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Table of Contents
Expedition to China
We land in Hong Kong, next stop Beijing
Hong Kong, consumer paradise
The Friendship Hotel
Our children get new names
Pages from a storm
A Colombian poet in trouble
The Decade of Chaos
A filmmaker pilloried
Our first trip back
Living in China for n o t o n e but many years
Twenty-two lessons learned
In a house with a courtyard, friendship flourishes
Annals of change
Back ground to the reform and opening-up
Neo-Confucian China and consumption
Beijing was a forest of cranes
To contradict Voltaire, everything changes in China
Beijing, rebuilt in ten years
Remnants of the past and heralds of today
My district, a neighbourhood of alleys
The commercial face of the reforms
The "floating population" and business fever
The reforms through the eyes of two Colombian diplomats
Revisiting Beijing
China past and present
International Watchtower
China and the global crisis
China's position in global geopolitics
Cultural traits and customs
Confucianism, still current and constant
Bird walkers
Caged crickets fight
In China, grandparents are in charge
The China that hosts the Olympic Games
Characteristics of the new Chinese family
Mao Zedong, the poet
Review and interviews
Launch of Twice The Life In China
Seventeen years living in the grandeur of China
China the novel
Sample Pages Preview

In a house with a courtyard, friendship flourishes Not knowing how much a metre of land is worth It was in the late seventies when we met the Han family. We were going from place to place trying to find someone who could transfer a series of rice-paper prints of ancient drawings carved on stone onto silk. We call them "rubbings" because they are transferred by placing the paper on the carving, which has been covered in Indian ink, and rubbing it with one's fingers. The most common motifs are based on human and animal figures, the planting and harvesting of crops, horses, and carts. Originally these prints, clearly created along impressionist lines, are printed in black on a white background and many of them are exhibited and sold like that. Others, however, are reworked in workshops with different coloured inks. Our friend the Peruvian writer Oswaldo Reynoso had some of thosepictures hanging on his wall, and when we said we were interested in decorating our living room in the same way, he said we would find what we needed in a workshop located in the Alleys neighbourhood. The place he recommended was run jointly by a couple: the husband dedicated himself to traditional painting of the Qi Baishi school, which always revolved around birds, butterflies, roosters, owls, crabs and a whole gallery of lesser fauna. The wife, whose surname was Meng, had for years devoted herself to screen printing all kinds of engravings and paintings on silk. That same afternoon, using the Palace of National Minorities to get our bearings, we headed north into the maze of streets that make up an entire neighbourhood and which, in contrast to the Forbidden City, I began to call the "outer city". One block before reaching the beautiful Gothic building of the People's Consultative Conference, we needed to go east until we reached a hutong or alley called The Single Plait. The house was number 8 at the south end of the street. There was a wide entrance with two heavy wooden doors topped with a roof of green and yellow glazed ceramic tiles. From the outside, the front of the house was a high grey wall crowned by the same beautiful curly ceilings. But once through the gate, the true features of the house were unveiled, with four large rooms off a central courtyard. Towards the back, leading off in different directions, there were other rooms. All around the middle of the courtyard, supported on a trellis of bamboo sticks, there was a large vine which was laden with grapes. Everything there reflected the scope of their ancestors' dreams. Han's studio was in the first room as you went in on the left, and in the middle, larger room was his wife's screen printing studio. On a wide table, on which the backing paper and silk covered in glue were, Meng laid out the rice-paper prints. When she pressed her roller over the paper, which had a rough texture, one feared it would disintegrate at the slightest touch. But the smooth engraving emerged, without a single crease, engraved on the silk as if were part of the material. We said goodbye in 1979, promising that we would see each other again. It was the second time we had come to China, both times as language experts and we were not quite sure from where, but from somewhere deep inside us, we felt that if we had been here once before and lived with these people through a very important period of their lives, there was no reason to imagine we would not return. What we could not foresee at all was that we would be returning as diplomats. It was in 1983 that we resumed our visits, conversations and eternal requests to make silk prints out of our "rubbings". And there was a fourth time. This current one, which began in 1991. But when we said goodbye at the end of our diplomatic mission in 1986, we did not imagine then either, that when we returned to Beijing to work as language specialists again, that we would be living next to the Hans. Meng had worked on the delicate restoration of archives and early printed books, as well as her picture printing business,. Their family was prospering. They had had the front of the house renovated and the porch had been painted in bright colours. They had a telephone with their own direct line. Their daughter Gen had started to study for a Law degree. She kept herself occupied in her room learning to use her own personal computer. Then, for one reason or other, several months went by without being able to see them. When we wanted to see how they were and we called them on the phone, we were surprised that no one answered. When we headed out to the west of the neighbourhood to look for the Hans, seeing the row of houses with the character chai (demolition) written on wall after wall, we were gripped by fear that the Han's old house was also going to be demolished. It was the inevitable fate of this whole neighbourhood, with its two hundred years of history, which, despite that, is not considered a cultural treasure. In China, artistic and cultural values are measured in longer terms. Also, this development boom that has been happening in China over the last fifteen years, plunging its multimillion populations into a whirl of consumption, has driven the price of everything, and specifically land, up to levels only comparable with Tokyo. The Hans had reached the seventies as the owners of a beautiful house but without an established market value and now, fifteen years later, they found themselves living on a plot of land whose value is measured in international terms, comparable with the value of land in a city like Tokyo. Looking at it that way, keeping these little streets and their single-storey homes intact is an unimaginable waste of space and capital in a market economy. In addition, something that we were reminded of by the future lawyer Gen, in China all land is still owned by the state. The plan of the Beijing council is to build residential and office buildings on those plots of land. In the new building that will be constructed at number 8 Plait Street, the Han family will be given an apartment. There will no longer be space for the printing workshop, nor a courtyard in which to hang the birdcages with their birds, nor a grape-laden vine. Instead of all that, they will no doubt have the benefits of central heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, neighbours above and below to complain about any noise they make when working on their paintings. Han has the advantage that he can put up an easel anywhere and paint but Meng's work requires space that she will no longer have. She is barely fifty years old and is not happy to spend the rest of her life enjoying retirement which is why she is busy looking for a place where she can carry on with her work. Maybe the solution would be to team up with other colleagues to rent one of the few houses that will remain in the "outer city" or perhaps she might be able to set up her workshop in the cultural centre which they are planning to build in the Haidian cultural quarter. Meanwhile, the din of the excavators' shovels continues as they demolish, never stopping to choose, courtyard homes as beautiful as the Hans' house, along with many others that were once themselves a housing solution. Beijing, August 1992


When I embarked on my first trip to China in February 1966 with my wife and two children, aged nine and three, it was as if I was sure that I had been chosen by fate from among the millions of Colombians, to go and live there long-term and try to understand the way the Chinese people were, what they felt and what they thought. I knew almost nothing about the country, except that a six-thousand-kilometre-long wall had been built there in order to stem the Mongolian invasion, and that Mao Zedong had pulled off an incredible feat by leading a massive army of farmers from the south of that vast territory to the far north-western corner, on a march that lasted two years.
Every time we boarded one of the three planes which took us on our two-week journey to Beijing, our final destination, with stops in Mexico, Vancouver, Tokyo and Hong Kong (thirty-five hours of actual flying time) it was as if we were boarding a spacecraft, such was the scale of that journey into the unknown.
We were going to work at the Institute of International Relations in Beijing, my wife as a Spanish teacher and I as a textbook writer, and until fifteen days after we arrived, we still did not know how much we would be earning, where we would live or what language our children would be speaking at school.
China was blockaded on all sides, and was only just beginning to recover from two years of famine resulting from the failure of the so-called Great Leap Forward, a long drought, and the ideological dispute with the Soviets.
We were beginning to recover from the upheaval of the time difference between these two opposite points on the planet when one day we were woken up by the gongs of the crowds of students who were marching past in what was, as we would find out a few minutes later, the outbreak of an unprecedented movement of the masses: the Cultural Revolution. Our plan was to stay in China for two years and in fact we lived there for seventeen, divided into four different periods.
Over a period of forty years we have seen China grow from the brink of disastrous poverty to its current position as a world power. During our initial stay (1966-1970), we were there as that movement hurtled to the brink. We were there, with the Chinese people in July 1976, when an earthquake measuring 7.8°shook the city of Tangshan leaving an official figure of. We were also there to witness the political earthquake that followed when, after Mao Zedong's death and the push by the so-called Gang of Four to take total control, We were still there on October 6, 1976 when friends told us, almost in whispers, the almost unbelievable news that Jiang Qing, along with her three co-conspirators, had been arrested; and a week later, we celebrated in the streets, along with millions of inhabitants of Beijing, Deng Xiaoping's return to power. It would still be a few years before we devoted our efforts to translating, along with a team of twenty of the best Spanish translators, a few more volumes of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong. So, we were present for the first key moments in the launch of the policy of reform and the opening-up of the country to the outside world, before we said goodbye to China for the second time in 1978. Our absence lasted just four years as we returned to the land of Confucius in 1983, this time to take up a diplomatic post at the Colombian Embassy. Our fourth stay in China was from 1991 to 1995, again as specialists working for the Bureau of Translation and Publications, a the State Council, and this time, thanks to our own request being granted, we lived for nearly five years in the same living quarters as our Chinese colleagues, next to the Bureau, in Fenzi Street (Noodle Street) just a few blocks away from the Imperial Palace. We force ourselves to speak Mandarin as much as possible, in order to get to know the Chinese people better and to write a kind of autobiographical novel or testimony of our lives there – which was printed in 2002 in Spanish under the title of En China dos veces la vida with its Chinese version being published in 2011 under the title Tales from the Friendship Hotel in Beijing.
With the death of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping being placed in a position of absolute power in China, the process of modernization began in the key areas of defence, agriculture, education and science and technology. The country thus took a huge leap from its chaotic, precarious state, where everyday essentials were becoming scarce, to a level of relative prosperity thanks to the abandonment of concepts such as foreign investment being seen as a betrayal of Marxist-Leninist principles and the idea that the law of supply and demand did not operate in a Socialist system. Deng went so far as to introduce a Foreign Investment Statute, and in doing so, he not only repealed the Socialist system of control, he also paved the way for the riskiest reform of all: the recognition in the Constitution of the right to own private property, when only common ownership by the people and collective ownership by a people's commune had previously been allowed.
In order to create the tools for the Foreign Investment Statute to work, Deng launched the programme which created Special Economic Zones, all located in the south and on the coast beginning with the one in Shenzhen. They were to become "laboratories of capitalism", a name given to them.
Another important part of these reforms was the dismantling of the people's communes. These had been the biggest socio-economic project, the great Maoist utopia, which sought to break down the boundaries between manual and intellectual work, between the city and the country, between affluent and deprived areas, etc. The commune played an important role during the first two decades after it was founded in 1957, as it largely reduced poverty, created an egalitarian distribution of income among those living in rural areas and contributed, through voluntary work, to the construction of major infrastructure works in rural areas. However, in the end, it became a burden, because the regime of absolute egalitarianism in the distribution system meant that there was no motivation for people to strive for production efficiency: all the different workers received the same remuneration for the work they did without taking into account the added value, their performance or efficiency.The dissolution of the communes had an inevitable outcome: millions of farmers lost their jobs and these unemployed workers had no choice but to migrate to the cities in search of work in the construction of office buildings and housing, a sector which, fortunately, thanks to the economic reforms and the opening-up to the outside world, was able to provide jobs for them. So, when today people ask: "Who built this new Beijing and this ultra-modern Shanghai?", the immediate response everyone gives is "The peasants, that huge mass of workers dubbed the "floating population" who migrated from all corners of the country to the south in search of the pockets of greatest development: the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, the Special Economic Zones and cities open to the outside world.
Four decades of economic and social reforms with a spectacular rise in the different macroeconomic indicators, lifting nearly four hundred million people out of extreme poverty, are recorded in this book through narrative texts, some of them presented as dialogues and others in a more academic style.
One fact we want to highlight is how, in order to be able to introduce this new economy, with its elements of foreign investment and private property, a new legal framework had to be created. No less astonishing than China's rise from economic underdevelopment was the fact that they were capable of creating such a legal superstructure was created from scratch. The question is: "From which magician's hat did the Chinese manage to pull together a set of legal codes, such as those relating to trade and criminal law?" The Chinese are fast learners and are continuously assimilating and adapting external knowledge but in the case of this new roadmap which laid out the Four Modernizations of the Asian giant, all the Chinese actually did, in the third decade of the 20th century, was to tie up the loose ends which Marshal Zheng had left at the dawn of the fifteenth century, during his maritime expedition which took him as far as the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and from which he returned, perhaps stunned by his own achievement, to the very heart of the Middle Kingdom thereby confirming China's so-called "self-isolation". Whether the West isolated China or whether China isolated the West is a debate which still rages.
This volume is an atypical collection of texts, including chronicles, articles, essays and interviews produced over four decades some of which relate to events in our own lives and others to events of huge historical importance, but all sharing the same backdrop: China. The book is divided into several parts reflecting the various topics. Although we have tried to generally respect chronological order, this is at times not the case since the order of the texts is in line with the thematic organization, which is the author's preference, as a significant percentage of the work consists of personal experiences which the author recounts in a narrative tone.
At the same time these pages include political and historical events like the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, all of which provide the reader with a common thread running throughout the whole process which is referred to as the modern transformation in China, perhaps only comparable in historical significance with German reunification.
We have included personal testimonies in this work, such as "Twentytwo lessons learned", things learned by a Colombian in his seventeen years of living there, a text that was written to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Colombia and China. Also included in this volume are three documents related to my memories of China which were turned into a novel and published in Spanish in 2002 under the title En China dos veces la vida and in 2011 in Mandarin as Stories from the Friendship Hotel Beijing. There are also two interviews with the author, one by a literary critic and one by a journalist discussing the novel, which were published in the newspaper El Tiempo.
One section which could be described as "intimate", was written in narrative form and contained in chapters like "Our children get new names" as well as another part dedicated to Chinese traditions and customs with chapters such as "Bird walkers", "Caged crickets fight" or "In China, grandparents are in charge" which provide an interesting contrast within the work, in keeping with a trend in literary journalism.
The term "eye-witness", present in the title China - An eye-witness account reflects the element of personal experience present in this work, which distinguishes it from many books written by someone on the outside without a first-hand view of the contemporary history of the Chinese nation.
Among the articles or essays of a more academic nature, we would mention: "China and the global crisis" and "China's position in global geopolitics," which are aimed more at a university audience.
Everything mentioned above takes place over a period of four decades during which we witnessed these events in China and ninety percent of the text is previously unpublished material, with the remainder being duly authorized by the national and foreign media in which it was published.
Finally, my sincere thanks go to the China Intercontinental Press for the welcome they gave me and the special care they took in editing this compilation.