Xi Jinping: Europe’s New Emperor?

Illustration by  Lucie Ménétrier  for Are We Europe

Illustration by Lucie Ménétrier for Are We Europe


All Under Heaven—Including Europe?

BORN IN 1993, Ties Dams is somewhat of a boy wonder. His recently published book, De Nieuwe Keizer: Xi Jinping, de Machtigste Man van China, (“The New Emperor: Xi Jinping, the Most Powerful Man of China”) offers an intimate portrait of a daunting figure—Xi Jinping, master strategist, emperor of a new world order and the most powerful man in China since Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China. In addition to writing, Ties runs his own consultancy company Aleph, which advises governments and companies on strategic issues. Currently, he is working on a new book about the EU’s geopolitical strategy.


In March 2019, Xi went on a tour of Europe. Most notable was his visit to Rome, where the eurosceptic Italian government broke ranks with most southern, western and all of the northern European countries by joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Launched in 2013, the transnational infrastructure investment project that Xi personally launched and pledged $900 billion to, sets out to create a modern-day version of Marco Polo’s Silk Road by connecting China—via Central Asia and the Middle East—to Africa and Europe.

Many European analysts, however, see the BRI less as an innocent vehicle for economic investment, and more as a fundamental part of China’s geostrategy—and are wary of it. In addition, the European Commission recently asserted that China is a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” with a “deteriorating” political and civil rights situation, most notably in its Muslim-majority Xinjiang Province.

Should Europeans view China’s expanding influence as a blessing or a curse?


Should Europeans view China’s expanding influence as a blessing or a curse? Dams, who thinks that Europe should wake up to the new Chinese reality, revisits the events that have shaped “President-for-life” Xi, and the mystical, Imperial Chinese concept of “All Under Heaven” in order to answer this question.

In your book, you conclude that “Xi has a fundamental influence on the liberal world order and European politics, economics and culture,” and that “Xi has an interest in a blooming European economy, a divided European politics and a less liberal and less cosmopolitan European culture.” Is this a call to action?

Yes. It has always been interesting for sinologists to study China, but recent events make a close study of China for European policymakers essential. The rise of China in conjunction with the withdrawal of American power from Europe will pose unavoidable new questions on what it means to be European. These questions can only be answered by getting to know the person who is now firmly established at the helm of China, and the experiences that shaped his belief system.

You write: “Xi Jinping is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the CCP is the Chinese civilization; every Chinese, regardless of whether he lives in Greater China or the West, falls under his sovereignty.” Where can we find evidence of how powerful Xi has become?

Singaporean, American, European and Japanese diplomats stationed in Beijing told me that in the decade before Xi Jinping’s ascension to China’s presidency [before 2013], in their communications with representatives of Chinese ministries they would inevitably hear two or three different stories per week, all contradicting each other. These stories suited the narrow interests of a particular ministry or faction within the Chinese Communist Party they were talking to.

This has changed. The same diplomats now tell me that whenever they speak to their Chinese counterparts a sentence inevitably starts with the phrase “As Chairman Xi has said …,” immediately followed by a mantra of “Xi Jinping Thought.”

[In full, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is Xi’s political theory that centers around 14 principles, of which some of the most important are the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (e.g. “among the party, the government, the military, the people, academia and all circles, the party leads all”) and socialist values (e.g. “it is necessary to adhere to Marxism and firmly foster the great ideal of communism”). Xi Jinping Thought was enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution in 2017 and the state constitution in 2018. Recently, the CCP also launched a Xi Jinping Thought app XuexiQianguo, which Chinese can use to familiarize themselves with the chairman’s sayings. It was the most-downloaded app in the Chinese App Store in early 2019.]

Even though these Chinese representatives may not even understand what the mantra means, or have no idea how it is relevant to the particular policy under discussion, they still reproduce it. Today there is a pressing need to express that one is serving Xi’s vision.

Is Xi Jinping the new Mao Zedong?

No. Even though they use similar Marxist rhetoric and tactics, the effects of their policies are radically different. Mao was about creating chaos in China itself as well as among the Chinese political elite through purges—especially during the Cultural Revolution [1966 - 1976]. He was a revolutionary leader, who delegitimized large parts of the Chinese Communist Party that he himself led—the only exception being his own position. This led to the collapse of entire government institutions.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has the opposite effect: it’s aimed at whipping the party into line under him. Xi’s actions do not produce chaos, but rather order; they lead to more forceful policy. He is a strict disciplinarian. Everything indicates he has a fetish for order. In fact, he better resembles traditional Chinese emperors, about whom it was believed that due to a heavenly mandate “All Under Heaven” was theirs to govern.

Xi Jinping himself experienced the chaos that Mao Zedong was able to cause. In the lead up to Mao’s cultural revolution, in 1962, President Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun—then vice-premier and a comrade of Mao Zedong even since before the 1949 communist revolution—was purged. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, where he was publicly humiliated, tortured and forced to do hard labor. Did Mao’s actions against the Xi family bring about Xi Jinping’s “fetish for order”?

I started writing the book convinced that I wasn’t going to explain Xi’s policies around his daddy issues. However, there was no way around it. When his father was purged, Xi (at the age of nine) was expelled from the elite school that all the children of Mao’s main revolutionary comrades—the so-called “red princelings”—attended. He now belonged to a “counter-revolutionary” family and would not see his father for 16 years. His early life can be defined as alternating between extreme chaos and order—between destruction and governance.

An American intelligence report quotes a close friend of President Xi, who said that even before Xi’s father was rehabilitated, Xi decided to pursue a career within the Chinese Communist Party—the same party that had done so much harm to him and his family. His “red princeling” friends left the country. So did his siblings, who moved to Hong Kong and Canada to live a life of luxury and hedonism. Everyone in his direct surroundings chose to flee Chinese power. He chose to stay and serve Chinese power—to structure and master it.

Why did the Chinese Communist Party—after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 characterized by shared collective leadership in order to in the future prevent catastrophes like Mao’s cultural revolution from occurring—allow one man to acquire so much power?

This is partly due to events outside China. In the West we have long underestimated the Chinese leadership’s fear that the Arab Spring of 2011 (a series of popular uprisings in which popular movements overthrew several North African dictators) would spark a Beijing Spring. Whereas initially Western leaders were optimistic about the Arab uprisings, the Chinese leadership only saw chaos erupting. To this day, the Chinese leadership believes that it was a combination of Western interference, plus the 2008 financial crisis, that caused the Arab Spring.

Specifically, they point to Western hypocrisy: on the one hand, Western governments speak to and encourage popular movements (“the end of history coming to a theater near you”); on the other hand, these same governments deal with dictators by supplying them with money and arms (“to keep the end of history at bay”). Both causes of the Arab Spring—the global financial crisis and supposed Western interference—terrify the Chinese leadership, as they represent events beyond their control. Centralized leadership under Xi Jinping is the CCP’s answer to an increasingly uncertain world.

Of all contenders, why did Xi Jinping make it to the top?

Xi Jinping is Machiavellian to the core. During his early career in the party he was eager to make powerful friends, yet wary to commit too closely to them, making sure he kept enough space to operate. He lives by the mantra of China’s paramount leader in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping: “Hide our strength, bide our time.” Then, when his rivals least expect him to, he strikes.

How do Xi’s privileged background, personal experiences, firmly established position as leader of the Chinese Communist Party and Machiavellian strategies and tactics influence China’s return to prominence in world politics

The clan to which Xi Jinping belongs—the “red princelings”—regard themselves as the rightful heirs of the Chinese empire. Membership of this social clique also informs Xi’s beliefs in Chinese exceptionalism: in the best sense China is a case on its own; in the worst sense China is a shining example for the rest of the world. Ubiquitous in his upbringing is the conviction that it takes a “red princeling” to tell the story of Chinese exceptionalism to the rest of the world.

At the same time, Chinese foreign policy is a response to more overt American universalism. Since the Second World War, it has been American strategy to establish universal norms in which military interference was grounded. Its rhetoric about democracy and human rights matches this attitude. Since the 1980s consecutive Chinese leaderships, however, have said: “We are different: we are an economic power to be reckoned with, but we do not care about your politics or culture. We do not interfere in your affairs.” That seems hard to reconcile with the history of great powers. Will China really be the first non-interfering great power, or is it emulating the United States and the Soviet Union in trying to set a global standard?

My belief is that the concept of “All Under Heaven” is not only central to Xi’s place in China’s domestic policy—but also to Xi’s conception of China’s role in the world. Abroad, “All Under Heaven” is the old belief that the world should not be divided by the hard borders of sovereign states, but instead that governance is a pyramid, with China on the top and at the center. It claims absolute authority in places close to home such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea and lesser levels of influence the further you move away from the center.

Xi Jinping is trying to restore the best moments of China’s power under the emperors of the Qing Dynasty—the time before what the Chinese see as 100 years of colonial humiliation by both the West and Japan. Considering that China—unlike the United States—does not claim that it is promoting a universal model of governance, it has to pick strategies and tactics that are in the same way not too pronounced—not “too on the nose.”

Even though Europe and China are geographically over 4000 miles apart, your observation that “Xi has a fundamental influence on the liberal world order and European politics, economics and culture” seems to suggest that Europe also falls under heaven. What informs China’s policy on Europe specifically?

Chinese policy towards Europe assumes the worst: Europe is still trying to undermine communism in China. In order to ensure regime survival, it has to weaken Western capabilities to interfere in China (through political division) and the willingness of the West to interfere in Chinese affairs (through a less cosmopolitan culture). At the same time, through trade, China benefits if the European Union is well-off.

Through economic investment, China undercuts the main leverage that Western European states and the European Commission have to ensure adherence to the EU’s values of judicial independence and the rule of law.

Illustration by  Lucie Ménétrier  for Are We Europe

Illustration by Lucie Ménétrier for Are We Europe


You write that “Xi does to the world what he always does: he arranges numerous spheres of influence under his authority. Without openly engaging in conflict with the liberal world order or Western institutions, like Vladimir Putin blatantly does, Xi builds an infrastructure of China-led international organizations that slowly but surely will render the liberal world order irrelevant,” and that “his preference is to operate bilaterally and uses a ‘tailor made’ approach.” Where can we find examples of this in Europe?

China appeals to countries that are dissatisfied with the liberal order. In Africa, it focuses on those disappointed by American-led international institutions; in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, China focuses on those disappointed with Brussels. Almost all Central and Eastern European countries have signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative. Through economic investment, China undercuts the main leverage that Western European states and the European Commission have to ensure adherence to the EU’s values of judicial independence and the rule of law.

Chinese loans and investment—supposedly free from political conditions—are a welcome alternative to funds from Brussels, which according to China and a whole range of eurosceptic movements are conditioned on surrendering sovereignty. This narrative of an interfering Brussels appeals to Central and Eastern Europeans because it plays on historical grievances about having been governed by the “outside” before, namely by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Yet these are signs of Chinese political influence. In the Czech Republic, a Chinese tycoon with close ties to the state was appointed as a special economic advisor to the prime-minister’s office. In Southern Europe, Greece blocked conjoint European Union criticism of China’s human rights record in 2017. This happened after COSCO, a state-owned Chinese shipping company, acquired a 51 percent share in Piraeus, Greece’s largest port, which economically depressed Greece and rising China both intend to become a hub within the Belt and Road Initiative.

In this way, Xi’s China is the mirror-image of Putin’s Russia. Because of its weak economy and Putin’s unstable position within Russia, Putin has to project power to hide Russia’s lack of real power. China pretends to be weaker than it is, favoring slow subversion over confrontation. In the long-term, however, China will wield far-greater influence in Europe.

What is “Made in China 2025”—and why is this program relevant for Europe?

“Made in China 2025” is the Chinese government’s strategy to establish a high-end economy by becoming the world’s leader in technology by 2025. It focuses on the roughly ten high-tech industries that will redefine competition between great powers on the geopolitical world stage this century. They’re aiming for a high level of independence from American or European microchips to minimize Western influence in China. It’s even a moral goal: achieving the old Chinese ideal of being the most advanced nation on earth.

This is why China’s state-owned companies are on a shopping-spree to acquire European high-tech companies and invest in mainly ICT and Industrial Machinery and Equipment companies; buy European technology first, then close your domestic market off to the rest of the world.

You argue that Australia and New Zealand are canaries in the coal-mine. What specific aspects of the Australian and New Zealand experience should European states be most fearful of?

Australia and New Zealand are laboratories for the Chinese to find out how interfering in open societies works and what the backlash might be. There have been all sorts of incidents of politicians changing their view on contentious issues after receiving Chinese funds. Despite anger and outrage, Australia and New Zealand have not really been able to stand up to China.

The next step is trying this in Europe—I certainly would if I were Xi Jinping. We can already see the first signs: former UK Prime Ministers David Cameron and Gordon Brown are on the payroll of Belt and Road Initiative organizations; several former French ministers receive salaries from Chinese governmental institutions; research from the German intelligence services showed that Chinese spies have sent thousands of messages to German officials on social media platforms; and that Chinese diplomats and journalists have actively reached out to politicians of the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) opposition party. In addition, Chinese cyber capabilities have long been underestimated, but they are fully capable of hacking into the security systems of Western governments. The Dutch intelligence services have issued warnings about Chinese interference for a long time.

Finally, the Chinese government launched its state media platforms on a global scale. Both Xinhua and CGTN are posing as normalized global media that work and look in every way like CNN. According to the Chinese leadership, CGTN explains Beijing’s world view in exactly the same way as CNN explains Washington’s world view—the fact that CNN is not owned by the American government and does not receive talking points from the American government is irrelevant to them.

You further write that “It is up to Europe to determine what forms of power, market, and society fit European ideals and interests,” that “we do not have to expect the Emperor to contain himself.” What can EU member-states on a national level do to adapt to this new Chinese reality?

The most challenging questions cannot be answered in a national context. Except by choosing submission: accepting that Xi Jinping will wield a fargoing influence over European economics, politics and society.

Take the case of Rotterdam. The Dutch make an enormous amount of money off the port of Rotterdam being the gateway to Europe. Negotiating these matters bilaterally with the Chinese will result in a long list of demands on the Chinese side saying you can no longer do X, Y, or Z with the included warning that if rejected, Antwerp or Duisburg will become China’s port of preference. The Netherlands can hardly afford such a relationship with the Chinese government.

The only thing that can be done on a national level is upgrading the intelligence services’ abilities to spot foreign influence before it has materialized. If extra investment is not possible, I would even support moving funds dedicated to home-grown extremism to foreign interference purposes.

However, if we act together Europe can also greatly benefit from Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the face of China’s rising power, Europe can only negotiate on its own terms if there is strong solidarity between the EU’s member-states.

In the face of China’s rising power, Europe can only negotiate on its own terms if there is strong solidarity between the EU’s member-states.


What can the EU at large do to grow up to Xi’s China?

We passed the station of a new “iron-curtain” in Eurasia closing ourselves off from China. Yet, it is perfectly reasonable to build in checks and balances in our relationship. The European Commission’s China strategy, “EU-China—A Strategic Outlook,” which came out in March, is a perfect beginning. There are all sorts of specific measures we can take.

First, the EU should restrict China’s capacity to purchase European high-tech companies. In China, market and power are heavily intertwined; growing political influence is a direct consequence of acquiring technological power. Some European protectionism is therefore warranted. The European Commission is right in saying that reciprocity—our market remains open, if you open yours—should be the leading principle.

At the same time the EU should step up its game economically. As an EU diplomat recently told me, ”The EU does not want to buy Orbán out, therefore somebody else will.” Forcing Orbán to refuse Chinese money might unleash a wrath that the EU hardly can afford—it is easier to buy him out ourselves. The EU can and must outbid the Chinese by proposing a far more favorable alternative to Eastern and Southern Europe.

Should the EU—wanting to counter Chinese influence—be more lenient with its criteria concerning the rule of law and independent judicial systems on which EU financial support is dependent?

When it comes to countries outside of Europe they definitely should. Within the EU there should be a mix of sticks and carrots: be more forceful in limiting the abilities of nationalist and populist governments in Central and Eastern Europe to undermine democracies and make adherence to democratic values far more enticing.

How do we prevent Australian-and-New-Zealand-style Chinese influence among Europe’s elites?

The European Commission should make it very clear to both the Chinese government and the European people that it does not accept at any level Chinese ideological or political influence of the Chinese state in Europe. This should be prioritized over criticism of China’s human rights record and China’s relations to countries outside of the EU. There has to be a united front and an acceptance of possible economic losses to hold that line.

What will become of Europe if it fails to present a united front to China?

Geopolitically, the picture is very bleak. We will see more mercantilist, nationalist and corrupt governments fighting amongst themselves—much like the city-states of Renaissance Italy. Florence and Venice spent a massive amount of power and wealth on warfare against each other. Meanwhile the larger kingdoms of Spain and Portugal—and later England and the Netherlands—established global empires that made the city-states irrelevant. Infighting among EU member states on one hand, and a more powerful China on the other, will push Europe into obscurity.


This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue

This Is Not An Elections Issue
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