Van Kemenade: China Inc.

It is evident that the world will have to make way for the communist superpower China, whose political and economic influence has rapidly grown over the past three decades. That world is struggling with the question of how to integrate the new superpower into the existing international order. And what kind of China, what kind of country and system, are we actually dealing with? And does the PRC want to integrate in the existing order at all?

11/10/2020_Those questions made me go back to the book written by NRC journalist Willem Van Kemenade, first published in 1996, titled ‘China Inc: China -Hong Kong – Taiwan: the Dynamics of a New Empire’. Coincidentally, in 1990 I was already informed of Van Kemenade’s plans for a book. During my studies in Beijing (see ) in 1990-1991 somebody at the Dutch embassy introduced me to the journalist, who immediately offered me a side job as a desk researcher. An offer that I eagerly accepted, as it gave me a splendid opportunity to keep abreast of developments in China, which was going through a very turbulent period in its history.

Beijing in 1990

After all, the student demonstrations had been violently suppressed in 1989, and the world held its breath as to what would happen next. In 1990 the atmosphere in Beijing was stifling, the city was suffering from an abundance of (secret) police on the streets and on the university campuses and from a incessant diarrhea of communist propaganda as part of a re-education campaign. The city’s population stood numb with fear, constantly dreading more government reprisals.

In 1990 the model soldier Lei Feng was again omnipresent in the Chinese streets and bookstores, depicted are a cassette tape and two books dedicated to him, published in that same year. Lei was first enacted as a model citizen by the CCP in the 1960s, urging the population to emulate his selflessness, modesty and commitment to Mao. After Mao’s death, the state media continued to regularly promote Lei Feng as a model of dedication, seriousness and service Photo @E.R.

The economic reforms initiated in the 1980s had come to an abrupt halt. While the CCP was entangled in a power struggle, the population suffered severe political repression. The Chinese Communist Party feared a knock-on effect from the events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and worked frantically to prevent a similar scenario in China. Talking about June 4, 1989 was extremely taboo.

Mr. China

At the time, Van Kemenade’s office, like all other offices of foreign journalists, was housed in an apartment building in the Sanlitun neighborhood of the Chaoyang district: diplomats and other foreign government officials were all living in this quarter. If I remember correctly a Chinese guard was posted in front of the walled flat at all times.

Willem could rightfully call himself the Mr. China of Dutch journalism. As a graduated historian and sinologist, he ended up in the Far East in 1975. Two years later he was employed as a permanent correspondent by the Dutch national newspaper NRC, first working from Taipei in Taiwan, but from 1979 located in Beijing, on the Chinese mainland. When Dutch Prime Minister Van Agt traveled to China as one of the first Western leaders in the autumn of 1980, Van Kemenade acted as an intermediary in the preparations and aftermath of the visit. The Netherlands didn’t waste any time when communist China first opened its doors to the West, giving the hosts the impression that our small country was more than eager to establish cordial (economic) ties with the PRC.

But within a month of the visit, Van Agt got into heated arguments with the Chinese after the Dutch cabinet approved the sale of at least two submarines to Taiwan. With that approval, the Netherlands immediately blew its chances for close diplomatic and economic ties with China. Relations were put on the back burner for years. Van Kemenade also paid a price for this so-called ‘submarine affair’: he was expelled from China, officially because of alleged contacts with political dissidents, but more likely due to the fact that the journalist had knowingly cooperated – at least in Beijing’s eyes – in Holland’s jerking around of the Chinese giant.

The office

It was not until around 1989 that the journalist returned to Beijing, with the consent of the Chinese government, after having operated from Hong Kong for years. In his office in the Chinese capital, Willem had access to an old-fashioned telephone, two computers, a telex and fax machine as well as Western printed sources, including English translations available on a almost daily basis (via the BBC World Service or a similar organization) of articles or items from local Chinese media / radio. Because of his thorough knowledge of the Chinese language, he could also closely follow the reports of the Chinese state media.

‘Learn and act in the spirit of Comrade Lei Feng’, 1990 Beijing propaganda poster

In addition, he maintained contacts with official Chinese government channels via, among others, a Chinese friend who spoke Dutch. His name was Shi Huiye, if I’m not mistaken, a member of the leading Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think tank of the CCP. This Shi would later rise to the position of Deputy Director General of the International Department of the CCP, an extension of the Party’s Central Committee charged with gathering intelligence about or influencing foreign political parties, think tanks and academics.

I do not know to what extent this Shi wanted or tried to use his friendship to keep an eye on the activities of Van Kemenade or to influence the gist of his articles. Willem did never come across as a man who would ever allow himself to become a servant of the Chinese government. Moreover, he was well aware of the danger and likelihood of being overheard and followed in all his activities and travels in the PRC, a totalitarian state with no free press, ruled by a regime susceptible to paranoia. All this did not prevent Willem from writing critically about the Chinese government, while taking into account the great importance of protecting his sources.

The book

businesscard of BBC reporter Simon Long, also operating from San Li Tun

My desk research was to benefit the book that Willem only vaguely envisioned in 1990. Under the influence of the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of communism in Eastern Europe, he initially thought he should focus on the question whether Chinese communism would survive the 20st century. He did not yet have a detailed framework for the book. I mainly had to archive data on domestic, economic developments in the different provinces of China. In addition, I had to keep up-to-date with current news that could indicate the decline or strengthening of power of the CCP.

In 1990-1991 Van Kemenade found too little time to actually start writing his book: he published extensively in the NRC and traveled through the country regularly to gain an impression of the latest local economic and social developments. For that kind of travel he had to ask permission from the Chinese government. His articles were fairly academic, attempting to highlight both positive and negative trends in the People’s Republic. He wrote a lot about the CCP’s domestic and foreign policies and China’s growing geopolitical significance in the world.

In the afternoon, local Chinese time, he often was on the phone with the NRC editor on duty in the Netherlands to review his article to be posted. Van Kemenade was clearly in the driver’s seat: not the editors, but he himself determined how and about what he was going to write, at most some suggestions were made to shorten his text. Another almost daily ritual were his phone conversations with his Taiwanese wife Phoenix, who delicately reminded him of pending household chores that he still needed to take care of or arrange. As soon as he hung up, he always chuckled about these very lively arguments in Chinese with his wife.


Van Kemenade was a born storyteller and gifted writer. He was often doing most of the talking in the presence of others. Willem had a quite dominant personality and did not hide his opinion in his personal contacts. That was not appreciated by everyone (in the Dutch community) in Beijing. He could also get very pissed off when things didn’t pan out the way he had envisioned: his eyes would spit fire over his small glasses placed on the tip of his nose. Listening to others was not always his forte and he sometimes had difficulties in accepting criticism.

Although the book didn’t see the light, Willem continued to muse about it regularly. It made me believe he thought it could also help him gain more respect within the academic world for his considerable knowledge of China. Newspapers were mainly disposable items with a limited reach in his view. Furthermore, for the Dutch newspaper reader in the 1980s and 1990s, China was often surrounded by mere myths and clichés. Not everyone wanted to take the trouble and time to take in his more in-depth analyzes.

Van Wolferen

The media’s main focus in the 90’s was on America, Russia and Eastern Europe, and the economic rise of Japan. Anguish must have struck Van Kemenade’s heart when imagining the rest of his journalistic career could occur in relative anonymity. His lifelong appointment by the NRC in the place of his own choice perhaps began to feel increasingly onerous, more like a curse than a blessing.

Willem saw himself and his articles a bit as a lone voice in the wilderness, hardly taken serious. The international praise that befell his NRC colleague Karel van Wolferen for his book ‘The Enigma of Power’ (1989), a bestseller that tried to paint the political, economic and social structures of Japan as the fundaments of the enormous Japanese economic miracle, must have been an eye-opener for Van Kemenade.

At the end of 1991 I left China and went to Japan, losing touch with Willem. It was only in the summer of 1994, on my return from my trip to the Chinese border with North Korea, that I met him again at his same old office in Beijing. The day (July 8, 1994) that I stepped into his office to say hello, the news spread that Kim Il Sung, the all-powerful leader of North Korea, had died. Mt. Paektu, the volcanic mountain on the border between China and North Korea, the peaceful peak I had visited just a few days before, had turned into hell, thunderstorms and earthquakes incessantly pounding the vulcano, setting the place afire: not just the North – Korean population but also nature was upset and in deep mourning, if we were to believe the North Korean news.


Greater China

Ample reason for an animated talk with Willem about my journey and his vision on the relationship between China and North Korea. Of course, in our conversation his plan for a book popped up again too: but this time he seemed fully committed to it. He wanted to focus on the development of the so-called ‘Greater China’ and the eventual integration of the three related areas / systems, ie the Chinese mainland with its “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the island state of Taiwan with its very young democracy and Hong Kong, with its newly to be gained status as a ‘Special Administrative Region’ of the PRC (under Deng Xiaoping’s ‘one country, two systems approach’) upon the impending British handover in 1997. In short, which Greater China was emerging with what kind of system characteristics? And how would this Greater China present itself internationally?

First draft outline of the book ‘China BV’, as shared with me by Van Kemenade in 1994, photo@E.R.

In 1994, Van Kemenade was convinced that it had become much less likely that Chinese communism would soon crumble. From 1992 onwards, the CCP had ventured again into economic reforms with new fervor, from which the coastal regions in particular reaped the visible benefits. The increasing economic intertwining of Taiwan with China also looked irreversible. Investments from the island nation gave a new impulse to the development of mainland China and created mutual dependencies. Add to that the impending transfer of the British crown colony of Hong Kong, and the birth of a massive Chinese economic bloc, Greater China, a term often used in the 1990s, looked like a fact. The rest of the world had better be aware of this China Inc., as Van Kemenade’s book made abundantly clear.

New career

The book wasn’t finalized and published until 1996. Heart troubles almost spoilt the party for Van Kemenade. China BV got translated into English (‘China Inc.’) and became the prelude to the longed for new career. The switch was probably just in time: I doubt Van Kemenade would have tolerated the tendency in which newspaper editors were increasingly deciding what an overseas journalist should write about, including all kinds of lifestyle topics which -supposedly- the Dutch reader at home would more easily identify with.

Although his publication caused less of a stirr than Van Wolferen’s ‘The Enigma of Power’, it generated sufficient international attention to enable him to leave behind daily journalism and the issues of the day. Van Kemenade was asked to give international lectures and workshops on China and was awarded a visiting professorship at a Chinese-European Business School in Shanghai. He was also regularly invited to write pieces on China for renowned American and British academic publications. He became a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Dutch Clingendael Institute from 2002 to 2010, where he taught about Chinese domestic and foreign policy to future Dutch diplomats.

In that capacity, I ran into him again sometime around 2010 at a bank-sponsored workshop in Amsterdam on the implications of the rise of China for Europe and Dutch business. Talking enthusiastically as always about his greatest passion, China, in particular while enjoying the snack and drink after the workshop was over. He didn’t make a secret of the fact that the years he had invested in studying the communist country had produced a great ROI in the end. Van Kemenade’s own China Inc. flourished.

Private life

We exchanged addresses and phone numbers with a vague commitment to meet again. But it never happened, as those things often go. I wasn’t part of his circle of friends or acquaintances, so I was shocked to hear the news in February 2016 that he had suddenly died at the age of 72. Probably his heart had given up again, unfortunately this time it was final.

Van Kemenade spoke little about his private life. He traveled often, leaving his wife Phoenix by herself in China (or Taiwan). His only son Alexander attended one of the last remaining boarding schools in the Netherlands in the 1990s (Eerde International Boarding School). He must have lived apart from his parents for long periods of time, I assume. A quick google search shows that he has meanwhile followed in his father’s footsteps: the multilingual Alex is Director of Consulting, Asia at the Intelligence Unit (EIU) of The Economist, a leading international weekly magazine on contemporary politics, economics and technology.

The future

In the preface of China Inc, Van Kemenade wrote in 1996: “It is unlikely that ‘communism with Chinese characteristics’ will soften before the turn of the century, but that it will happen during the first decade of the next century and perhaps will evolve into an East Asian version of social democracy , is the hope and implicit message of this book. “

It has turned out to be a vain hope. A social democracy, even in an East Asian style, is not yet in sight. This does not change the fact that his book is a very worthwhile read even in 2020, it contains a wealth of still relevant information about China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It outlines various possible scenarios about China’s future, which are still topical or conceivable today.

Meanwhile, the economic development of the PRC has continued unabated. The Chinese population in 2020 gives the impression of being reasonably satisfied with the performance of its communist rulers, although the legitimacy of the one-party state will continue to depend largely on the provision and guarantee of continued economic growth by the CCP. A loud call for large-scale political reform seems absent within China, and in the CCP in particular.

With the introduction of the new security law in Hong Kong last summer, the ‘one country, two systems’ concept has come to an early end, without the West being able or willing to show much resistance to China. According to the 1997 Sino-British joint declaration, the concept would be maintained until at least 2047. But the PRC has already completed its ‘hostile takeover’ of Hong Kong, to stay in business terms. China Inc has come a big step closer.


That leaves Taiwan. The Great Helmsman Xi Jinping, appointed President for life, has called the unification of China and Taiwan “the great trend of history” and an important part of his dream of “national rejuvenation,” of the revival of the Chinese empire. At the same time, while calling for peaceful unification, Xi has explicitly warned that China reserves the option of using force if Taiwan does not agree to re-unite. He also reiterated that ‘the Taiwan question’ is a Chinese domestic affair, and that he would not tolerate ‘foreign interference.’

Xi conveniently ignores the fact that Taiwan has worked long and hard to build a democratic political system on the island. A substantial majority of the Taiwanese population no longer wants to give that up in order to be part of a repressive and authoritarian China. After the hostile takeover of Hong Kong by the PRC, Xi’s promise of ‘one country, two systems’ has lost any value and credibility for Taiwan. So how is Xi going to fulfill his dream and promise to incorporate Taiwan during his reign?

‘China Incorporated’ will be in the international spotlights more than ever before…..

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