection of Wang Huning’s diary entries published in 1995.

Last week, a number of accounts on WeChat, including CCVI and “Guangxun Vision” (广讯视界), posted an early piece of writing from Wang Huning that provides a fascinating answer to this question. The essay, “Reflections on the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and Political Reform” (“文革”反思与政治体制改革), was published in May 1986 in Shanghai’s World Economic Herald (世界经济导报).

One of the most critical newspapers of the day, the World Economic Herald had been founded in 1980 by Qin Benli (钦本立), a former Wenhui Bao journalist who had been harshly disciplined during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957, and who had been imprisoned for seven months by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. By the late 1980s, Qin’s newspaper had become a leading advocate of political reform, seeking to move China away from the excesses of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

Wang Huning is now the most defining figure of Xi era political theory, the creator of political formulas that have made the case for a return to centralized power and charismatic politics – and his 1986 essay in the World Economic Herald reads today like a dissenting voice against this “new era” orthodoxy. “Twenty years ago, the ‘Cultural Revolution,’ which subjected the Chinese people to untold disaster, occurred in the vast land of China,” the young Wang writes. “Ten years ago we turned over a new and profound page. And yet, there is reason for us to continue to reflect on the chaos of those times. In order to prevent such a disaster from happening again.”

Summing up the causes of the Cultural Revolution, Wang continues: “Aside from historical, social, economic and other causes, the imperfect and incomplete nature of political reforms were a cause that cannot be underestimated.”

Wang Huning’s 1986 essay from the World Economic Herald on a recent WeChat post.

Here is Wang laying out the specific failings of China’s political system, including the inability to achieve “vertical decentralization” of power. I have included under his bullet points only the original bolded statements summarizing his arguments:

Analyzing from the standpoint of the political system, we can see the following structures and functions are connected to the inability to prevent the Cultural Revolution: 

1.     The ruling party as the core of the country’s political life had not formed a complete set of democratic systems. The system for division of roles between the Party and government was not sound, and balance of power within the political system had not been clearly .

2.     The National People’s Congress was unable as a national authority to effectively exercise its powers. 

3.     There was a lack of a strong constitutional guarantees in political life.

4.     In social life, there was a lack of an independent judicial system.

5.     There was no adequate mechanism for vertical decentralization in the political system.

6.     There was no sound national public servant system.

7.     There was no strict system in political life to protect the rights of citizens.

All of these reflections on the political system and the conditions that made the Cultural Revolution possible are sharply at odds with the principles Wang has championed since becoming a member of the Politburo, including his promotion of the so-called “442 formula,” an abbreviated reference to a set of political principles now used to signal loyalty to Xi Jinping and his leadership of the CCP.