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What Chinese vice-president told old friend from US about Communist Party's legitimacy

·5 min read

In late January, soon after Joe Biden entered the White House, Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan had a long conversation with an American guest in Beijing.

John Thornton, a Wall Street veteran who had previously headed Goldman Sachs, is an old friend who had known Wang, President Xi Jinping's right-hand man, when he was still a mid-level official in the 1990s.

The pair steered their conversation far beyond day-to-day politics and talked about Chinese and American history, the clash of civilisations and one of the most sensitive topics surrounding the two countries' relations: the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

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Thornton, now the executive chairman of Barrick Gold, relayed the message of the new US administration's priorities: fighting the pandemic, reviving the economy and reuniting a divided America. He said the personal ties between Xi and Biden could help repair relations, and that there was space for the two nations to sit down and discuss trade.

Thornton also had a conversation with China's top trade negotiator, Vice-Premier Liu He, and top diplomat Yang Jiechi during the trip, which paved the way for Liu's first video call with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in June.

"Thornton is an old friend of some Chinese leaders and senior officials," said a person familiar with the details of the discussion. "As someone who understands China, he has helped convey messages between the two nations when the relationship has faced challenges.

"Thornton has a role similar to that of [Henry] Kissinger some 50 years ago," said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter.

When Kissinger made his 1971 trip to China that culminated in the normalisation of ties between the two nations, he was then-president Richard Nixon's national security adviser.

Thornton has not had any official government role, but he has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations to serve as a backchannel - more so as ties have plunged to their lowest point in decades.

Officials from the Donald Trump administration defined the US-China relationship in terms of a "clash of civilisations", and promoted a rhetorical separation of the Chinese state and its people from the ruling Communist Party - seen by officials in Beijing as highly provocative and an affront to its political legitimacy.

Wang was keenly aware of the direction in which the Trump administration was pushing, and during the conversation with Thornton he accused the Trump administration of engineering a decoupling between the two nations and driving a wedge between the party and the people.

"Wang shared with Thornton observations from the books he read about regime legitimacy," said the person familiar with the discussion.

According to Wang, the party's legitimacy stemmed from its victory over the Kuomintang in the long civil war, China's course as a socialist country, 40 years of reform and opening-up policies, and the new era under Xi.

China has long been criticised for not having democratic elections, but Wang argued that the party was "chosen" by the people and that they had given their backing to the regime.

"To understand China and its history, present and future, America needs to first understand the Communist Party of China," Wang told Thornton.

Wang also offered his view on American history. He said he saw US politics, ideology and culture as stemming mainly from its Anglo-Saxon and Protestant heritage, and tracing back to Mediterranean civilisation - all creating huge differences with Chinese civilisation.

He indicated that he hoped the Biden administration would change the US' course, and that it should seek to understand China regardless of whether the two countries were friends or enemies - not continue decoupling.

"The ball is now in the US' court" regarding relations, Wang said.

Thornton said Biden's climate envoy John Kerry, who served as secretary of state under Barack Obama, would be a good choice for bringing the two countries together through climate cooperation.

The conversation between Wang and Thornton offered a rare glimpse into the thinking of the Chinese leadership, in particular on how they saw the trajectory of China-US relations as Beijing prepared to deal with a new US government.

The Biden administration has since continued much of Trump's tough approach to China. Biden officials have complained about a lack of communication and access to Xi's inner circle.

Officials in Beijing have a distrust of younger American officials, whom they consider hostile to China and focused too much on ideological competition. They prefer to deal with trusted "old friends" such as Thornton, who is among very few to have maintained ties and access to some of China's most powerful officials.

Thornton's connections to China go back to at least the mid-1990s, when he first met Wang, then the head of China Construction Bank.

When Thornton oversaw Goldman's Asia businesses, the Wall Street bank won the initial public offering contract for China Telecom, one of the first international listings by a Chinese state-owned company. He left Goldman Sachs in 2003 and became a professor and director of the global leadership programme at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.