(This Dec 10. story has been refiled to remove extraneous word "is" in the 21st paragraph))
BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When ex-Chinese leader Hu Jintao was escorted from the stage in October at the Communist Party Congress, a powerful behind-the-scenes figure took a brief turn in the spotlight as China-watchers pored over video to try to figure out what happened.
Wang Huning, one of just two top officials reappointed to join President Xi Jinping on the elite seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, has carved an unusual career path as the party's top theoretician.
While he typically operates in the background, Wang played a key role in the Hu drama when another top official, Li Zhanshu, briefly moved to assist the 79-year-old former president, who appeared to be confused.
Wang, watching intently, stopped Li, discreetly tugging his jacket - a small but seemingly significant act in an episode that has yet to be fully explained but was widely viewed as the symbolic end of any remnants of a pre-Xi political era.
An irony is that Wang, 67, served both Hu and his predecessor Jiang Zemin before becoming one of Xi's closest advisors as his chief ideologue, a trajectory unique in an era when every other member of the Standing Committee is seen to be a Xi career loyalist.
“He made almost every trip, I believe, with Jiang Zemin, no matter where he went. And the same was true with Hu Jintao and then with Xi Jinping,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert who served as a senior official for Asia in the Clinton administration between 1998-2000 and has met Wang several times.
“He clearly has a facility for relating to personalities at the highest levels of power and building a relationship of trust. It’s quite remarkable.”
In his first five-year term on the Standing Committee, Wang ran the party's secretariat, an organ responsible for day-to-day affairs.
In Xi's third leadership term, Wang is on track to be in charge of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body.
However, Wang's power transcends specific roles, analysts say.
Over three decades, Wang has established himself as the party's top theoretician, according to analysts, influencing policy concepts and slogans used to push China's interests and legitimising party rule in an era when Xi has bolstered its role across all aspects of Chinese society.
Ideas such as "Chinese-style modernisation", and "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" - positioned as Xi's governing philosophy - have been associated by analysts with Wang.
"He is a political beautician, very good at using cosmetics to dress up political policies and slogans, including foreign policy," said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington.
"All the major slogans, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, seem to have come from Wang Huning," Lam said.
'AMERICA VS. AMERICA'
Where most Standing Committee members have experience such as running a major city or province, Wang is an academic. He taught political theory, among other subjects, at Shanghai's elite Fudan University from 1981 to 1995 before moving to Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound in central Beijing, where he has been ever since.
From 2002 to 2020, Wang headed the Central Policy Research Office, a party institution responsible for drafting major documents on ideology and theories, as well as providing guidance on policy matters. His tenure was unusually long in a bureaucracy where officials rotate through different roles.
At the same time he rose in the party hierarchy, from the Central Committee to the Politburo, and in 2017, to the top governing body in China, the Politburo Standing Committee.
According to Ming Xia, a political science professor at City University of New York (CUNY), Wang has avoided factional struggles or the accumulation of wealth that has been the downfall of many Chinese officials.
During his first Standing Committee term, Wang was the only member to speak at high-level discussions held after publication of the second, third and fourth volumes of "The Governance of China", a collection of Xi speeches and writings that is ubiquitous in China's bookstores.
Wang became well-known in China for his 1991 book, "America vs. America". Based on a six-month stay that included visits to 30 cities, Wang sought to understand the secret to U.S. success, in hopes of helping China to become a strong nation.
While the book praises some aspects of the United States, it also criticises excessive individualism, money in politics and the state of race relations.
"The United States today faces challenges from Japan, in large part because American institutions, culture and values oppose the United States itself," Wang wrote of a time when Japan was the top U.S. economic rival.
CUNY's Xia, who as a Fudan undergraduate took a class in Western political theory taught by Wang before becoming his colleague there in the late 1980s, described him as a workaholic, introvert and insomniac.
During 1989's pro-democracy student protests, Wang told Xia not to stand with the students, a warning Xia did not heed.
"Back (in Fudan), Wang Huning was clearly a supporter of neo-authoritarianism," said Xia.
Two years later, when Xia left for the United States, Wang warned him about his future home.
"I've been there. That country is a machine operating at a high speed, you need to get used to the machine the moment you step foot or you will be crushed into chicken powder," Xia said Wang told him at the time.
During formal meetings between Clinton and Jiang, former political adviser Lieberthal said he had sought to engage with Wang as the principals walked out of the room, but that Wang was standoffish despite the two having met during his six-month stay in the United States.
“He was known at the time as someone who would never talk to Americans. I assumed that was him trying to protect himself by not directly associating with Americans – certainly not in that company.”
One person who attended a meeting with Wang when he was director of China’s Central Policy Research Office said he came across as scholarly but with a temper, recalling how Wang had upbraided a staffer for several minutes for not having brought his preference of pens.
“I don’t think he suffers fools, I’ll say that,” the person said.
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista in Beijing and Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Tony Munroe and Simon Cameron-Moore)