Speech by His Majesty the King at the China Executive Leadership Academy, Pudong

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning, and thank you, Mr Zhao, for your kind introduction.

It’s a special privilege for me to be able to address you here today. The reputation of the China Executive Leadership Academy extends well beyond China. You can see that from the many international partnerships it has forged, including those with the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and – only recently – with the Netherlands School of Public Administration.

My country, the Netherlands, is a long way from China. Our histories, cultures, societies and governance traditions are different. But there are also similarities. We share a strong spirit of trade and enterprise, for example.

The Netherlands would like to strengthen and expand our ties. In the Netherlands there’s a lot of interest in China. We are fascinated by your country’s rich history. And we marvel at how many world-changing innovations have come from China: paper, the printing press, rice farming, porcelain, tea, silk, the compass, oars, matches, gunpowder… The list goes on and on.

We know, of course, that China boasts a civilisation stretching back thousands of years. Through the ages, philosophers, poets, calligraphers, engineers, merchants and craftsmen have shaped China’s soul with their ideas, artworks and industry. Since ancient times, China has been at the forefront, leading the way. For anyone who knows their history, China’s leading position today comes as no surprise. Whatever setbacks it has faced, this country has always raised itself up again.

We also know that China has a highly developed tradition of public administration. For thousands of years you have placed strict demands on your leaders. The focus is on finding the right people and giving them the best possible training. Training that continues right through their careers. Life-long learning.

You are part of that tradition. An impressive system of governance which was already getting the world’s attention centuries ago. Even as far away as the Netherlands, in fact.

In the mid-seventeenth century – at the start of the Qing [Tsjing] Dynasty – a delegation of sixteen Dutch diplomats travelled from Canton to Peking to pay tribute to the Emperor. Much of their journey was by barge, which in China – just as in the Netherlands – was a popular mode of transport.

Johan Nieuhof was a member of the travelling party, and he kept a journal, recording all the amazing things he saw along the way. The landscapes, the towns and villages, the water works, bridges and roads. The industry and artworks. The people. The plants and animals. The customs and habits.

And… the quality of China’s public administration. In fact, Nieuhof devoted a whole chapter to the subject.

What did he find especially striking? A great deal, apparently. The value China placed on training and education in its civil service. The way someone’s career depended on their talents, qualities and virtues rather than their background. The built-in safeguards to ensure integrity and fairness. The rewards paid to the best performers.

Nieuhof called the Empire of China ‘the most blessed land on the face of the earth’.

His account of his journey, filled with fine illustrations, was published in Amsterdam in 1665 and became a European ‘bestseller’, with translations in English, German, French and Latin.

That was in the seventeenth century. But China’s focus on good governance goes back much further. Over two-and-a-half thousand years, in fact, to the time of Master Kong, or Confucius as we know him in the West. His legacy shines in the treasure trove of wisdom that China has given the world. He encouraged public servants to be examples for others. To spread peace by always putting the people’s interests first. To examine their own social and administrative ethics. To remember that leadership always rests on a foundation of public trust.

Even today, these ideas can be an inspiration for leaders in both the East and the West.

You know from your own experience the high demands placed on those in a position of public trust. The pressure is high, and it seems to be growing.

On the one hand, you need to help make national, provincial and local ambitions reality. To achieve collective goals in areas like economic growth, investment, urban development and infrastructure. China’s five-year plans offer a useful roadmap in this regard. On the other hand, you need to consider the lives of ordinary people. Of millions of citizens with their own joys and sorrows. With their own worries about their homes, jobs and incomes. Their children. Their ageing parents. Their prospects for the future. Their living environment. Their safety and security.

You are expected to consider it all. Quality and quantity. At macro and micro level. That is what makes governance so complex.

It’s like crossing a river: you must choose your stepping stones carefully, but you must keep moving forward.

You and the generation before you are jointly responsible for one of the greatest achievements in the history of the world: lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The world has never seen such an enormous rise in prosperity in such a short time.

Now the world is again looking at China, and asking: how does it plan to ensure balanced development over the longer term?

Of course, only China can answer that question. But countries can really benefit from sharing experiences in this area, while respecting the differences in each other’s cultures. Even if they lie far apart, like China and the Netherlands.

When you think of my country, you probably think of our age-old battle against the water. Or Amsterdam and its ring of old canals. Or our tulips, windmills and green fields.

These are all true pictures. And they’re not just echoes from the past. They remain as valid as ever.

Our water management expertise is renowned all over the world.

Thanks to four centuries of smart urban development, Amsterdam is now more vibrant than ever.

And the Netherlands – a country not much larger than the island of Hainan – is the world’s second-biggest agricultural exporter.

The Dutch give their quality of life an average score of almost eight out of ten. They are relatively healthy. And they trust in each other to a high degree. The Dutch are also among the most prosperous people in the world.

I’m not saying that the Netherlands is perfect. We have our share of problems. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re a strong country.

So where does that strength come from?

One major element is the active role played by the Dutch people. The Netherlands has always made room for civil society initiatives. Civil rights and freedoms are firmly anchored in our constitution, and respected by public authorities.

In the Netherlands the authorities make use of the initiative and energy that civil society can offer and of the solidarity that people themselves feel and express in their daily lives.

Half of all Dutch people do voluntary work at least once a year. For their church, maybe. Or a sports club, a community centre, a museum, a hospital or a shelter.

In government circles people often talk about the ‘network society’ as a fairly new phenomenon. But in the Netherlands it’s been around for nearly a thousand years. Our famous water management for example, dates back to when farmers, local residents and village authorities first joined forces to prevent flooding.

So, in the Netherlands, governance involves listening to people and building on their initiatives. That strengthens the foundations beneath all levels of government.

A second key element that has helped balance our development is our emphasis on coherence. In urban development plans and investment decisions, the authorities weigh all the interests involved: the economic opportunities, the impact on the environment and the local community; the social, safety and heritage implications; and the long-term effects.

In other words: if you want fish, take good care of the river.

Of course, weighing all the interests means that decision-making in my country can be a long process. Much longer than you are used to in China. Balancing interests is often a complex puzzle, which requires patience, creativity and compromise. But the time you lose in consultation can be more than made up for in stability and sustainability.

In fact, over the last twenty-five years, we have reduced environmental damage to water and air quality, while our GNP has grown by fifty per cent. Twenty-five years ago we had killed off the salmon in the river Rhine. But now they’re back…

A third essential element in the Netherlands’ vision of governance is respect for institutions that enforce the rule of law.

Independent courts, for example, and independent inspectorates. They serve as guarantees that people are treated fairly and in accordance with the law. That human rights are respected. And that our public servants retain their integrity.

The importance of justice has long been recognised in China as well. From Confucius – who taught that a society’s ethics begin with its leaders – through the 20th-century focus on equality and social security, to President Xi Jinping and the subject of his 2014 book The Governance of China.

It’s interesting to hear about the ways in which the Chinese government is working to ensure integrity and prevent and combat corruption. This is a topic that needs constant attention in the Netherlands too.

Making room for citizens to participate. Balancing interests when we plan and implement policy. And promoting respect for the rule of law and ethical governance.

The three elements I’ve outlined are closely linked. They help stabilise development in the longer term, and they ensure that the process enjoys public support.

Both our countries face big challenges when it comes to the economy, the environment, security and social cohesion. Public administrators in both the East and the West have a difficult task ahead. So it makes sense to join forces. During our state visit, we are focusing on the broad working partnership between China and the Netherlands. Together, we can achieve more. In Beijing on Monday we talked about enhancing the quality of life in urban areas.

Yesterday we were in Yan’an, looking at sustainable rural development and nature conservation. And later today we will be visiting Chongming, where China and the Netherlands are working together on sustainable food production.

Besides these specific activities, it is important that our countries continue their constructive dialogue on human rights. Our views may differ on this subject, but friends shouldn’t have to avoid issues on which they don’t always see eye to eye.

So I greatly appreciate the opportunity to exchange ideas with you today, and I hope my introduction provides a good basis for that discussion.

Earlier I mentioned the Dutchman Johan Nieuhof, who visited your country in the seventeenth century.

But he wasn’t the first Dutchman in China.

As far as we know, that was a man called Dirck Gerritsz Pomp, around a hundred years earlier.

‘The Chinese are a very fine people,’ he said when he returned home. His description of their wisdom and boldness helped shape the reputation that China now enjoys in the Netherlands.

I hope that we can continue – in a spirit of mutual respect – to deepen our relationship, both now and in the years ahead.

Thank you.