Year 2008. The West is preparing for an economic crisis that will leave southern Europe on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China celebrates the propaganda success of the Beijing Olympic Games on top of the world. That year he landed in the Chinese metropolis Isidre Ambrós (Barcelona, 1956) with the idea of how China could gradually open up to the world, and to liberal democracy, thanks to its entry into the world trade circuit. Nothing is further from reality. «Upon arrival, I once asked if it was not better to be able to choose between three or four capable leaders for the country. And they told me: “No, no, we want a strong boss, who commands and makes work” », he recalls.
the Catalan journalist, correspondent for La Vanguardia in Beijing, first, and later, Hong Kong between 2008 and 2018, who recently presented in Madrid his book The Hidden Face of China (Diëresis), where he collects brief accounts of distant Chinese society of the bombastic geopolitical analyzes.
When ordering a cup of coffee and a glass of water on the terrace of a Madrid cafeteria, Ambrós remembers the first cultural clashes upon his arrival in China.
-The issue of water was the first surprise that I had in China. I wanted to have breakfast and also asked for a glass of water. They gave me a glass of hot water. At first I was surprised, but then I got used to it. Now I don’t drink cold water anymore. It’s one thing that surprises me.
After coming back a couple of years ago, what other day-to-day differences have you noticed?
They are very expeditious. Then they can get lost in official bureaucracies, but when it comes to executing they are very fast. There they have to change the heater in the kitchen and they tell you: «Tomorrow we will go at 10». And they call you at 9.40 to let you know: “Hey, I’m already in the area, is this time good for you?” Here I have found that they say that they are going to come around one o’clock, but it passes one, one-thirty, two, three …
They know more about us than we know about them …
They are very interested in how we are, our customs. They have been studying us for a long time, learning languages. The Chinese are very interested in Spanish. Instead, we know very little or nothing about their culture. Now we are starting to study Chinese, but we don’t know anything. This means that they have learned to modulate very well what we Westerners want to hear from them. They have taken our measure. They tell us what they want and how they want. On the other hand, we are unable to reach them and make them understand our concerns and take us into account. That is a bit of the idea that he gives me about the Chinese. For them, everything is based on ‘losing face’, something like being humiliated in public. If you yell at them or scold them, for them you are losing your face because you are losing your forms. They have not shown their feelings. It costs them a lot.
January 2020. News begins to arrive of a virus that comes from China. Living outside the country, what do you remember of those days? How did you experience them?
At first I reacted like a Westerner: that will not come. Then I thought: this is serious because other epidemics have happened and let’s see how they do. I came to the conclusion that it was very serious when the news came out that the Chinese were starting to build two hospitals in Wuhan. Wuhan, a city of 11 million inhabitants of very important logistics and where the entire domestic and foreign automobile industry goes. In a city of 11 million inhabitants, suddenly they begin to build two hospitals urgently to be able to take in the sick, that is not very normal. In addition, it coincided or became known in a very bad time: that of the Chinese New Year. Everyone moves and goes home to the family. A 40-day vacation period is given to give them time to spend with the family. Also, everyone travels on normal trains because they are cheaper and take hours and even days to arrive. People who had contracted Covid were taking it everywhere. Despite what they said here about yes masks, no masks, I took the ones I had from China and put them on. I saw it coming. The feeling was that it would be serious. What I did not think is that it was going to spread so much throughout Europe and the US and with such great effect.
Can the media and journalists be blamed for Spain reacting so late last year?
I don’t blame journalists because they do their job in the end. They have a very limited scope for action. They convey what they see and hear, and sometimes they don’t say much to them and they can’t see anything. Then you have to take into account the magnitudes. They are 1,400 million. Europe is 500 million and the US is 300. We reached 800. At the minimum that something happens to them, everything is enormous. Then we must bear in mind that what happens a lot in China is that the information channels are not so fluid either. Although the party exists and everything goes from top to bottom, sometimes provincial officials look the other way because they don’t want to get into trouble with the leaders of Beijing. That was part of the problem. There is also the ‘losing face’ thing. For the Chinese leaders, the second world power, being unable to control an epidemic in their country is a very serious affront, especially since they had already had SARS, which had greatly affected their delay in reacting. They were silent because they did not control it. When they got on they did well. Talking to people from Wuhan, they told me that there was no god, nothing to go out for bread. I don’t know to what extent they had it under control. In principle, to move from the city you need a residence permit, but many people go from the countryside to the city to work as a bricklayer, they live poorly and do not register, so out of fear they did not go to the hospital and could have died at home.
At the beginning of the pandemic there were episodes of anti-Chinese racism: being in a wagon with an Asian and walking away, etc. As you pick up in one of the stories with the Spanish coach in Wuhan, that happened to him as a Westerner. With the management of the coronavirus and especially the propaganda, has that superiority to the West permeate the Chinese population?
They are very nationalistic. They have engraved with blood and fire the century of the humiliations of the opium wars that plundered their national treasures. And then they also have the economic success that in 40 years they have gone around the country like a sock: from starving to second world power. There is no parliamentary control or anything, but the country is ahead. Do you want to build highways? They are made. Should we expropriate? It is done and it works. The port is connected to the airport and the city and they have done so in three years. We have spent 15 years in Barcelona to make the southern leg that would connect the airport with the city, because the City Council was fighting with the Generalitat.
In the decade you have been in the area, have you noticed more that China has become westernized or that, on your return to Spain, have you seen a greater Chinese influence here?
China is not westernizing itself, quite the contrary. They reaffirm their ideas and principles, and more so by seeing Trump. They have controlled the coronavirus long before us and also with the aggravation of what Borrell said that Europe does not make a gram of paracetamol and you have to buy it from them. They laugh at us, they have to sell us the masks and injections. Europe will not resemble China, but it does have to review its way of thinking and acting. It makes no sense that we are Eurocentric. The world is much bigger and more competitive. I don’t think China wants to conquer the world, but it does want to adapt the world so that the Communist Party continues to run China comfortably and gain international respect for its country, to return to being the ’empire of the center’ without physically invading the countries .
In the Tiananmén chapter, the contrast between the foreign media attention to the square due to the photo of the man in the tank and the ignorance of the Muxidi bridge massacre those same days stands out. Is China the most effective actor in erasing the past?
That happens with all dictators, who turn off the tap on social networks. One day I tried going to a college campus with the photo of the man in the tank. “What is that?” They asked me. And I: “It’s Tiananmen.” “No, it can’t be true,” they told me. Nobody knows anything and they can’t even look for it. It is a matter of time, if they have never explained it to you, nor will they explain it to you … And you also have your own planet of social networks: your Google, your Twitter, your Facebook adapted to China. You have your bubble, you don’t need anything. Are they effective? Yes. Dictatorships are usually effective. Dictatorships fall because society stops trusting them because it does not satisfy them. In Tiananmen, when the army fired on the people for the first time, a tacit pact was made between the party and Chinese society. It’s a bit like the Franco regime in Spain: «You don’t get involved in politics and I guarantee you economic and social well-being, development. Let me manage ». And it has worked.
They also have an army in the networks against Spanish journalists who criticize the Chinese regime.
There is the ‘5 maos’ group: students are paid 5 maos to respond to criticism on Twitter, Facebook and such. What Mavi (Doñate, TVE), Pablo (M. Díez, ABC) do, who put a critical comment, they respond to any nonsense to turn it around. Your phones are tapped, they watch you, they follow you … many times they don’t let you access the sites for safety reasons. Here when Atocha happened, it’s as if they don’t let you go from Chamartín. They say they do it for your safety. How do I report? They tell you to follow Xinhua, CCTV… Access to sources is very limited. The dissidents are closely watched and nobody knows about them. They have no real influence on society. The embassies also have very little information. In the end you end up talking to people from Taiwan and Hong Kong, who have or had more information, because in Hong Kong they are freaked out.
From Beijing to Hong Kong, why?
There was a sum of elements. We left because my wife was up to here from Beijing: they followed her, they watched her, they had her phone tapped. In my case I was in the position and in the salary, but not in hers. They had entered the house. They don’t do anything to you, but they move a vase for you so you know they can.
At the Tokyo Paralympic Games, China has doubled its rivals in medals. What place do the disabled have in society? Or is it just the obsession to win at everything?
You hardly see or never see disabled people on the streets in China. It has to do with ‘losing face’, it cannot be that there are no disabled people in Chinese society. It has shocked me a lot. And then it is true that they are obsessed with being number one in everything. The empire of the center. That’s where Xi Jinping’s famous soccer dream comes from: not only organizing the World Cup, but also winning it. But they play very badly.
Chinese sources have promoted anti-vaccine misinformation in the US and Europe. Is such an anti-vaccine movement possible in China?
People generally follow the party’s guidelines, but the Chinese live in their bubble. It is what he said before the Franco regime. You have to get vaccinated. There must be quite a few people who are not anti-vaccines but who distrust the efficacy of the Chinese vaccine. Although they do not say. They have the saying: “The mountain is very high and the emperor is very far away.” Another thing is that they organize themselves. The regime always attacks organized movements. They are terrified of social disorder. Everything that can organize the masses is nipped in the bud. Hence that obsession with social networks.