A one-man dictatorship. That’s what Friso Stevens calls Xi Jinping’s China. This does not automatically mean that the country is an immediate military threat to Europe, says the foreign affairs expert who recently completed his doctorate on the rise of modern China. But how reassuring is this? ‘China likes to make others dependent on it.’
With his characteristic big strides, Minister Wopke Hoekstra (Foreign Affairs) walked into the office of his new Chinese counterpart Qin Gang two weeks ago. They had ‘good conversations, also about difficult topics,’ Hoekstra said afterward. Behind a desk on the second floor of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Friso Stevens shrugs his shoulders. ‘If a Dutch minister consults with a Chinese minister, then – if he really wants to exert influence – he is talking to the wrong person.’ As head of his ministry, the Chinese foreign minister is responsible for managing relations with foreign countries. But the real decisions are made by a small circle around General Secretary Xi Jinping.’
Stevens recently completed a doctoral dissertation on Chinese assertiveness and the role of Chinese leader Xi in it since he took office in 2012. How China has shaped its foreign policy is an illustration of Xi’s ‘one-man dictatorship,’ Stevens says. ‘Many of the people around him have the same worldview of struggle and confrontation. Moreover, most of the 25 members of the Communist Party Politburo have a personal connection to Xi, having worked with him in the past. A People’s Daily article even suggested that Xi handpicked the Central Committee (around 200 members, including the Politburo).
When China began its rise as an economic powerhouse in the 1990s, everyone found it fascinating. A low-wage country as the factory of the world provided a lot of cheap stuff. But now the Netherlands’ security service AIVD calls China the biggest threat to the country’s economic security, in part because of Chinese espionage. Stevens: ‘I believe our security services when they say that China engages in large-scale economic espionage, but that does not make China a direct security threat to Europe in a traditional military sense. The distance is simply too great for that. The Chinese challenge is long-term, asymmetric, and under the radar. Think of the ‘overseas police service centers’ (popularly called Chinese police stations, red.) in Rotterdam, among other places.’
‘We are concerned about what is behind China’s return to the world stage,’ Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said recently. ‘Isn’t she right to be worried when a dictatorship wants to increase its influence?
‘Since Jiang Zemin (general secretary from 1989 to 2002), the Communist Party has talked about building zonghe guoli (comprehensive national power, what also von der Leyen appears to refer to in her speech). This means that China wants to increase its power relative to the US, Japan, and Europe. The so-called ‘national rejuvenation’ means that China seeks to rise again as the relatively most powerful entity in the region by 2049. This aspiration has been a thread running through China’s modern history since it lost to Britain in the First Opium War (1839-1842).’
So what Xi wants is not new?
‘During his time as the main leader (1978 to the mid-1990s), Deng Xiaoping already spoke openly about this desire, and how to achieve it. After the Cultural Revolution, a decade of total chaos and anarchy, China was economically devastated. After visiting Singapore, Deng decided to entice the West and Japan to transfer technology and capital to so-called Special Economic Zones, such as the one in Shenzhen near Hong Kong. The West thought this would mean that China would eventually become a liberal country politically as well. That turned out to be very naive.
You write that China has a ‘deep desire’ to use ‘diplomatic and economic means and military pressure to change the norms and rules of the present order. That does not sound assertive to me, but aggressive.
‘China is running up against the rules we in the West have established during four hundred years of economic and military domination. China wants more influence over that system – as every power that grows stronger has wanted more influence over the rules in place throughout history. In particular, China wants more strategic space from the US in the East and South China Seas.
Where America plays a security game (providing security), China makes others economically dependent. When you speak to diplomats from Laos or Cambodia in the corridors, you hear, “We can’t do anything more that goes against China’s interests.” Beijing is investing heavily in Cambodia; in some areas, only Mandarin is spoken, and for payments, the Chinese Renminbi is used.’
Stevens’ dissertation comes at an important time. After the 2008 financial crisis, China greatly expanded its investments in Europe. Moreover, during the corona pandemic, it became clear just how dependent European consumers are on Chinese products (think of the face masks). We have largely maneuvered ourselves into this awkward position, Stevens says.
From the moment China embraced state capitalism in 1979 and started producing cheaply, ‘we let capitalist greed guide us.’ Stevens recalls the Tiananmen protests, which were brutally crushed by the Chinese military in 1989, resulting in at least hundreds of deaths. ‘There were also human rights violations after that – against followers of the Falun Gong movement and the Tibetans. But Western sanctions were minimal. The profits of the multinationals took precedence.’ President Bill Clinton pulled China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the turn of the century. ‘But China’s geopolitical ambitions were unchanged. Only since 2018, when the National People’s Congress approved a constitutional amendment allowing Xi to remain in power for life, has naiveté given way to realism.
‘Authoritarian zero tolerance’
Around the turn of the century, China seemed to really open up. One European trade mission after another headed to China. Christians and other minorities had relative freedom. But now Stevens speaks of a society with a ‘harsh authoritarian zero tolerance’ when regime survival is perceived to be at stake (everything to maintain stability, weiwen).
‘After Xi Jinping took office as general secretary, in 2012, China turned into a police state. It already was, but when I lived in Beijing from 2015 to 2017, the surveillance was very sophisticated. At present, it is more explicit. The students at top universities who protested against the zero-Covid policy now have zero career prospects.’
You write in your dissertation, “Xi and the conservative-nationalist elites who selected him in 2007 are responsible for the shift toward harsh authoritarianism at home and assertiveness abroad.” Why exactly is Xi such a potentate?
‘To understand why Xi is like this, we must go back to his adolescent years. His father was a senior Communist Party official who was purged and humiliated during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1977). So was he. His sister died during that time – it is assumed that she committed suicide. Young Xi’s world collapsed and he had to perform hard labor in the countryside for years. After the family was later rehabilitated, it became Xi’s survival strategy to always be ideologically pure – redder than red – and be in control. He feels that if people have the opportunity to turn against him, he is vulnerable again. He never wants that to happen again.’
A characteristic of Xi is also his nationalism. Consider, among other things, China’s claim to Taiwan, a claim that he underscored in August of last year with a blockade of the island. Why is this so important?
‘Xi makes claims to territories that were once part of China, but those claims can mostly be traced back to the Republic of China (1912-1949, now in Taiwan). Nor is Chinese nationalism new. When there was an ideological vacuum in the 1990s, efforts were made (by Jiang) to indoctrinate the youth through a Patriotic Education Campaign. As a result, such hyper-nationalistic feelings are now visible in society, mostly among netizens. Xi wants to keep the Communist Party in power as the ruling party, as did his predecessors. The day after the crackdown on the protesters on Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping declared, “We have been too lax ideologically.”’
While the West has shaken off its – in Stevens’ words – naiveté toward China, analysts openly speculate about a war between the United States and China. Taiwan will then be the crux.
Stevens disagrees with the oft-heard assertion that these tensions are solely the fault of Beijing, which views Taiwan as an “inalienable part” of China. The so-called one-China principle (called “policy” in the US) is the fundamental understanding on the basis of which diplomatic relations between China and the West resumed in the 1970s, he says. Chinese leaders invariably point to the documents involved (the Three Communiqués of 1972, 1978, and 1982).
‘There are only twelve tiny countries in the world that recognize Taipei as the representative of China. Even the Netherlands has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.’ American President Joe Biden’s strategic pressure on China reinforces the Chinese propaganda narrative of a belligerent US, Stevens believes. The same goes for the idea that Washington does not want China to have a place in the world order. ‘The confrontations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait make the outbreak of an unintended war by accident more likely. The consequences of which are incalculable for Europe as well.’
We should not be naive when it comes to our long-term economic interests and competitiveness, Stevens argues. He is referring to Chinese companies investing in European ports, critical infrastructure, and enterprises. In January of this year, it came to light that a Dutch company, Visser BV, had received an order from the Ministry of Defense to equip hundreds of armored vehicles. However, the company was acquired by the Chinese state in 2013. ‘I don’t think any official has seen the consequences of that.’
China has already shown that it uses its economic influence to enforce demands. ‘In 2016, an informal boycott against South Korean companies ensued when South Korea agreed with the US to station the THAAD missile defense shield on its territory. That cost South Korea billions of dollars in lost revenue. ‘EU member state Lithuania was also punished diplomatically and with sanctions by China when it changed the mission of the Taiwanese in Vilnius from “Taipei” to “Taiwan”; an unofficial Taiwanese embassy in Lithuania. ‘So yes, concerns about how China deploys its economic power are justified.’
Chinese Assertiveness | Friso Stevens received his doctorate from Leiden University in March 2023 for his dissertation Chinese Assertiveness and the Rise of Xi Jinping. After law school, Stevens studied in China at Peking University from 2015 to 2017. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki and a lecturer in political science at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. As a China and East Asia specialist, he is affiliated with The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.