The year was 1988. A decade earlier, Deng Xiaoping had announced plans for China to liberalize. The first sparks of capitalism had been kindled. The CCP wanted to fan those sparks into economic superpowerdom. But the only country with experience being an economic superpower, the United States, was as inscrutable to China as China is to us.

Enter Wang Huning, a young political scientist at Fudan University. He wanted to become an “America expert”. Toward that goal, he got a visiting scholar position in the most dynamic corner of the US - Iowa City, Iowa. His quest: to poke around Iowa until he figured out what the heck was going on with the United States, then report back. The result: America Against America , a 200 page book on US culture and institutions.

Another result: a career boost for Wang Huning. He got asked to head the Party’s “political research” office, then gradually rose higher and higher through the ranks. Today he’s considered the CCP’s chief intellectual, and has been called the second most powerful man in China (alternately “the most influential man in China”). He’s used his position to push China against American values and towards a sort of anti-Western cultural conservatism. Whatever he saw during those six months in Iowa must have scared him hard. I thought I would pick up America Against America to figure out what it was.

It wasn’t easy. This book doesn’t read like the screed of an anti-American zealot or the manifesto of a political mastermind. It reads like a confused but slightly charming alien bumbling through the world, recording his musings on whatever he encountered1. The combination of mediocre English, plus surprise at learning facts every child knows2, makes the text sound like it was written by a precocious ten year old. He frequently uses sentences no human being would ever say, like “Let’s dissect the organizational structure of Iowa”.

I’m going to start by going over some parts I found surprising, interesting, or just funny, then return to this question of what could have scared Wang so badly:

America Is A Hyperconformist Over-Regulated Surveillance State

I’m kind of joking with the section title, but not completely. Wang really did find the level of conformity, regulation, and surveillance remarkable:

I personally feel that most people in Eastern societies and Eastern cultures may find [the] regulations [in America] too harsh. People who grow up in Eastern culture, if they really live in American society, sometimes do not feel so comfortable and free.

What kind of regulations is he talking about?:

Alcohol, there are strict regulations to control. People who are underage cannot drink alcohol, and drinking alcohol is a violation of the law. Stores must obtain a government license to sell alcohol, and no store or restaurant is allowed to sell alcohol without a license. Iowa City’s supermarkets do not sell alcohol on Sunday mornings before 12:00 p.m., on the grounds that people are expected to be at church for Mass at that time. Of course, this is not the intention of the government, but a religious influence and a tradition.

Food products, too, are regulated by strict regulations. For example, the maximum standards for chemical elements in fruits and vegetables, and the marketing standards for meat. If the relevant regulations are exceeded, the food cannot be marketed, and if the regulations are violated, there will be severe penalties. Large fines are imposed.

Cars, there are so many that it’s amazing how many there are, basically one for every family and many families have two. How to manage cars has become a major problem for society. Strict regulations have been established to regulate “car behavior”. Traffic rules were very strict. Everyone who wants to get a driver’s license must pass a special test. At high speed, people must also comply with these rules, otherwise it is not impossible for a car to destroy people. Gridlock traffic is a headache. Parking (Parking) is a big problem. On both sides of the street, there are clear signs indicating whether you can park. If you park in a place where you can’t park, you will receive a fine (Ticket) and if you don’t pay, you will be notified by the court to appear in court or have trouble renewing your license next time. Freeways, called highways, also have strict rules about how fast cars can drive, usually between 50-65 mph. There are police patrols on the highway, and cars found speeding are subject to fines of several dozen dollars, which is a typical amount.

Sitting or driving in a car, the person in the front must wear a seat belt. If you do not wear a seat belt, you are also in violation of the law. (In this regard, the laws of each state are not exactly the same, some stipulate that while driving on the highway one must wear a seatbelt, and some stipulate that while driving on city streets one must also wear one).

In terms of taxation, I am afraid that there are the most detailed regulations, probably because it is related to the government’s revenue. Government tax regulations are so detailed that the average person would have to study them for a long time. There are rules for every detailed aspect. If you violate these rules, you can be punished very severely. Therefore, everyone has to be careful when dealing with government taxes. If you don’ t pay or can’ t pay your property taxes, the government has the right to take that part of your property and sell it against your taxes. Anyone has to report income to the government. In this respect, Americans are the least free.

He even comes close to claiming that Americans are more conformist than Chinese:

People get into the habit of following the rules. There is an interesting comparison. Americans cooked food, strictly according to the recipe, strict measurement of various condiments, with a variety of measuring tools, a minute do not want to differ. Chinese people cooking, rarely look at the recipe, grab a handful is. The progress of science and technology in American society, the development of more and more specialized supplies, they require each person who wants to use them must comply with the rules.

The worst part, the one he can’t get over, is pet licenses. He has a whole chapter called “Dogs And Cats Are Not Free” about all the restrictions placed on animal ownership.

He naturally speculates on why America is so regimented and legalistic, giving theories like:

  • America never had an aristocrat class to dispense personal justice, so they became accustomed to the impersonal justice of the law.

  • Americans don’t respect tradition, but do respect the Constitution, so they are naturally more willing to follow laws than vague social principles.

  • As a young country, America grew up together with technology, and you need to follow rules to build technology or keep it working.

  • Americans are so individualistic that they all want different things and constantly get in fights with each other, and without a regulation they can’t resolve these fights.

This last is his best stab at why there are so many rules around dogs and cats:

The reason for such a statute to coordinate dogs and cats is also because of the different interests that exist. Americans, some love dogs and cats to death, and some hate them to death. So, in order to reconcile the two, there must be regulations. I witnessed a family whose dog ran onto a neighbor’s lawn to play, and the owner came out and yelled at them. The owner of the dog ran out and took the dog home. In this case, there is no regulation to coordinate the conflict.

We can see that the law is very detailed, each possible dispute is included, if there is a dispute, you can follow the rules. If there is no detailed legislation, I am afraid that the public will say that the public’ s opinion is reasonable, the mother will say that the mother’ s opinion is reasonable, the daughter-in-law will say that the daughter-in-law s opinion is reasonable, the son will say that the son’s opinion is reasonable.

My guess would be different from any of his: I think China in the 1980s was a developing society with low state capacity - or rather, lots of state capacity at forcing everyone to move to communal farms and starve to death, but less state capacity at monitoring exactly what speed people could drive at. As countries get richer, law enforcement becomes easier, and increasingly-demanding citizens agitate harder for regulations that improve their quality of life.

Sometimes Wang is very clear on how America’s technological advantage not only supports its surveillance state, but allows it to operate under the radar:

[A professor being interviewed] said Americans could never accept the police department issuing documents, which would give the police department too much power. In fact, the computer system is so advanced that the police department can easily use the personal data about citizens stored by the Department of Transportation and even various other agencies. I’m afraid that anywhere you go the police department has a way to find out what’s going on through the computer based on your license.

I was reminded of a scholar who returned to the United States the year before last and told me that once when he left his state for a visit, his host arranged to visit a county police department and the police department showed him the computer system. The police chief who accompanied him asked him for this “license”, entered the relevant number into the computer, and immediately showed his details on the computer screen, including age, nationality, date of birth, occupation, and whether he had a criminal record, which amazed him.

1980s China must have had barely any computers, so this level of surveillance seemed both miraculous and dystopian to the Chinese visitor!

Wang is also surprised that so much regulation can coexist with so much crime. He by saying:

American society can be described as a “regulatory society’, although the phenomenon of lawlessness and crime is quite worrying. However, the whole process of society is regulated by various regulations. There must be a reason why the law works the way it does. Naturally, I cannot say what the reason must be.

America Has Informal Social Relationships That Help Shape Power Structures

Americans stereotype China as a place where guanxi - the network of informal social relationships and favors - determines the power structure as much as official titles.

Wang reflects this back at us, albeit halfway between “I’m surprised at how much of this there is” and “I’m surprised this exists at all, given our Chinese stereotypes about America as a place where this doesn’t happen”. Occasionally he feels like he needs to defend a thesis that Americans have social relationships with each other at all. Here’s a more measured version:

It is generally believed that human relationships in American society are simpler and less complex, and people live in society based on their abilities, knowledge, and money, rather than on relationships, family, and other factors, which constitute the biggest difference between Eastern and Western societies, and the culture of Eastern societies, especially within the Confucian cultural circle, emphasizes identity, discipline, etiquette, and blood, while Western culture emphasizes talent, law, profit, and authority. In general, and only in general, this division is acceptable. But it must not be assumed that this is absolutely true of American and Western societies. Just as relationships are not always relied upon in Eastern societies, they are not always [maybe Wang meant to add a “not” here?] relied upon in Western societies.

Some of his examples of American relationships:

In politics, the role of relationships is clear. one of the major controversies in the 1988 presidential campaign was the Republican vice presidential candidate Quayle, who was not considered by public opinion to be a prominent figure or to have gotten ahead by his own struggle, but by his family, which earned two million dollars a year. He did not do well in school, there was some talk of the draft, and so on. The power of family is still important in America.


One of the professors who studied African issues told me that to do good research I had to do fieldwork in various countries and regions of East Africa, and that to do so I could not attend classes in the department. He got permission from the head of the department. The other professors then became very jealous; they didn’ t say anything on the surface, but there was a lot of gossip behind the scenes that this professor was getting too good a deal for not teaching and going abroad and getting a salary at the same time. In contrast, they were too unprofitable. I asked him how he could get the permission of the department head. He said the department chair had a good relationship with him. He was working on a plan to get the department chair to go to a country in Africa for a scenic trip and lecture on the side. This professor is a very decent man, but he knows how to get his way.


When I was visiting a university on the East Coast, a friend told me that the interpersonal relationships among professors in the department were complicated, with professors fighting with and backstabbing each other. Sometimes there were arguments in the classroom. One professor criticized a school of thought in class for having no theory and abstract data, and another professor in the room immediately asked him to be more specific. It was actually a conflict between the two of them. Professors often see professors in the same field as competition.


Another noteworthy event was a situation seen at a university that illustrates very well that Americans do not disregard human relations. A delegation from the Japanese business community came to speak at a university, representing some of Japan’ s major corporations and important academic institutions. The Japanese are rich and already known to the world. At the reception, many Americans treated the Japanese representatives with respect and looked for things to say. One woman official from the local government held the hand of a Japanese man for several minutes, smiling all over and saying straight out that the Japanese man had a beautiful tie. I felt uncomfortable looking at her. In fact, she was trying to get some Japanese investment for the local area. Americans mostly despise Japanese, but their attitude towards Japanese and what they think inside is different.

He concludes:

I am not saying that this relationship is bad per se, but I am trying to illustrate the existence of interpersonal relationships.

America Is The Least Mysterious Society

This one was just funny:

American society is the least mysterious society. People grow up in this society with little mystery about any matter. This is an inseparable part of the American culture . . . The heavens are in the American mind as a place where God lives, but this place has never been mystified. Star Wars, ET, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were more a product of non-mystery than mystery.


There is little mystification in children’s education, which is a mechanism for non-mystical socialization. Americans have almost no belief in ghosts. Americans invent and conceive of many ghosts, probably more than any other country in the world, but do not believe in ghosts. Children have no concept of ghosts, and during Halloween children dress up as all kinds of ghosts and move around the neighborhood. Americans grow up with the mentality that ghosts are not scary, but that people are the real scary ones. In some societies, the opposite is true: people are not scary, ghosts are scary. It will certainly be interesting to discuss what the consequences of these two different creeds will be.

Wang is aware of American religion, but describes it as “secularized”:

Religious activities are not so much mysterious, and are very different from the religious activities and religious organizations of the Middle Ages. Many of the large modern churches are very modern and do not have the style of the old church with its spires and towers, but have a modern mood. Many modern churches have become the subject of debate. The churches are richly decorated with green pine and green leaves. God and Christ probably dare not think about it.

Religious organizations are also using modern means of communication to spread their religion. Several major radio stations broadcast prayer programs on Sundays, reaching millions of households. Prominent priests conduct the services, and much of what is preached concerns the worries and needs of each person’s daily life. Sometimes it is about how one can be successful, sometimes it is about why one should get along with others, and so on and so forth. All the topics are linked to quotations from the Bible. When the Olympics were held in Seoul, a famous pastor held a prayer in Seoul, broadcast live to the United States, with the theme, “Before you ask, I will meet you.” These are the words of the Bible. The pastor said that the reason why there was such good weather in Seoul during the Olympics was because God fulfilled this desire of people before they asked for it. And so on and so forth.

He’s also unimpressed with freedom of religion:

Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected. Anyone who declares that he or she has a religion cannot be prohibited by anyone else. Even if one day a person says that the religion he founded believes that bees are the angels of the world, no one else can do anything but disbelieve him.

America Contains Many Things

Wang is smart and careful and rarely makes factual mistakes. When I as an American find myself objecting to (or baffled by) him, it’s because he’s focusing very hard on characteristics of the US that no American cares about or considers interesting. Usually a second’s thought makes it clear that these are parts of the government that matter a lot more in China than they do here, and Wang takes a while to come to the conclusion that the American versions aren’t interesting.

For example, he spends a long time talking about the specific bylaws of the Democratic and Republican parties, and who the party chair is, and how they pick county level officers, and so on. Most Americans don’t care about this, but it’s easy to figure out why someone from China - where the Party is the power behind the throne - would expect Power to hide somewhere in the Democratic or Republican organizational structure. When he finds out that it doesn’t, he complains that these are barely parties at all:

Neither [political] party has a tight organization, and it is rare to hear which party holds branch or membership meetings in general. American political parties are electoral parties, that is, they are active only at election time, and it is not clear who is a member of the party itself during weekdays. It is like a person who is in a market and does not know what he or she should do until then. . . It may seem that the two parties still have a more decent top-down, or bottom-up, organization, but in reality there is very little connection between the organizations, because there is no theory, no party platform, no fixed membership, and no idea how to connect. . .

The two parties are the most willing to have others fight under their banner. You can do whatever you want as long as you play under my banner and negotiate certain terms. National franchise stores, such as McDonald’ s, Hardee’ s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, are available nationwide. The head office has no idea what they are doing other than selling the same goods. Americans implement the same ideas in politics and economics. The two parties are like a National franchise, with each branch doing its own thing to sell its products. . . It is sometimes unbelievable that two major parties that can dominate politics are so loosely organized.

Likewise, he spends a lot of time trying to figure out what “ideology” various institutions have; I’m not sure what he means, but whatever it is, nothing ever has it, and Wang is always surprised by this. Some of this comes out in his section on the Constitution:

I remember once a professor came to Fudan University to give a lecture, and a Chinese student asked a question: “There is no fixed ideology in the United States, what do people unify their thoughts based on?” This was a very typical Chinese question, and the professor was puzzled. After explaining, he understood what the student wanted to ask. He thought for a while and then said, “The Constitution.”

Not everyone thinks of the Constitution all the time, but when a dispute arises, the only thing everyone can rely on that they feel they can trust is the Constitution.

I think “what do you unify your thoughts based on?” would be a good icebreaker question on dates.

Other things he focuses on much more than I would expect: county-level government, farms and rural development, think tanks, and the international studies departments at colleges. All of these make sense once you think about them, but it’s still jarring that they each get more pages than, say, racial conflict.

America Is Self-Organizing

He says this a lot, and sometimes it sounds pretty profound and like he’s making some kind of deep Political Science point. But I think he mostly means two things.

First, he’s talking about capitalism and the Invisible Hand, which his Chinese readers aren’t necessarily familiar with; he seems to have a pretty good sense of this and why it might be good, and wants to bring home the full degree to which the US economy isn’t centrally planned.

Second, I think he just means we have a civil society. This is another thing which constantly surprises him.

America Is Good In Ways, But May Of Those Ways Are Dying

Despite his later career, Wang has many positive feelings about America. There are many things he is genuinely impressed by. Some are “I cannot imagine you could run a country this way at all, but America seems to muddle through”. But others genuinely move him.

He describes going to a city council meeting and seeing that even the lowest citizen is allowed to watch the proceedings and raise objections to anything they don’t like.

He visits a science museum in Chicago, is shocked to see it is free for everyone despite America’s capitalist reputation, and is delighted to see the little children running around and pressing buttons and enjoying learning things about science. His delight is less “childhood innocence” and more of a hungry “yes, this is the way you recruit the youth into your plan to remain a technological superpower”. But it is delight nonetheless.

Wang praises America for its meritocracy. He compares the American civil service to the Imperial Chinese civil service - anyone can get in if they pass an exam. Although family matters a little (eg the Kennedys) he is impressed by our dedication to rewarding talent regardless of political beliefs or social connection. In some cases, his description surprises me. He claims that jobs like fire chief have to be filled by putting out an ad in the local paper that anyone can respond to, giving them all a written examination with questions like “What do you think is the most difficult issue [and] how will you deal with it?” and then having the city grade all exams and select the most qualified candidate. This doesn’t match with my impression and I don’t know if this is Iowa-specific, some law on the books which has no relation to real life, or if one of us is just wrong.

He praises us for our localism. He says that Americans are most interested in local and state politics, where they understand the issues and have a chance to contribute, and only then in national concerns.

He praises us for our nonpartisanship. State and local races are dominated by state and local concerns. There is “no ideological difference” between the Democratic and Republican parties (he often makes this statement, sometimes with more qualifications than other times). People vote based on the race in front of them rather than generic partisan cliquishness.

He praises us for our comfort with advancing technology. Americans believe Progress is possible and desirable. They see the future as one of better consumer goods and increased ability for the common man to access information and the levers of power. They want to get there as soon as possible.

He praises us for our self-assurance and belief in its own ideals. America doesn’t have Chinese-style propaganda campaigns, but this just makes Wang even more impressed with its informal, decentralized ability to pass on American values. The average person really does love and respect freedom, democracy, and the Constitution. Nobody has to force them to do this. It’s not magical - schools teach these values, parents tell them to their children. But it all happens without any central planning.

He praises us for our participation in the Western tradition. Just as Americans might have an overly intellectualized view of China as the land of Chuang Tzu and Confucius, so Wang tends to appeal to Aristotle and Locke when trying to explain why America is so strange, in a way that this American felt was a little overdone. Still, as a citizen of a country that was one of its victims, he is acutely aware of the success of Western values, and praises America as a nation where they have reached their highest development.

These are all things that seem much less true of 2020s America than of 1980s America. Wang can’t see the future, but he seems somewhat aware that these things are on the decline, and suggests a few times that after World War II America has been less good at continuing some of the things he admires most in it.

America Is Decadent And Diseased

This is the theme of the book that fits most with Wang’s later political career. He discusses poverty, inequality, and racism, but also porn, drugs, gangs, sex, weird fashion, and modern art:

Sometimes walking down the street, you can see some people’s hair completely erect, explosive, or shaved a yin and yang head. Some public places hang a few pieces of broken tin, called modern sculpture. For some modern art, many people are afraid to enjoy it.

Commentaries on the book hold up Wang as some kind of incisive critic of US society. This was not my impression. My impression was that he opened a newspaper, read the criticisms Americans were making about themselves, and relayed them back to the Chinese.

For example, his chapter on racism exactly parrots the US liberal narrative of what racism is and what effects it has. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a fine narrative, and six months in Iowa isn’t going to give him any better insights. But it’s not like he’s de Tocqueville or anything.

Other chapters sound more like he’s exactly parroting the US conservative narrative. For example, on work:

The attitude of Americans towards work, naturally, cannot be said to be clear-cut, there is a great difference. If we talk about the workforce in society as a whole, the difference is enormous. Many people would rather receive government handouts than get a job, and they don’t do it even if they have one. This is a major problem in society, and many taxpayers are complaining: Why is the government taking money out of our pockets and giving it to those who are idle? The middle class, in particular, is angry about this. If we’re talking about people who are working, that’s another story. Most people who work, work hard, diligently, and actively.

This is a fine summary for someone who spent six months in Reagan-era Iowa, but it is very much the summary of someone who spent six months in Reagan-era Iowa.

Other times, it sounds like he read one book arguing that something was a problem, and has become convinced it’s one of the great problems of our age. For example, Wang devotes a chapter to teenage runaways - again, the same amount of space he devotes to racism or drugs. It sounds like all of his information comes from one 1973 book, Juvenile Delinquency: The Stray Teenager In America , which says that in a single year, police caught 265,000 teenage runaways. Later it says that there are a million teenage delinquents in America, and Wang seems to think maybe these are all runaways or something. He suggests that this is because American families do not have “true inner harmony” because they are too individualistic, and spends a lot of time thinking about what kind of society could have fewer teenage runaways. While I am sure there are still some teenage runaways in the US, I am skeptical that the issue deserves the level of thought Wang gives it.

Another book Wang likes is Mafia Enforcer: A True Story of Life and Death in the Mob. He reports what he learned from it like so:

Another type of [criminal] organization [besides the Mafia] is the non-family type called the Motorcycle Gang, which has a national leadership: President, Vice President, Treasurer, etc. Under them are Sergeant at Arms, War Lord, Road Captain, who are responsible for the control of the members and the control of non-members, by means of beatings, assassinations, etc. They had a wide range of contacts with all three social groups. There are also two types of activities: legal activities include car trading, bars, entertainment, clubs, food, motorcycle trading, real estate, restaurants, freight, construction, antiques, etc. Illegal activities are the same as those of the Mafia.

Such organizations are well-organized, incredibly energetic, and dominate a large portion of American society. The White House governs American society, and the mob organizations also govern a large part of American society, but this part is dark. We can look at a scene depicted in this book (Chapter 5, the girl who sells her body).

“They often beat some women to death to protect themselves because they thought they might turn out to be informers, and that was one reason why many girls disappeared. Those who disappeared were either tortured or murdered. They were mutilated, crucified or thrown into the wasteland where wild animals ate the bodies without leaving a trace. The girls also disappeared for other reasons. Sometimes they worked as prostitutes or escort dancers in low-class bars, becoming too old and useless at the age of 16 or 18. Some because they wanted to get rid of the clubs that owned them, some because they didn’t turn in the money they were required to turn in, and some simply because they didn’ t earn enough money. ”

Reading a chapter like this, one wonders, is this America? Yes, this is America. This is the other side of the coin. The government recognizes that these criminal groups threaten society. in 1985, FBI statistics showed that the four largest criminal groups had 3,800 members, not including eight hundred smaller groups. Today, the power of criminal organizations and the Mafia has grown so much that it has become one of society’s biggest headaches.

That last paragraph really gets to the heart of Wang’s thesis in this book. “We all thought America was this shining beacon of prosperity. It is indeed very rich. But somehow it also has all of these terrible problems. The wealth and the terrible problems coexist. This is concerning and we must study it further.”

In America, we understand this truth, but we assimilate it as teenagers, act insufferable about it for a few years, and then eventually worry about something else. Wang is first learning it as a political scientist, and he is not getting over it.

Another thing we learn as American teenagers: it’s rarely as bad as all that. The news tells us of murders, riots, mass shootings, bigotry, greedy evil corporations, the hollowing out of the middle class. Eventually we learn that outrage sells, and “if it bleeds it leads”. All of these things are real problems but probably not so much as Channel 7 or the New York Times would like you to believe.

Wang Huning grew up in one of the world’s tightest authoritarian societies, where all the news is a carefully-managed propaganda campaign to make the government look great. He probably has some good antibodies to whatever Xinhua is peddling, but, I’m afraid, might not have been prepared for America’s particular pathologies. So when people told him Americans were quitting work to suck up fat welfare checks, he believed them. When people told him that there were a million teenage runaways in America, he believed them. And when people told him that motorcycle gangs with Treasurers and War Lords were crucifying women with impunity, he believed that too. Probably all of these things are sort of happening, somewhere. But probably Wang ended up thinking they were happening much more often than they were.

If there is anything to be learned from this episode, it is that whenever political scientists from foreign dictatorships visit the United States, we should hand them a pamphlet, and it should say “You know how back in your home country, all the media is carefully optimized to present everything in the best possible light? We have a silly custom in America, which is that all our media is optimized to make us look as horrible as possible. Relax and don’t take it too seriously.”

But Wang didn’t get the pamphlet, so now he’s become the #2 guy in China and is optimizing for crushing any Western influences in Chinese society. Oops. At least that’s my theory.

America’s Families Are Weak And Bad

Okay, fine, this chapter was good and gave me the exotic Oriental wisdom I was looking for:

The American concept of family or family organization, most of those who have been educated in Eastern culture do not agree and do not appreciate. The American concept of family is very different from what it was decades ago. Of course, there are millions of American families, and they vary. What we analyze is only the typical and representative mainstream American family concept.

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. This pattern of relationship between them is not acceptable in China or Japan. Men and women are consultative on many issues, and it sounds like two people who don’t know each other very well are talking about one thing. Of course, there exist harmonious families.

The development of American conjugal life to this point is the result of a society that has long pursued individualism. Americans have been trained in this way since childhood and regard this value as more important than any other value. On the other hand, as a result of this long-term education, have become less adept at dealing with people and no longer live with them. 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. Older couples seem to need to rely on each other more and pay less attention to maintaining the inner barrier.

How is this barrier formed? It starts with the environment in which Americans are raised. I think many young couples are too individualistic and selfish to pay much attention to the support and education of their children, not like the Orientals, who expect their children to grow up, and not like the traditional Westerners who devote their hearts and souls to them. Very young children, not even a year old, are usually sent to a separate room, the American concept is that this allows the child to learn to have a private domain, to learn to have their own domain, on the other hand, can also protect the private domain of the parents. This is the beginning of children learning to be independent. Independence and individualism are highly valued by Americans. Parents instill this in their children and at the same time protect themselves. They do not want to lose this to themselves as a result of the birth of a child. Their innermost, perhaps unconscious, motivations push them to encourage their children to “go first” and “stand on their own two feet. In terms of social effects, this may have positive implications. Children are taught early on that they should make their own decisions and be responsible for their own actions. This allows parents to get rid of their children earlier.

Children start earning money at an early age and parents give them some money. Many very young children have bank accounts. children between the ages of 9 and 10 can deliver newspapers to their neighbors, and children between the ages of 13 and 18 can babysit for their neighbors. American society is a money society, and parents know that in order for their children to gain independence, they must force them to learn to deal with money.

At the age of 18 to 21, parents encourage their children to leave home and lead an independent life. Generally, children go out to earn their own living at this age. The relationship between children and their families after they go out is, from the Chinese perspective, very weak. You often hear stories about children calling their parents and telling

them what time they will come and go on a certain day, and then they will leave. Young people entering society is like entering a battlefield, they can’t help but make a good living. This pressure also forces them to be incapable of taking care of their parents. I know people who love their parents, but they don’t have time to visit them often. I also know many people who are indifferent to the elderly. Many elderly people are living in nursing homes or whatever, and their children amount to no role. Regardless of the reason, it is extremely difficult for the giving daughter to support the elderly. What does the current situation of the elderly teach the young? What imprint will it leave on the young?

Parents usually don’t care about their children’s marriage either, it’s up to them. Children just bring their girlfriends or boyfriends home to meet with their parents. Americans are more casual in this regard, while the rich and famous may be more strict. Parents are also the same people. Young people usually have boyfriends or girlfriends in high school, and the concept of sex is more open, and parents have no objection to the opposite sex friends of their children at the age of 15 or 16. One teacher I knew brought her son and her son’s girlfriend into the classroom and introduced them to everyone. Her son was fifteen years old. I asked her what she thought about this relationship. She said she thought it was great that her son’s girlfriend was two years older than him, had her own car, and wouldn’ t let her son drink or smoke. Accepting this fact is commonplace in America because that’s how parents come by it. The concept of girlfriends and boyfriends in no way implies marriage, which, of course, is possible.

Attitudes toward children arise for a variety of reasons, and I actually think many people love their children very much. However, the average family must let their children become independent early and cannot afford to provide for them, so they are unable to love. In turn, children 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. Chinese culture contains a strong element of raising children for old age, and filial piety is one of the basic concepts of Chinese culture. It is not that Americans do not want to have this concept, but they are unable to have it. One friend said that in addition to cultural factors, material conditions are also important. Raising children for old age is a product of agricultural civilization and is bound to diminish under the impact of industrial civilization.

The present of the elderly is the future of the young. This situation of the elderly influences the attitude of young parents towards the upbringing of their children. From the time they start to have children, they know in their hearts that the child cannot be relied upon in the future, that raising him is a unilateral obligation, and that in most cases they cannot expect anything in return. What kind of effect does this have on parents? It is no small challenge for parents to truly take on the responsibility of raising their children, i.e. to overcome their own individualism (not in a derogatory sense, but in reference to a cultural phenomenon), which has been passed on from generation to generation, and it is extremely difficult to choose a new beginning, which is a problem for the future.

Conclusion: America Will Be Overtaken By Japan

If you weren’t expecting this conclusion, remember: this book is from 1988. Wang has some ability to think independently, as he displays in the chapter above. But mostly he just repeats a slightly edgy flavor of American conventional wisdom back to his Chinese readers. And the slightly edgy American conventional wisdom in 1988 was that America would be overtaken by Japan. Therefore, this is Wang’s conclusion:

The challenge to the United States from [Japan] is serious . . . The question is why did it end up this way? In addition to various reasons such as the management system, the difference between the two cultures is an important reason. A certain system is bound to have an effect that does not depend on human will, but a certain culture will have an effect that does not depend on human will. The end of the economic competition between the United States and Japan is the product of the different genes of the two cultures. To a large extent, this is more of a cultural constraint rather than an institutional constraint. Some people say that the United States and Japan than the Eastern culture has the upper hand.

What factors are at play? It is difficult to list them all here, but I can only give a brief overview.

Japanese culture promotes collectivism, while American culture promotes individualism. Modern mass production is about division of labor and cooperation, and the collectivist gene in Japanese culture is more suitable for collaborative production. American individualism tends to reject large-scale or oblivious cooperation, and Americans speak first and foremost of the status of the individual. Americans tend to think about individual success, while the Japanese are often led to think about collective success. The unifying spirit of large Japanese companies is difficult to find in the United States. Japanese people can dedicate their lives to a company and do a small part of the work. Americans, I’m afraid, have difficulty doing this. There are pros and cons to collectivism for the development of a society, but it is clear that collectivism unites more than individualism.

Japanese culture focuses on personal devotion and American culture focuses on personal enjoyment. The American culture is hedonistic. Work is for pleasure, Americans never have trouble with themselves, and money is spent. Americans with large savings are rare animals. Many people often do not know where to get the money tomorrow. Americans borrow money to buy houses, cars, college, etc. Spend it first. Japanese culture does not have a high personal position, and does not emphasize personal enjoyment, but rather advocates personal dedication, Japanese men work, many people have to work until midnight, are working long hours consciously and voluntarily, there is no overtime pay. I was told that if a Japanese man does not work until midnight at night in the company, people will think he has no drive and is not valued. The American standard of living is probably one of the highest in the world, surpassing Japan in housing, transportation, education, food, and environment, although the per capita income is not as high as in Japan. The hedonistic culture leads people to spend large sums of money on welfare rather than investment. The Japanese are typically “economic animals” with a strong desire to invest, but not as focused on personal enjoyment as the Americans.

The Japanese culture is a regulatory culture and the American culture is a hands-off culture. The Japanese culture creates an atmosphere where everyone accepts strict management, so the whole economic and social mechanism is more tightly organized and the whole machine runs more uniformly. This mechanism, when used for economic development, is bound to unleash tremendous energy. Americans are not likely to accept the Japanese style of management, Americans are more diffuse, more casual, and the operation of the machine is more democratic. The Japanese are forced by their superiors to fight the world, and must fight. Americans tend to fight for their own motives, and instructions from the top can be democratically denied, and the top canaccept this. There are no such stories in Japan, or not many of them.

And so on and so forth. The issue raised here is not only the difference between the two cultures, but also the requirement that one reevaluate the two institutions. The American system, which is generally based on individualism, hedonism and democracy, is clearly losing out to a system of collectivism, self-forgetfulness and authoritarianism. Perhaps Americans would rather lose out economically than give up their institutions. This system guarantees the fulfillment of faith and also a certain prosperity for society. Today’ s world landscape seems to indicate that this system is hardly a guarantee of America’s most developed status. People are often faced with the choice of maintaining a value system or pursuing a more effective system — but

against the traditional value system. Sometimes the question is whether a certain culture can allow a society to choose a whole different system, and often it cannot. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Americans will accept Japanese culture. Americans tend to be less interested in Japanese culture, and many believe that the Japanese are in an underdeveloped cultural climate. In this regard, many Americans look down on the Japanese. This psychological barrier will ensure that the United States does not develop faster than Japan, and also that Americans will have difficulty in finally accepting the Empire of the Sun.

The United States today encounters a challenge from Japan, in large part because American institutions, culture and values oppose the United States itself.

So What Is America Anyway, And Why Is Wang So Upset?

This book is called America Against America. In the introduction, Wang explains that he means that the Chinese vision of America (a very powerful country of advanced technology, freedom, and democracy) is opposed to the real America (a place with just as many problems as anywhere else).

But later on, he switches to a different meaning, typified by the last sentence of the long quote above. America is contradictory. America opposes itself. I wasn’t able to find a clear explanation of what he means by this, so take the following as speculation only.

On one side is the good America that Wang admires. This is the America that grew from a bunch of tiny colonies under attack by Indians and Redcoats into a technological and economic superpower. It won World War II and the Cold War, and outlasted Maoism in China. It built the Panama Canal, the interstate highways, and the Space Shuttle, but also globally respected corporations like Microsoft and Coca-Cola. Its people are effortlessly patriotic, self-assured, and committed to their Constitution and ideals. Its government runs on meritocracy and everyone respects talent regardless of its social class.

On the other side is an America of hedonism, backwardness, lawlessness, and decay. This is the America of sexual promiscuity, drug gangs, and racism, but also the America of dumb Congressmen who are good at smiling and pandering but don’t know the first thing about anything. Children disobey parents, adults disobey the State, and nobody unifies their thoughts correctly.

Americans (especially within a libertarian or neoliberal tradition) tend to think of these as two sides of the same coin. Freedom leads to innovation. The downside of a society where Bill Gates can drop out of Harvard and create Microsoft without anyone’s permission, is a society where someone can drop out of high school and create a drug gang. We’re committed to the Constitution because it guarantees us the right to build a good life however we envision that term.

Wang doesn’t see it that way. He sees a beautiful nation with limitless potential (from the virtues on the good side) squandering that potential and slowly destroying itself (from the vices on the bad side). He thinks this is completely unnecessary: why not try having the virtues, but not the vices?

It would be easy to dismiss this as a foreigner misunderstanding the nature of America. Or even (as I hinted before) at a foreigner living in Reagan-era Iowa and unintentionally absorbing its conservative philosophy - “America used to be great, but now under the assault of liberal relativism it’s losing its values and becoming decadent”.

What prevents me from dismissing it in this way is that, well, China sure is trying the project of having the first set of things but not the second set. In the early 2000s, everyone in the West thought China would inevitably democratize; surely it was impossible to for a rich, technologically advanced nation of the sort China was becoming to remain a pseudo-communist autocracy. This seems a lot like the theory that America’s prosperity and its decadence are two sides of the same coin. If Wang took power in China to test his theory that freedom and prosperity were separable, his experiment has been one of the most impressive and conclusive in political science.

So far. China hasn’t quite caught up to America. Their GDP per capita is still less than a quarter of ours. Although they make many excellent products, the world leaders - iPhones, 747s, GPTs - are mostly still designed in the US, even if Chinese factories churn out the parts. Other Asian tigers like South Korea and Taiwan liberalized politically around the point where they started approaching developed-country GDP; in his analysis of their rise, Joe Studwell suggests that this might have been a necessary component. And Japan, despite all the virtues that made Wang think they would overtake the US, has stagnated instead.

Palladium had an issue on China, industry, and Wang Huning where they argued that China still knows what it’s doing. China, they say, has seen the Western model of deindustrialization - replacing manufacturing with services, finance, and a bit of high-tech - and said no thanks. Even if this process raises GDP, China thinks it’s militarily, spiritually, and socially important to have a manufacturing-based economy. So when China (possibly at Wang’s instigation) recently cracked down on its high-tech sector in a way that threatened to chill future innovation, maybe they did that on purpose and didn’t care. Maybe they wanted all the companies creating apps and social media sites and VR and whatever to go somewhere else, so they could continue to make widgets. This is getting pretty far beyond anything in America Against America , but it seems like a possible outgrowth of Wang’s thinking.

It also seems a little like - pardon the expression - China vs. China. For a guy who just wanted a flourishing technological economy, crushing the high-tech sector seems a bit desperate. Maybe it’s harder to get a country without contradictions than Wang thought.

  1. I have stolen this sentence from a friend’s description of Katja Grace, who I think would have a lot to talk to Wang Huning about.

  2. Reading this book, I found myself confused by the existence of Studies Programs. My college had a China Studies program and one or two others, I think Middle East Studies. Most professors in these programs were white (or black, or whatever - just not necessarily Chinese or Middle Eastern). They would read lots of Chinese texts, visit China a bit, and come back and have opinions on the Chinese National Character. Wang is doing the reverse, and China clearly appreciates his service. But why? What’s the point of such people? Why don’t we just hire a Chinese person (maybe an immigrant, if we don’t trust the ones still in the PRC) to tell us what the Chinese National Character is? Why do we sent smart Americans to China to figure out what it’s like? There are literally over a billion people who already know that!