China is not our enemy, says PhD candidate Friso Stevens
After a traumatic youth, Chinese President Xi Jinping developed a Spartan worldview and created a surveillance state. Still, China does not pose an imminent security threat to Europe, argues China expert Friso Stevens.
Vincent Bongers
Tuesday 4 April 2023
Foto ANP

Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a senior official with the Chinese Communist Party. However, when Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Xi Zhongxun was purged. ‘Xi was part of the Beijing elite; he attended the best school in the city,’ says China expert Friso Stevens. ‘His entire world collapsed when his father lost his position of power. Those who had been in power before were suddenly the enemy. His father was humiliated; he was humiliated himself. His sister died. He was sent to the countryside to do hard labour and learn from the peasantry. In order to get himself out of this situation, Xi had to become “redder than red”. His survival strategy was to always be ideologically pure.’

Xi’s father was later rehabilitated and his son managed to climb up the ranks of the party after all. However, the loss of his privileged position left its mark. Xi’s obsession with maintaining social stability was translated into the Chinese surveillance society of today, argues Stevens, who wrote a dissertation on Chinese assertiveness and the role that the country’s leader has played in it (since 2012).

President Xi's worldview is sober and Spartan, he argues. ‘He views everything in terms of profit and loss. He’s tough as nails.’


There are two main reasons why he rose to power. ‘Xi was elected primarily because of internal developments. The party and government were not implementing the policies issued by then leader Hu Jintao at the centre in Beijing, and corruption was rampant.’

The 2000s are sometimes referred to as the ‘go-go years’. ‘China was growing very rapidly on the economic front: a double-digit growth every year in terms of its gross domestic product. Corruption oiled the wheels. You had to play the game if you wanted to get ahead.’ This jeopardised the economy. ‘Xi was given a mandate to address this issue. He was the answer to all this corruption and the lack of policy implementation by the party.’

However, the president took things much further than expected. ‘The party’s elite were well aware of who they were dealing with, yet they still misjudged him. Xi held his cards close to his chest until the very last minute.’ In 2007, he was internally elected as the new leader. ‘That was a mistake that changed history.’

No one had thought that he would introduce a neo-Maoist ideology, says Stevens. ‘That the party would permeate the very capillaries of society.’

‘In exchange for a photo op in the Oval Office, Rutte agreed to limit exports of ASML machines’

The surveillance society that China has become should also be understood from that perspective. ‘It reflects the insecurity about control. It’s not something you see on the surface. The cameras, the informants, the party leaders: it’s a very elaborate system.’

Stevens studied at Peking University and experienced the shift in society first-hand. ‘I moved there in 2015 and life in Beijing was fantastic at the time. People were not afraid to say what they thought. That all changed in 2016. By then, Xi had consolidated his power through purges. When I left in spring 2017, people had become much more cautious. A sad ending, nothing is more important than freedom.’

Chinese people are incredibly open and curious, says Stevens. ‘They are happy to embrace new ideas, but the current geopolitical struggle also affects them and is fuelled by propaganda. As such, the influence of liberal Western ideas has diminished increasingly.’

At the same time, the West does not have a very neutral view of the Chinese attitude in its diplomatic relations. What China does, above all, is respond to moves made by the Americans.


‘One example of this is the visit of Nancy Pelosi, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, to Taiwan in August 2022. There is no country in the world that recognises Taiwan as an independent state, so Pelosi visiting there was a very sensitive event. To China, this is a provocation on the part of the US; this encroaches upon its legitimacy as the ruling party. Her action was followed by a Chinese blockade of Taiwan; truly an unprecedented escalation. China does not have to conquer Taiwan to force it to surrender. For seven days, the island was virtually inaccessible due to all the Chinese warships. Planes avoided the region because missiles were being fired.

‘And all you read in the papers is that China is aggressive, which was true. But the so-called One China principle (so including Taiwan, Ed.) forms the foundation on which the relationship between China and the West was resumed from 1972.

‘Dutch media adopt the narrative and news coverage of US media wholesale. As a result, people have become very afraid of China. But what happens there does not necessarily have direct consequences for our security. I say to journalists: present evidence that China is an imminent security threat to Europe. There is none.’

The US seeks out confrontation, and China responds. ‘It’s about hegemony. The US wants to say on top.’

‘What Biden is doing right now confirms the Chinese propaganda.’

Of course, China is also trying to increase its influence in the region, says Stevens. ‘For example, China has increased its informal influence in Laos and Cambodia. Chinese state-owned companies go to these countries and take their staff with them. There is financing by Chinese state-owned banks. Slowly but surely, Chinese money is being used. Diplomats from those countries have told me that policies that are opposed to China’s interests are not an option.’

Stevens believes that Europe and the Netherlands should seek their own path in their relationship with China. ‘This January, Mark Rutte agreed to limit exports of ASML machines that manufacture chips in exchange for a photo op in the Oval Office. What did the Americans offer the Netherlands in return? Nothing, as far as I can see. We were pressured into agreeing to it, and I’m not happy about that.’

That ASML boycott does not just apply to chips for artificial intelligence, or for military application, suggests Stevens. ‘It also applies to chips for cars and the like. The international ecosystem was ideal. It’s not a good move to bring economic activities back home.’

Chips are the oil of the 21st century. ‘For Japan, oil was a reason to pre-emptively attack The US naval base Pearl Harbor in 1941. The US had imposed a boycott preventing Japan from importing oil, which would slow its economic rise. This led to distrust and, ultimately, war.’


According to Stevens, the US is now openly doing and saying what Chinese propaganda has been claiming for a decade: stopping the rise of China. ‘Increasing strategic pressure on China only makes the hawks in Beijing stronger. What Biden is doing right now confirms the Chinese propaganda.’

And now, the Netherlands is part of it too. ‘The Europeans are increasingly forming a front with the Americans.’ In doing so, Europe is moving away from its commitment to so-called open strategic autonomy. ‘A Chinese academic calls it the NATO-fication of the relationship between China and Europe.’

The Netherlands is also interfering in East Asia in a military sense. ‘If we send a frigate that way, it’s not surprising that China interprets that as a signal of hostility.’

It’s possible for Europe to choose a stable relationship with China, thinks Stevens. ‘The Chinese would be open to that. China is not our enemy. It’s true, though, that we have to be very alert to certain things. Europe must be adamant when it comes to unfair economic competition, espionage and intellectual property theft.’

There is consensus within the community of China experts that China is not an enemy, says Stevens. However, I rarely see a sinologist on Dutch news commenting on developments in China. Security experts who know nothing about China dominate the Dutch debate, which leaves me disheartened.’