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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:

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