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“The China we have now is not necessarily the China that had to be” – Professor Hans van de Ven

As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding, Professor Hans van de Ven acknowledged the party’s success in a Zoom talk hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, but he also said that its history over the past century was never written in stone. 

“The Chinese we have now is not necessarily the China that had to be,” said van de Ven. “It could have gone many different ways at very different points in time: the party could have ceased to exist, [or] different reform factions might have taken over.”

Professor van de Ven is a co-editor of the new book, The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives, which approaches the history of the CCP in an unusual way. Rather than focusing on major historical figures such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, each chapter of the book tells the history of a different person, some of whom are not even Chinese, from a different decade. He said he and his fellow editor took this approach because they felt it would make the history more accessible to a broader audience. 

“China is becoming an ever-bigger part of debates in the U.S. and in Europe, and the lack of knowledge about China is such that if you write a general history with a lot of place names and dates and history, people are not going to follow it and won’t be interested,” said van de Ven. 

He said the book highlights two paths the party could have taken but didn’t: “a liberal form of communism, a more human form of communism” and a “cosmopolitan, international tradition.”

He also said there is a widespread and mistaken belief that “the CCP is simply one military authoritarian clique and that’s all you need to know about it.” 

“No, it’s not, it’s much more interesting than that,” said van de Ven. 

He said that the CCP’s endurance stemmed from an ability to reinvent itself after various crises and disasters, and also “because it is such a disciplined organization.” He added that Xi Jinping is the key driver of party discipline.

“The party has penetrated all nooks and crannies of Chinese society so that what it does, what it wants to do and what it tells its party members to do just generally happens,” said van de Ven.

In spite of its long history, van de Ven said that the CCP is not yet politically stable and houses inherent tensions, thanks in part to its origins as a revolutionary party designed to overthrow governments.

“It was never designed as an instrument for stable rule,” said Van de Ven.

Watch the full discussion below:

Income Disparity, Environmental Concerns Biggest Challenges Facing Chinese Communist Party – Eric X. Li

China’s income disparity and environmental degradation are the biggest challenges currently facing the ruling Chinese Communist Party at the 100th anniversary of its founding, said Shanghai-based venture capitalist and political scientist Eric X. Li, who vigorously defended the party’s style of government while expressing doubts about liberal democracies around the world.

“Liberal societies should learn from the party state in China,” Li said. “The party state in China has been very good at self-criticism – that’s why they reinvent themselves. Liberal societies have been failing at that for decades.”

In a spirited Zoom webinar moderated by FCC President Keith Richburg, Li said the CCP had embarked on its third “reinvention” since winning power 72 years ago and transitioning to a government party and then embarking on an openness and reform policy in 1979. This latest reinvention, he said, is driven by a desire to tackle income inequality and achieve a more “balanced growth.” He added that a focus on repairing the environment was a second major priority.

He said that Western countries such as the United States need to be less arrogant, then went on to dismiss the suggestion that the CCP needs to legitimize its rule through elections or referendums because such processes have caused dysfunction and paralysis in liberal democracies.

“I think democracy needs a new set of measurements,” Li said. “I think democracy needs to be measured by outcome, not procedure.”

Asked why the CCP has little tolerance for dissent or criticism, Li countered that there is plenty of debate and difference of opinion in China, including among the party leadership. But he argued that the dissent found in liberal societies has no place in China.

“Just look at the countries that have it: they’re not being governed very effectively, they are polarized, their people hate each other, their media hate each other,” Li said. “We don’t want that.”

He also defended the more assertive, sometimes bombastic, stands by Chinese officials on social media — sometimes referred to as “Wolf Warrior diplomats” — saying Westerners were simply not used to Chinese standing up and loudly speaking back against criticism. 

“They’re seeing their country being demonized by Western politicians and media, and they’re reacting to it for the first time in many decades,” Lis said. “You’d better get used to it.”

Aside from issues of income inequality and the environment, Li argued the CCP needs to steer younger generations away from populism and nationalism toward “productive socialism” and “healthy patriotism.”

“If it can do this, it will deliver on the material and spiritual aspirations of China’s new generations and, as a result, stay in power for a very long time to come,” Li said. “Success is not assured, but I wouldn’t bet against it.”

Watch the full conversation:

Australian Correspondents Bill Birtles and Michael Smith Discuss Their Dramatic Escape From China

In September 2020, deteriorating relations between Australia and China led to a five-day diplomatic standoff during which the two remaining foreign correspondents employed by Australian media, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, were evacuated from the PRC. In a Zoom event hosted the by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and moderated by FCC President Keith Richburg, the two journalists shared their accounts of the days leading up to their escape. 

“When the warnings first came from our government, we didn’t really quite believe it, we didn’t really take them too seriously. We actually thought they were playing politics with us, and that we didn’t need to get out of China at all,” said Smith. “It was all rather dramatic when things did escalate, and you get that knock on the door. There’s a lot of theatrics involved and I think it was designed to intimidate.”

One important factor was that both journalists were unaware that the homes of several Chinese state journalists had been searched by Australian officials several weeks earlier, and they had only just found out about the detainment of Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei. 

“That’s why it came as such a shock, because a lot had been happening in the background and we weren’t privy to this information,” said Birtles. 

Birtles described the surreal experience of having to prepare to leave the country and relying on fellow journalists to pack up his apartment whilst not trying to draw any media attention.

“There was this concern at the time from the Australian diplomats, of course, that if the story broke in the Australian media, then it might force the Chinese side to dig in,” said Birtles. “If we for example, are holed up taking shelter at these embassies, supposedly avoiding Chinese investigators in a national security case, then it would look like the Australian government’s interfering by preventing us from doing the interviews.”

Both Birtles and Smith have now published books about their experiences: The Truth About China and The Last Correspondent, respectively. Though they’ve had plenty of time to process what happened, they still feel surprised by how they ultimately had to flee the country in order to avoid potential incarceration. 

“I never felt unsafe in China,” said Smith. “I always thought the worst thing that could happen to me is that I’d be deported, like a lot of American journalists have been.”

Watch the full discussion below:

Censorship: How China is tightening its grip on Hong Kong

Hong Kong is feeling the creeping hand of censorship from President Xi Jinping as he exercises a tightening of control over the city and mainland China, said expert Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom spoke about how censorship works in China. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Jeffrey Wasserstrom spoke about how censorship works in China. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

The disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellers, the silencing of previously vocal critics of China, and the flooding of pro-China posters around the city during the 20th anniversary of the Handover celebrations are all signs of tightening control, said Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California at Irvine.

During his appearance at the club on November 3, Wasserstrom detailed censorship in China through the decades, outlining how traditionally Communist Party leaders had swung between a tightening and loosening of control over the information people shared and received. He told how in the era of Deng Xiaoping, Chinese citizens were not free enough to publicly criticise him, but they were not forced to praise him either. He said in the 1990s political jokes were rife, with citizens allowed to be apolitical, with less pressure to express their loyalty.

But the era of Xi Jinping and “his elevation in status” has not only seen a crackdown on freedom of expression and information, but also increased pressure to praise China’s leader or risk being seen as disloyal, he said.

And he warned that a general concept that, until now, applied a different set of rules to Hong Kong was coming to an end. Wasserstrom described how, rather than One Country, Two systems – the framework around which Hong Kong will be reintegrated with the mainland – there had been One Country, Three Systems. He explained this as one set of rules applied in Tibet and Xinjiang; a second set of rules applying to the mainland; and a third set of rules that allowed Hong Kong media to freely report on issues including the pro-democracy movement. But the case of the missing booksellers, along with a push for a China-approved national curriculum, was a sign that this third rule no longer applied to Hong Kong.

The event, titled Xi’s Dreams, Orwell’s Nightmares: Censorship in Today’s China, compared the dystopian visions of writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley to make the point that China’s censorship campaign is two-pronged: it blocks information coming in but at the same time bombards its citizens with the propaganda it wants them to see – “a culture of distraction and entertainment”. While Huxley’s Brave New World was seen as a critique of capitalism an imperialism, Orwell’s 1984 had much darker undertones.

Wasserstrom also touched upon a recent article by journalist Louisa Lim, who commented on new research on the effects on China’s censorship on its young people which revealed that many of those who were given unlimited access to the internet failed to use it. The report quotes American writer Neil Postman: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one.”

He noted the increase in China-centric posters around Hong Kong suggested efforts to spread propaganda had become more obvious, and said future signs to look out for would be banks in the city using the Belt and Road Initiative to promote themselves

Referring to Hong Kong and the silencing of some well-known anti-establishment figures, Wasserstrom used the metaphor of the canary in the mineshaft: “One other thing that can happen to a canary is it can find it possible to keep breathing but is unable to sing,” he said, before adding: “We need not just to keep watching the dramatic moments when the canaries disappear and die, but when they stop singing.”

FCC expresses concern over the exclusion of major news organisations from China’s political unveiling

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, is concerned at the unexplained barring of several major international news organisations from the most important political event in China in the last five years.

The BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian were all denied access to the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP The BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian were all denied access to the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian were all denied access to the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on the morning of October 25.

Chinese government officials did not explain why these particular news organisations were all excluded from the carefully stage-managed event attended by some 2,000 journalists. A statement from the congress media centre said that space was limited on Wednesday and noted that the media concerned had been able to attend previous briefings.

However, it seems almost certain that they were likely barred simply because of their, at times, critical coverage of China and Chinese politics.

As the Foreign Correspondents Club of China noted in a statement yesterday: “Using media access as a tool to punish journalists whose coverage the Chinese authorities disapprove of is a gross violation of the principles of press freedom.”

Restricting media access to key political events is an ominously retrograde step for a country and government that claims to be open and transparent. Moreover, it contrasts sharply with the relatively free and open access given to foreign journalists at Communist Party Congresses in the 1980s and 90s when the country was just re-emerging on the world stage.

If China wants to be seen as responsible leader of the global community it should honour President Xi Jinping’s claim that the country “welcomes objective reporting and constructive suggestions” and allow both domestic and foreign journalists to do their job.

Video: Everything you need to know about China’s upcoming 19th Party congress

Four China experts discussed their views on who’s in and who’s out as the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China approaches.

The debate at the FCC on October 3 featured panelists Dr. Willy Lam of Centre for China Studies and the History Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Dr. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University; Dr. Chloé Froissart of Tsinghua University Sino-French Centre in Social Sciences in Beijing; and Dr. Bill Taylor of the Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong.

Left to right: Dr. Bill Taylor, Dr. Chloé Froissart, Dr. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, and Dr. Willy Lam. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Left to right: Dr. Bill Taylor, Dr. Chloé Froissart, Dr. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, and Dr. Willy Lam. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Dr Lam, author of several books on China including his most recent Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Communist Party, went so far as to predict the top seven Politburo Standing committee members to be unveiled at the congress which begins on October 18.

The panel speculated on how the policies due to be announced at the congress would affect China’s population, and its international relations.

Watch the debate below

British government needs to be robust over Sino-British Joint Declaration, says Jonathan Dimbleby

BBC presenter and historian, Jonathan Dimbleby, left, talked about the state of world politics when he appeared at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC BBC presenter and historian, Jonathan Dimbleby, left, talked about the state of world politics when he appeared at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

The British government should be “very robust” over whether it believes the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s handover has been violated, veteran broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby said, the week after China’s foreign ministry dismissed the treaty as a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”.

The BBC Question Time host and historian said that while the U.K. government had last week reiterated that the 1984 treaty was binding, the overall criticism had been “muted”.

He said that if it was agreed that a violation had taken place, then it would “call into question whether you could trust China’s word when it came to signing documents”.

“I think that the British government should be very robust in saying whether or not this agreement has or has not… been violated,” he said

He added that he believed that independent trading relations, post-Brexit, could “overshadow concern for the evolution of democracy here [in Hong Kong]”.

Dimbleby revealed that as a journalist in the 1990s he came across minutes of meetings conducted in the late 1980s between the British government and Beijing that showed the U.K. government of the time had little intention to push for democracy in Hong Kong after the handover. In public, he said, the Conservative government was assuring Hongkongers that they would achieve democracy as part of the agreement.

Watch Jonathan Dimbleby’s Q&A session

“In the way that one does as a writer or journalist… I came across minutes of meetings conducted in late 80s between the British government and the Beijing government. In public, if you look back… the British government were saying to the people of Hong Kong yes, you will have democracy and we want you to have more of it, we will fight for that.

“Simultaneously the British government was reassuring Beijing they had no intention of rocking the prevailing apple cart and central government need have no fear that democracy would be taken forward in the way that a lot of people, as the polls showed here, wanted it to be.

“I came away from that experience and wrote about it without great faith in how my government would deal with Beijing,” Dimbleby told the packed July 5 club lunch.

The night before, Dimbleby had taken part in a BBC World Questions debate alongside Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders of Occupy Central and the founder of the pro-democracy Demosisto party. He praised the 20-year-old, saying: “Joshua Wong is a remarkable illustration of the intelligent young of this generation.”

In a change to the usual club lunch formula, the floor was opened up to questions from the outset. Dimbleby was asked what he thought of Brexit, the U.K. General Election outcome, and Donald Trump as president.

He said: “I woke up like many people after my country voted for Brexit in a state of shock and astonishment. Those who supported Brexit were equally astonished because they never expected to win.”

On the U.S. question, he continued: “Like many people I believed that Donald Trump would never emerge as President of the United States. I thought it would be catastrophic if he did and that most people in the United States would recognise that to be the case.

“Latterly in my own country I did not imagine the Prime Minister, who was a vicar’s daughter, who said there were no circumstances in which she would call a snap election, deciding to do so. The Conservatives are in office, but they’re hardly in power. And the rest of the world is on tenterhooks.

“I think we’re in very uncertain times, I think we are in quite alarming times with the unpredictability of the American President.

“The one thing about the leaders of Russia and China is that they may behave in unpredictable ways but we are quite clear about what their broad intentions are in the West and that is hugely unsettling… for all people in a way that I never imagined.”

Dimbleby added: “If you’re a journalist you have to be glass half full and I’m generally half glass full, but I’ve never felt closer to being glass half empty.”

FCC archives: Not just a soundbite – Chris Patten’s plea as the Handover approached

FCC member and Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, asks the world’s press not to forget the territory after the Handover in this piece reproduced from the 1997 special edition of The Correspondent

Former HK Governor Chris Patten at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in October 1998. Photo by Kees Metselaar Former HK Governor Chris Patten at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in October 1998. Photo by Kees Metselaar

The journalists are coming. At last count more than 8,400 of them to cover one of the greatest end-of-millennium peacetime stories.

As Anson Chan said in a speech in Manila the other day, if Hong Kong can survive that, the rest should be easy.

But will it? That’s the 64,000 dollar question all those interviewers, commentators, analysts and writers will be posing as they report this postscript of Empire.

I’ve been asked the question a million times already – well, it feels like a million times – and will no doubt be asked again and again before Britannia glides through the great bowl of light that will illuminate our magnificent harbour shortly after June 30 has turned into July 1.

FCC members know my answer pretty well. It is that Hong Kong will go on being one of the greatest cities in the world – provided that the promises of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s future are honoured.

I have no doubt that so long as the combination of political freedom and economic liberty, underpinned by the rule of law, is preserved and strengthened, Hong Kong can fulfil its potential as the New York of Asia.

That’s been at the heart of the debate we have been having these last five years. The people of Hong Kong understand that if if some of our critics don’t. Some of them think the 28th and last British governor of Hong Kong should have tip-toed round this issue and gone for a quiet life.

Will Hong Kong remain free? What do you really think of Hong Kong’s future prospects?

That was never an option. The choice was clear cut. Either I stood up for the people of Hong Kong and the freedoms and rights they were promised by Britain and China in the Joint Declaration, at the risk of having the occasional row with China; or I could have done what the Chinese wanted me to do – and spent the last few years in a row with the democrats who, by any measure, represent majority opinion in this community.

What sort of questions would journalists be asking me and Britain now if I had chosen the latter course? I know what those questions would have been and, frankly, I could not have answered them with a clear conscience.

But questions remain, and they will be fired in from every corner of the globe as the transition reaches its midnight climax. Can it work? Will it work? Will Hong Kong remain free? What do you really think of Hong Kong’s future prospects?

I’ll answer as I always do – as a rational and curious optimist with a belief in the people of Hong Kong. They have made this place the spectacular success story it is today and they can go on to a better tomorrow.

They can do that so long as they continue to demonstrate the self-confidence to stand up for their rights, as they did so recently in the face of threats to roll back some of their civil liberties. These are people who know what it’s like to live in a free society.

It will not be for the people of Hong Kong alone to speak up for those rights and freedoms. Britain will continue to do so. So will many others.

The media should keep the spotlight on Hong Kong, too. Not just at the historic moment when the flags change, but in the weeks and months and years – the decades – that follow.

Hong Kong must not be allowed to become a sound bite of history. Don’t forget – none of us should forget – that China has promised in the Joint Declaration to allow Hong Kong to continue pretty much as you find it today for the 50 years up to the year 2047.

Now that’s a story worth watching.

Update: Lord Patten, on June 28, gave an interview to The Guardian where he spoke of a sequence of “outrageous breaches” of the Sino-British handover agreement.

He said: “I don’t think that the outlook outside the European Union is one in which we are more likely to behave honourably towards Hong Kong than we have inside.”

“The worry is that there will never be a point at which we say to the Chinese: ‘No,’” Patten added.

Read the full article here.

Globalisation is coming to an end – but communism unlikely to rule, says top economist

Economist Stephen King explained how globalisation was soon to be a thing of the past. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Economist Stephen King explained how globalisation was soon to be a thing of the past. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Globalisation is on its deathbed as people see inequality in wealth and some of the world’s richest countries seek to withdraw from cross-border partnerships, according to HSBC economist and author, Stephen King.

Speaking at a club lunch on June 20, King said that in the West we’re seeing a rejection of the values of globalisation amid a growing belief that institutions such as NATO and the European Union are less effective and, in some cases, no longer fit for purpose. He gave U.S. President Donald Trump pulling out of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), and China creating the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) as examples of how some countries are becoming more isolationist as they focus on their domestic interests over global relationships.

King said we reached peak enthusiasm for globalisation in 1989, when Berlin Wall came down.

The author of Grave New World: The End of Globalisation, the Return of History, conceded that in some cases it appears that there is a swing back to Liberalism, citing the recent French election victory of Emmanuel Macron and the drubbing of the Conservative Party in the U.K. election. But King said generally there appeared to be a new global narrative: them and us. For example, Greece and Germany: who is to blame for the financial collapse of the Mediterranean country? Greece, for years of financial mismanagement, or Germany for giving the Greeks over-generous loans?

“Once you get into blame and counter blame, you can see how globalisation ends up in trouble,” he said.

He discussed technology as a tool that, until now, has boosted globalisation. But he warned that although technology had enabled living standards to rise rapidly, globalisation instead depends on ideas and institutions.

When asked to give his thoughts on the likelihood of a global revival of communism, he was a little more upbeat. King said it would be difficult for any country to deliver fully-fledged communism when other systems where it has existed are in retreat.

Revealed: Methods of torture used against China’s officials in corruption crackdown

Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch, revealed how China's corruption suspects are kidnapped and tortured Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch, revealed how China’s corruption suspects are kidnapped and tortured

The methods of torture used to extract confessions from suspected corrupt Chinese Communist Party officials was revealed as Human Rights Watch released its report at the FCC into the shuanggui detention system.

Beatings, solitary confinement, being made to stay in one position for hours, sleep and food deprivation were just some of the ways in which detention officers from the party’s CCDI (Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) coerced confessions.

Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, called on the Chinese government to immediately abolish shuanggui, its secretive detention system that operates outside of China’s legal system, during the report release on December 6.

When President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he announced a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign with a pledge to eradicate graft once and for all from the Communist Party. The campaign has seen both “tigers and flies” – high-ranking and low-ranking officials – detained and prosecuted for alleged corruption. What is lesser known is how shuanggui officers operate.

The Human Rights Watch report, titled Special Measures: Detention and Torture in the Chinese Communist Party’s Shuanggui System, is based on 21 interviews with four former detainees as well as family members of detainees, 35 detailed accounts from more than 200 Chinese media reports, and analysis of court verdicts from across the country. It outlines how suspects are led under false pretences to a meeting place where they are then spirited away for prolonged periods of time, their families not knowing where they are or why they have disappeared. They are then taken to shuanggui facilities, which the report stated have padded walls in order to prevent detainees from committing suicide, where they have no access to lawyers.

A drawing of a room used for shuanggui detention by a former detainee. A drawing of a room used for shuanggui detention by a former detainee.

One detainee, a former police chief from Jiangxi Province, recalled: “For nine days and nine nights I sat in tiger chairs; and urinated and defecated into adult diapers…for over a hundred hours, whether it’s day or night, they took turns interrogating me.”

Accounts from former detainees detail the various abuses inflicted by officers to extract confessions from the suspects, who are then typically brought into the criminal justice system where they are convicted and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

Ms Richardson called on China to abolish shuanggui, saying: “President Xi Jinping has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system. Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

She added: “Nobody, not even guilty Chinese Communist Party officials, should be denied basic fair trial rights or tortured.”

Figures in the report show that in 2015, 336,000 individuals were punished internally in the war against corruption. A further 14,000 were handed over to the courts for prosecution.

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