Hans van de VenProfessor Hans van de Ven is the Director of Studies in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge. Educated in the Netherlands at Leiden University and in the USA at Harvard, he is an expert on the history of nineteenth and twentieth century China. He has written on China’s military history as well as the history of China’s globalization. His most recent book is . Breaking from the Past: The Global Origins of Modernity in China.


The following interview is part of a YCW series on the different aspects of China’s COVID-19 response.


Young China Watchers (YCW): How can we leverage the positive narrative of eminent Western scholars of China to improve relationships and counter negative sentiment towards China post-pandemic? Needham (1900 – 1995) and Robert Hart (1835 – 1911) for example, were empathetic in their view of Chinese civilization and separated this from politics.

Hans van de Ven (HV): For Robert Hart, he came to the fore when the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire were at war. Needham lived at a time of global warfare when Chinese intellectuals found little of value in Chinese traditions. Robert Hart’s thoughts essentially evolved such that Chinese and Western traders could still engage in commerce in spite of their cultural, religious, and social differences. He created a public sphere, a market, to which all had access on equal terms regardless of their backgrounds. The Customs Service was the institution regulating it and keeping this sphere open. Needham decided to investigate China’s scientific traditions to make the point that China had its own history here and had in the past contributed hugely to scientific developments around the world.

My generation of scholars has profited enormously from our close contacts with Chinese colleagues and friends as well as our participation in the activities of universities there. Our thinking and subsequently our teaching has changed for the better. In the last two decades the number of students from China in our field has increased, again to our benefit. I am utterly convinced that if we cut ourselves off from Chinese academia, the impact will be negative. An important development over the last few decades is the emergence of a rich tertiary sector in China with outstanding scholars and superb programmes. We will lose our international edge if we cut ourselves off from this. For example, I’m involved in an initiative to build a Global Humanities programme — establishing links with Fudan, Nanjing, CUHK, Ashoka in India, and the American University of Beirut to develop joint teaching programmes as well as generate new research agendas. The hope is that in the same way that — amidst a great deal of antagonism and a good deal of racism — Hart was able to identify a common ground that enabled mutual engagement, our Global Humanities programme can do the same.

“I am utterly convinced that if we cut ourselves off from Chinese academia, the impact will be negative.”

YCW: Much of your research centers around historic nationalism – one example being your books China at War and War and Nationalism in China 1925 – 1945. Could you contextualise “mask diplomacy” feeding into patriotism?

HV: There is a story going around that mask wearing in pandemics began during the 1910 Manchurian pneumonic plague. It was promoted by Wu Liande, an overseas Chinese physician who trained at Cambridge. That is probably too simple as mask wearing was also encouraged in Oregon during the 1918 Spanish Flu (which began in the U.S.). But it is interesting since Chinese do cover their mouth far more readily than Europeans.

There is something distasteful about the Beijing regime’s attempts to use its response to COVID-19 and its dispatch of masks around the world to create a narrative about its superior governance ability. Governments will do that, but it would be more useful to have an international body independent of any government to examine the lessons we can learn from the pandemic. In the marine sphere, after any accident, there is an investigation on its causes and the lessons that can be learned without apportioning blame. That would be a healthy and productive approach.

It’s worth noting that Europe and the U.S. were slow to respond. Not for cultural reasons but because they were not affected by SARS or MERS and so had reason to believe that they would again escape. That is unlikely to happen again. I don’t think the effectiveness or response has necessarily much to do with whether a country is a democracy or an autocracy. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea are democracies that have responded well as far as we now can tell; Japan, the U.S.A., and the U.K. have not.

YCW: To expand upon nationalism, how do you think divergences in “good” and “bad” nationalism came about amidst the COVID-19 pandemic within mainland China? Some have posited that, “in its inclusive, liberal variant, nationalism is one of the few ideologies that can truly cut across regional, economic, gender and cultural differences”. Can you provide an example in Chinese history of “good” nationalism?

HV: In the Chinese case, nationalism has come of age only in the last three decades or so. The PRC has become linguistically much more uniform. It seems that Beijing has used the pandemic to speed up securing its borders. What happened to the Soviet Union probably haunts minds in Beijing. In its relations with Hong Kong, China has forced through a new national security law and given its policing forces much greater scope of action, really driving a nail in the coffin of ‘one country two systems.’ The recent fights between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Kashmir fit the same pattern.

There are two historical points to make here. One is that during the late Qing Dynasty and during the twentieth century, governments such as those of Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic, and Chiang Kai-shek, worked hard but failed to centralize power, including control over taxation and foreign affairs. Regional loyalties often trumped national ones. The great Confucian historian and philosopher, Qian Mu, made the case that unlike Western countries, China had always prospered when power was not centralized and when local society was given a high level of autonomy. He believed in the existence of an unspoken, regionally differentiated but nonetheless real sense of community and mutual obligation across China. The target of his criticism was the forced, harshly policed, monochrome nationalism pursued by figures like Chiang Kai-shek. He did not want them to worry so much about China being a ‘sheet of loose sand,’ as Sun Yat-sen, the Father of the Country, put it.

Secondly, an important change is that until recently the U.S. and Europe remained the yardstick by which most Chinese judged things. Now there is less faith that the West has all the answers and a greater confidence that China, too, might have some useful things to say. Hence, the revival of interest in China’s own history, which had been dismissed as feudal, and as offering little of value in answering the problems of today’s world. In short, if nationalism remained more of an aspiration than a reality for much of China’s modern history, it is a reality today. My hope, though, is that it will become a more diverse, or, in your word, more liberal and tolerant form of nationalism than it is today. There is a strong basis for that in China’s own past.

“[U]ntil recently the U.S. and Europe remained the yardstick by which most Chinese judged things. Now there is less faith that the West has all the answers and a greater confidence that China, too, might have some useful things to say.”

YCW: Drawing upon your research on the Maritime Customs Service in your book Breaking with the Past, will COVID-19 damage China’s ability to globalize given its extensive progress since opening up? McKinsey’s (pre-pandemic) 2019 report on “China and the world” infers almost a global reliance on Chinese demand to prop up economies.

HV: My sense is that we now live in an era of radical uncertainty, something we are not used to but which was standard for much of history. The pandemic has shown the dangers of debt-based economic growth, the weakening of the state and low levels of resilience to global shocks. Any talk that the pandemic is a once in a generation event risks sustaining these weaknesses. It seems to me reasonable that countries will want to build up their resilience and reduce their reliance on fragile production chains. The danger of that, though, is that the recession or depression that is coming will be deeper than it needs to be.

As for China’s internal growth, I am sure there is a lot of “anger and anguish” about the CCP coverup of whistleblower Li Wenliang. Any investigation of lessons to be learned should look at how social media can best be used. Suppressing information just is not a good idea, as the Li Wenliang case shows. There was a moving memorial to Li Wenliang at Cambridge’s Kings Parade, created presumably by Chinese students. But I have also been impressed by local voluntary activism in China as well as the U.K. There is still much we do not know about the Chinese response, which, as always, will have taken many different forms in different parts of the country.

Nevertheless, I am sure that China’s demand will play an important role in reviving the global economy. So will its wealth. But it will also need to deal sensitively with the distrust about China we now see in many places in Europe and the USA. Being far more transparent will help. Not arresting lawyers in China or protesters in Hong Kong would help too. To arrest Martin Lee, who after all helped draft the Basic Law, surely shows that Beijing is not on the right track. This would be a very good moment for Beijing to change direction.

YCW: How do you think China will re-tell COVID-19 to future generations? What kind of narrative or history are they creating for themselves? Western media talks of: How China’s propaganda machine is telling the story, that it’s impossible to know what the COVID-19 figures are/were in China, and that China is facing a public relations catastrophe. What are some examples of China “reclaiming the narrative” amidst international disasters throughout history?

HV: The U.K., the USA, and Brazil seem to be helping PRC propaganda quite a lot! Beijing wants to portray itself as having met the challenge of COVID-19 with considerable success domestically as well as as being a positive force globally by helping individual countries and increasing its funding for the WHO. We cannot know yet how the pandemic will play out, so any conclusion about the persuasiveness of that story even a year or two years from now must remain in question – let alone what we will think ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. We should not forget that within China there is in reality quite a lot of criticism of Beijing, which was perhaps stronger at first than it is now, and that is largely because other countries are having so much trouble.

Historically, pandemics are accelerators of underlying developments. Two of these developments stand out to me. One is the decline of global institutions and the new significance of states. In the heyday of globalization, many talked about the decline of the state. That time is over. The other is U.S. decline and the rise of the PRC and Asia more generally. The pandemic may well be a tipping point in both processes, but it is important to recognize that we now live in a time of radical uncertainty. While the pandemic stands front and center now, the problems of pollution, widening gaps between rich and poor, and financialization have not gone away. In the British case, I am not convinced that even a few years from now, we will talk more about the impact of Brexit than the pandemic. In the Chinese case, much depends on whether it will be able to climb out of what is called the ‘middle income trap.’ The answer by no means is clear.

— Interview by Olivia Halsall

Voices on China — Hans van de Ven, Director of Studies in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge
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