Ambassador Wim Geerts
‘China is as complex as it is vast,’ according to Wim Geerts, the Dutch ambassador to Beijing. The experienced diplomat, a former ambassador to Canada and senior civil servant at the Dutch Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence, works with his team to identify trends in China and their implications for our country. ‘Policy needs to be fact-based. There’s work to be done on both sides, in China and in the Netherlands, when it comes to how we see each other.’
What was the first thing that struck you about China?
‘When I arrived here in September 2019, the main thing that hit me was how much Beijing had changed since my first visit to China 25 years earlier. Back then there weren’t many cars, the streets were full of bicycles, there was a lot of low-rise and the tempo was slower. Beijing’s now a bustling metropolis of 22 million inhabitants, hypermodern skyscrapers, avant-garde architecture - like the headquarters of the state television network, designed by Rem Koolhaas - and avenues full of shops selling luxury goods. Mixed in amongst this is the old China, with its characteristic hutongs, temples and imperial palaces. A multi-faceted city – a city you can never get tired of.'
The diplomatic relationship between the Netherlands and China is a complex one. What does that mean for the embassy’s work?
‘In some areas, China is a partner to the Netherlands. In other areas, China is a competitor, and in yet others, a systemic rival. The 2019 Dutch policy memorandum on China summed up the situation like this: “Work together where possible and protect our interests where necessary”. In the past few years, the focus has shifted more to the latter.
Our task as an embassy is to develop a deep understanding of this complexity. We have a wide ranging, close-knit network here. We speak to as many people as we can, to form as complete a picture as possible. We identify trends and compare and contrast facts and perceptions. There’s a need for more nuance, both in the Netherlands and China. We try to add shades of grey to black-and-white perceptions.’
Can you give an example?
‘Take the issue of climate. China is predominantly seen as the world’s biggest polluter – which it is. At the same time, China is also investing more than any other country in sustainable energy. You hear a lot less about that.’
In what areas does the Netherlands work with China?
‘Although the Netherlands and China differ in many ways, the two countries have a good trade relationship. Last year, for instance, Dutch imports to and exports from China increased enormously, despite the pandemic. We partner up in sectors like agriculture – especially smart agriculture – as well as life sciences, healthcare and elderly care, and food and energy security. We also work together on climate and climate change, which is a global issue par excellence. As I said, China is the biggest polluter in the world, but it’s also investing heavily in sustainable energy sources like hydrogen and offshore wind. And when it comes to artificial intelligence, photonics and robotics, the Netherlands can learn a lot from China.’
How does your embassy promote the interests of Dutch entrepreneurs in China?
‘We don’t just do that from Beijing. The Netherlands has four consulates-general: in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Hong Kong. And there are Netherlands Business Support Offices (NBSOs) in six other cities. This year we’ll be opening a new NBSO in Shenzhen.
China offers unparalleled opportunities for Dutch entrepreneurs. But at the same time, it’s a complex playing field. We help Dutch businesses to find their way in China. For instance, we advise on matters like intellectual property and Chinese legislation, and help them to make the right contacts. We also draw attention to issues like sustainability, human rights, animal welfare and working conditions. We advise businesses to do careful research. Thorough preparation is half the battle in China.’
What achievements are you most proud of since you’ve been ambassador to China?
‘When COVID-19 broke out in China, it wasn’t immediately clear what the disease was, how big a problem it posed, or how dangerous it was. On 23 January 2020, the city of Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, was sealed off. Its isolation lasted two and a half months. Public life also came to a halt in Beijing. Our embassy went into crisis mode; our most important task was to repatriate Dutch nationals stuck in Wuhan and the province of Hubei. It was a huge logistical challenge that kept us busy day and night. In the end we were able to evacuate every Dutch national who wanted to leave. Initially, the Netherlands assisted China by providing personal protective equipment, but the roles were soon reversed. We were able to make use of our contacts to get ventilators, test kits, disposable gloves, protective coveralls and face coverings shipped to the Netherlands. A year ago, a shortage of coronavirus test kits in the Netherlands was prevented, partly thanks to our assistance. I’m proud of what we were able to do for the Netherlands and Dutch nationals, both at the beginning of the crisis and subsequently.’
What influence has the pandemic had on economic relations with China?
‘Although the figures show growth, making new contacts has become especially difficult because of the strict coronavirus measures. Business trips are virtually impossible. A lot happens online, but that’s not the same thing as personal contact.
We’re seeing that Dutch businesses that were already established in China are staying here. But since the beginning of the pandemic, the arrival of new Dutch businesses has stalled. At the same time, more Dutch expats are leaving, often to be replaced by Chinese personnel. Both of these are worrying trends in the long term. I hope that in the course of 2022 we can once again hold physical trade fairs and trade missions.’
What do you still want to achieve as ambassador?
‘I hope that we can find a sensible balance in our relationship with China, both politically and economically. I and my entire team will continue to work to achieve that.’