Help from the Enemy 

An enemy often sees America’s strength more clearly than Americans do, but it is rare to receive a warning telling America what it should do if it wants to defeat the adversary. A rare book that does both and also provides insight into how the Chinese regime views the United States government and the American people is Wang Huning’s 1991 book, America Against America

Wang is a close ally of Xi Jinping and serves on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the members of which were revealed at the 20th Party Congress held in mid-October. The Politburo Standing Committee is the most powerful body within the Chinese Communist Party, and Wang is the most significant ideologist for the Chinese regime. His position is akin to Mikhail Suslov’s in the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union: chief ideologue, guardian of the purity of Communist ideology against Western influences, and chief liaison with foreign Communist parties. Whereas Suslov, who died in 1982, never visited the United States and indeed almost never met non-Communist Westerners, Wang lived in the United States from 1988-1989 during a six-month visit as a visiting scholar to over 30 cities and almost 20 universities. 

America Against America is important because it was written by the party’s chief ideologue and because of what it identifies about the United States. Fundamentally, the book is his reflection on the strengths of American society and its weaknesses. The problems are familiar: racism, homelessness, drug addiction, inequality, and alienation. The ultimate problem is the individualism of American liberalism, which can support a corrosive nihilism and relativism, which undermines virtues, shared knowledge, and common values—all things that weaken the vitality of the United States as a constitutional republic. The book draws upon Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to support the argument Bloom first published in 1987. 

The positive aspects of American society comprise most of the work and will strike many Americans as notable for what has changed in American society since 1989. Americans’ conception of history and their political creed are foremost. Wang notes that “Americans not only preserve history, but know how to make these objects [e.g., national monuments, etc.] work as textbooks . . . this is spreading the American spirit [for] ideological and political education. Any society that wants to have long lasting peace and stability should spread its value system.” 

As with his appreciation of the importance of history, Wang adopts Samuel Huntington’s identification in his 1981 book American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony of America’s political creed as comprising freedom, equality, individualism, democracy, and the rule of law. Wang also notes that Americans have what were traditional bourgeois values while at the same time being the most innovative people in the world. American “society has more inventions, bolder and more courageous visions than any other society.”

Wang’s book is not a serious contribution to political theory in the vein of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The work is derivative, relying heavily on Bloom, Huntington, and Henry Steele Commager. As should be expected from an insightful but transitory visitor, it reflects the influence of the contemporary thinkers and common critiques of American society. 

What the book does reveal, however, are America’s great strengths, at least those which were evident at the end of the Reagan era. America’s political creed and public spirit were able to sustain the unity of the country and make it the superpower that was the envy of visitors like Wang and thus revealed to enemies what needed to be destroyed or weakened to make the United States vulnerable. The major themes of the book are the importance of America’s political creed, individual and societal values held by the American people, their belief in the creed, and their innovation and ingenuity for the strength of the United States. 

As Wang writes,

[T]he promotion of the spirit of innovation requires a society that encourages and accepts new and innovative ideas. At the same time, the continuity of values is essential for any society, otherwise social stability is unsustainable. The question is how to separate value continuity from technological and material innovation, so that value continuity ensures the development of the latter, and the development of the latter strengthens value continuity and transmission.

American economic and technological might was sustained by the American creed and traditional bourgeois values, which reinforced the former. 

Wang’s book provided the United States a great service by identifying the sources of America’s social stability and might that allowed it to defeat the Soviet Union and could have defeated the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, in his current job, Wang seeks to destroy America. So his book was equally useful to those who wanted to target America’s social stability and might, like the Chinese Communist Party. For the Chinese regime, Wang’s book revealed what it needed to target and change to undermine American power. 

Accordingly, we may expect that Wang is pleased with the growing power of centrifugal forces in American society since 1989. In fact, were he to write a second edition, he would only need to add two words: “Keep digging.” Since Wang’s visit, the political Left has weakened the country through ideological upheaval, political tension, and rapid economic and social change. The centripetal force of the American creed and middle-class values thus far have been overcome by the political Left’s greater centrifugal might. 

The dangers for Wang are, first, that the Chinese Communist Party will never achieve the virtues he found in America; and second, that America may reverse course and have a renaissance of its political creed and traditional values. The danger for the United States is that the Chinese Communist Party will not have to change as we enfeeble ourselves and negate our tremendous advantages—principally ideological and social—over the CCP. Wang saw the key to a U.S. victory over the CCP. 

But at the same time, Wang identified the thing the CCP needed to help undermine in order to weaken the United States. His hope must be that the America can no longer change course and thus cannot do anything about its relative weakness today.

About Bradley A. Thayer

Bradley A. Thayer is coauthor of Understanding the China Threat and Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.

Photo: Liu Weibing/Xinhua via Getty Images

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