Bridge Builders: Spain-China

The year 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of continuous diplomatic relations between China and Spain, and the milestone is being marked with '50 Years of Friendship' events in both countries.

While that friendship grows ever stronger and wider in scope, there are some who have been around for decades helping to bring the two countries closer together – the Bridge Builders.

There's the man who continued his father's legacy of trying to unite the world through sport, with a particular familial determination to welcome China.

There's the man who was Spain's ambassador to China not once, not twice, but three times – and therefore witnessed the country's huge changes.

And there's the first Spaniard ever to open a business in China – still enthusiastic and energetic about the possibilities, even at the age of 88.

These are the Bridge Builders between Spain and China.

Eugenio Bregolat

Once, twice, three times an ambassador

By Ken Browne and Elizabeth Mearns

"I turned 80 on the very same day that my grandson was born in Shanghai," beams Eugenio Bregolat, smiling the smile of a life well-lived. 

He's primed to tell us his story about how he was born in the tiny northern Catalan town of La Seu d'Urgel and a love of reading lit the fires of curiosity and a desire to see the world. 

He also recalls his long and successful career as Spanish ambassador to China on three different terms of office, as well as posts in the post-Soviet Union Russia, Indonesia, Canada, the DPRK and Andorra. Of all his travels, it was China that changed him in a profound way. 

China on these three different occasions was three different countries
Eugenio Bregolat

"China has been, for me, a very, very special place," he says. "My son lives in Shanghai, he is married to a Chinese lady – so now my grandchildren, two boys born in Shanghai, they are 50 percent Chinese."  

His wife is from Russia and internationalism is a way of life in this house. He shares his secrets in the arts of diplomacy and understanding.

Ambassador to China three times

At home in his living room, he sits among an empire of memories: Ming and Qing Dynasty vases, photographs with Chinese presidents, friends, and others with personal notes written to him by Spanish royalty. 

"I was ambassador to China three times, but they were three different countries," he says. His first posting came when he was only 38 years old, from 1987 to 1991; he returned from 1999 to 2003, and again from 2011 to 2013. 

"I have spent 12 years of my life in China," he continues. "China on these three different occasions, with 10 years between each of them, was three different countries – so enormous, so incredible was the change during these decades."

A journey back in time

Speaking with energy and vitality, Bregolat takes us back to the China of the 1980s. 

"From my residence in Beijing at Sanlitunlu Road, you could see the difference without leaving the house," he says. "Back in 1987, there were no cars, only bicycles, or very few cars. No modern buildings. No highways. No lights at night. Everything was dark, no taxis. 

China has done in a generation what in the vast majority of countries has taken centuries
Eugenio Bregolat

"The second time I became ambassador in '99, some 300 meters to the left of the Spanish Embassy, they built a 30-story building, Capital Mansion. This in the early days was unbelievable. 

"The third time also without moving from my neighborhood, instead of going left, you go right and there you arrive at a new shopping center. You can buy your iPhone there, you have the Spanish fashion stores, everything."

Imagining the unimaginable

Bregolat says China's profound change is what has lent legitimacy to its leaders. 

"Nobody could imagine this, it was impossible," he says. "The GDP per capita was $150 in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping began the changes – now it's over $12,000. In 40 years, it has multiplied by 800. Unbelievable. The World Bank says China has done in a generation what in the vast majority of countries has taken centuries. 

"In China, you still have something called the Communist Party of China holding political power. This is a fact. And this party has been able to produce the greatest process of economic development in world history. So, of course, this gives legitimacy – an immense legitimacy."

China's great transformation during the Deng Xiaoping era is the subject of Eugenio Bregolat's book  The Second Chinese Revolution.

"The title says everything," he explains. "Deng Xiaoping called the changes a revolution. I try to explain this revolution. In 1978, India's economy was maybe 10 percent larger than China's. Now the GDP of China is six times India's GDP. Mind-boggling. 

"Knowing that China is part of everybody's personal future, not everybody has had the chance to observe what I did for 12 years. I thought it was part of my duty to put it in a book so that people could see." 

Nature and culture

"I am extremely happy to have had an opportunity to see the world changing before my eyes," Bregolat says. But how did China change him? 

"One of the things that I loved very much about China is the keen sense they have of nature. Take the Chinese paintings, you'll see mountains, rivers, landscapes. People, if they appear at all, are very small. 

Our culture is Eurocentric: We tend to look at the world through our own glasses
Eugenio Bregolat

"I feel very close to China and its culture. I picked up the habit of drinking tea, as everybody does. Chinese tea is so enormously varied that I compare it with wine in Spain or in European countries. You have an enormous variety. And also the tea ceremony has a sort of a spiritual meaning that is very deeply embedded into the Chinese historical personality."

Respect and understanding

There is a guide to understanding the 'other' in Bregolat's work, and in his words. 

"Inevitably our culture is Eurocentric. We tend to look at the world through our own glasses and, inevitably, we get into prejudices, we misunderstand many things. We have to understand that different countries, different civilizations have different approaches to life. 

"China, as everybody knows, is more ancient than Rome. So across the centuries and millennia, probably, they have learned some things and to go to their house and to tell them how they should behave is a bit rash. You must act with respect. That's what I believe I have learned. China is deeply conscious of being their own civilization and this comes from the depths of history."

Understanding China

With his unique position of understanding, Bregolat explains the Chinese political process. 

"There's a Party Congress once every five years, Two Sessions every year – they largely set the path. But let's look at the five-year plan," he begins. "One five-year plan ends and they are already working on the next five-year plan. 

"They ask universities, think tanks, cities, provinces, government departments, party departments. With all that, they make a sort of first draft and circulate the first draft. Everybody makes observations, then they elaborate the second draft. 

"This is not well-known or not at all known in the West, that the Communist Party to a large extent is a consensus factory." China's future, says Bregolat, is in the people's hands. 

Acceptance and tolerance

Understanding, acceptance, dialogue and diplomacy have to pave the path forward, Bregolat insists. 

"The West has to accept that China is a big power, that China is here and both sides have to try to understand the other, then see if we reach a world in which everybody can prosper and avoid war," he says. 

We depend on China. That's the truth
Eugenio Bregolat

"China is China. We cannot apply our same principles and demand China be like us. It's different. If we now close the West to China then China will, of course, become closed. Even the large American corporations do not want decoupling, they want the Chinese market. 

"So that's the first thing, is to keep all channels open, we have to cooperate no matter what. It's extremely important to keep the doors and windows open. If we close them the future of the world will be bleaker."

 Interlinked growth and stability

When it comes to economic growth and stability, the West needs China, Bregolat says. 

"When the Chinese changed their policy with the virus, immediately the World Bank and the IMF changed their projections about growth in the world this year. Now they are saying China and India will have growth of about five and a half or six percent, maybe India seven, Europe a half percent, America one percent or maybe a little more. 

"We depend on China. If all these projections are true, China will provide something like 40 percent of world growth. That's the truth." 

China's international infrastructure investment vehicle known as the 'Belt and Road Initiative' "is no doubt a positive one," Bregolat says. As of January 2023, 151 countries were listed as having signed up to the BRI, with over $950 billion invested or loaned worldwide. 

"A country which has the means decides to invest or to lend money to a country which needs investment or loans. No doubt this is a positive thing," he says. 

50 years of friendship

2023 marks 50 years of official diplomatic relations between China and Spain and the milestone is being marked with '50 Years of Friendship' events in both countries. And there is a long tradition of cultural exchange. 

"They learn about Don Quixote in school in China," says Bregolat, Then there are the estimated 200 million football fans who support one of Spain's big three football clubs Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Atletico Madrid. 

Unless we have strong relations we cannot build the world of the future
Eugenio Bregolat

Meanwhile, marquee Spanish products like olive oil, Iberian ham and wine now are established in Chinese markets and the big Spanish fashion houses like Inditex have their strong presence. Joint annual trade is now worth over $50 billion between the two economies, but there are also important but perhaps lesser-known ties between the two. 

"They helped us a lot, and these are not only in words," says Bregolat, "especially in the economic crisis starting in 2008. The Chinese buy, and have been buying for many years, Spanish debt in all the auctions, they are the main owners of Spanish debt abroad." 

"We are selling more, we are buying more today, trade wise, investment wise, but we can do much more," Bregolat insists. Spain now buys more in goods and services from China than from any other country, and Spanish exports to China doubled from 2016 to 2021. 

"Politically speaking," Bregolat says, Spain cannot be seen outside the European dynamic, but can influence direction. "Spain and Europe need to keep close links to China. Unless we have strong relations with China, it will be impossible to build the world of the future. 

"We are in favor of European strategic autonomy, but it is far more important for Europe to be a moderating power, to make sure this relationship between America and China does not become worse and worse, but the other way around. I think this would be our most honorable way to contribute. 

"If we do not build bridges, we fall into the water." 


Interview: Ken Browne; Producers: Sun Lan, Martin Egan; Camera: Gabriel Alaiz Rodriguez, Francisco Javier Martínez Adrados; Video Editor: Tom Brittle

With the then president Li Xiannian in 1987.

With the then president Li Xiannian in 1987.

Befriended by a monkey.

Befriended by a monkey.

Peeping over the Great Wall of China.

Peeping over the Great Wall of China.

Marcelo Muñoz

The businessman who blazed a trail to China

By Ken Browne and Elizabeth Mearns

Muñoz (C) at the inauguration of the Madrid-YiWu train route, 2014.

Muñoz (C) at the inauguration of the Madrid-YiWu train route, 2014.

Muñoz (L) at a 2012 Chinese-Spanish trade event in Madrid.

Muñoz (L) at a 2012 Chinese-Spanish trade event in Madrid.

Sightseeing in China.

Sightseeing in China.

I'm the only Spaniard who has experienced from within China the entire transformation of this country in the last 45 years. That's my trump introduction card
Marcelo Muñoz

"I'm only 88 years old," Marcelo Muñoz smiles wryly, speaking with the energy and vitality of a much younger man. "And I'm proud of every one of those years." 

As he should be, too. Muñoz was the first ever Spaniard to open a business in China, a calculated risk at a historic crossroads for both nations. 

"In Spain we were emerging from the Franco dictatorship, which had been 40 years of tremendous oppression and economic autarky," he says. "The Spanish economy was in shambles. We arrived in China right when it was opening up with Deng Xiaoping's policies."

Witnessing change from within

"I'm the only Spaniard who has experienced from within China the entire transformation of this country in the last 45 years – that's my trump introduction card," Muñoz says. He has been working with China for all that time, helping Spanish companies and government administrations do business with China through his consultancy.

He's a dedicated Sinophile, writing a number of books and publishing a constant flow of articles about China that build bridges and break down barriers between the two nations. He has also created his own think-tank called Cátedra China ('The China Chair') to bring together more than a hundred multidisciplinary experts from diverse fields to encourage greater engagement between Spain, Europe and China. It is, he says, his proudest achievement.

Living in the future

A captivating speaker, Muñoz is a force of nature in conversation: Ask him one question and he'll answer 10. You could sit and listen to him talk for hours – which is exactly what CGTN does. 

He's more than happy to share the secret to his vitality: "At my age, you're usually reminiscing about the past, telling stories the way grandparents do. I'm not interested in the past because China forces me to live the future day in, day out.

"That has forced me not to be old, not to have the mentality of a grandfather, but the mentality of a young man with a mind open to the new developments that I read about every day in China and that I have discovered on every trip to China."

(China's transformation) is the greatest economic, political, social and psychological transformation that has occurred in the entire history of humanity
Marcelo Muñoz

Passing on a lifetime of learning

Travelling to China more than 130 times since 1978 and spending many years of his life there, Muñoz witnessed from within what he classes as "the greatest economic, political, social and psychological transformation that has occurred in the entire history of humanity." When his career in business came to an end, he found purpose and meaning in all he had learned. 

"I stepped back from the business world a long time ago," Muñoz says, "about 10 years ago because, among other things, cancer forced me to do so – a story I'm not afraid to tell, from which I emerged. And then I thought about everything I had discovered in China, which has been so enriching. I felt I had an obligation to pass it on."

Life, in one word 

Of the many things he's learned in all these years, he says, one word is essential. "If I had to choose one thing from all I've learned, I would boil it down to one word: Dialogue. Chinese Confucian philosophy seeks to reach harmony through the dialogue of understanding between different perspectives. The problem we Westerners have when we travel to China is that we want to dialogue on the basis that they accept our system and that they accept our ideas. If they don't accept our liberal democracy, China is reprehensible. That's not how you make advancements in understanding in this world. You have to bridge the differences with dialogue or get as close as possible. That capacity for dialogue, perhaps, or that attitude of dialogue is the highlight of what I have learned in China. It is the most remarkable learning." 

50 years of friendship

The year 2023 marks the celebration of the 50th year of official diplomatic relations between Spain and China and Muñoz sees it as an opportunity. 

"I'm trying to use the 50th anniversary as a catalyst for future cooperation," he says. "Spanish exports to China have decreased in percentage terms; Spain is not on the new Belt and Road Initiative; Spain does not accept being part of the main gateways of communication. 

"So I'm proposing: Let's join the initiative to promote exports. And we are a tourist power. Why don't we attract three or four million Chinese tourists to Spain each year? I mark the 50th anniversary and I look at goals that we can achieve with relative ease." 

If 30% of the world's growth in the last 10 to 15 years is due to China, then we have all benefited, we're fools if we do not acknowledge that
Marcelo Muñoz

Growth and benefits

Unstoppable in full flow, Muñoz continues speaking from the heart. "We have to get it into our heads that China is a market that we need," he insists. "The West needs China. China is essential for everything in the world, even if we don't want to accept it. It is essential. 

"If the growth of the world by 30 percent in the last 10 to 15 years is due to China, we have benefited. We are all fools if we don't take notice of this. We need that bridge with China to increase our economic activity, to increase knowledge and support and cooperation. Not to think about confrontation, but to think about dialogue and cooperation."

When China says it does not want war or confrontation with the U.S., it doesn't say it just in words. It's a whole philosophy, a whole way of thinking
Marcelo Muñoz

The art of dialogue

With a Masters degree in philosophy among his many academic honors, he speaks with authority from a great depth of learning and experience. 

"For anyone who doesn't know, there is a famous Chinese ancient book from the 4th or 5th century BC by Sun Tzu. The book is called The Art of War," he says. "Read the book from the first page to the last. The entire book is the art of negotiation and dialogue to avoid war, to avoid confrontation. For this reason, when China says that it does not want war or confrontation with the United States, it does not say it just in words. It is a whole philosophy, a whole way of thinking."  

The last word, as it so often does, belongs to Muñoz.

"Confrontation must be avoided and must be avoided through dialogue," he insists. "And that's what the West does not accept or understand. We believe that it is necessary to reach a confrontation. Why? Why don't we dedicate ourselves to cooperating on everything we agree on, instead of fighting over everything we don't agree on?"


Interview: Ken Browne; Producers: Sun Lan, Martin Egan; Camera: Gabriel Alaiz Rodriguez, Francisco Javier Martínez Adrados; Video Editor: Tom Brittle

Juan Antonio Samaranch

Promoting friendship through sport

By Martin Egan and Miguel Moyano Varo

Samaranch (R) with his father at the 1992 Olympics.

Samaranch (R) with his father at the 1992 Olympics.

IOC precious relics in Beijing, 2019.

IOC precious relics in Beijing, 2019.

With President Xi Jinping in 2018.

With President Xi Jinping in 2018.

At the Shanghai Olympic Expo, 2018.

At the Shanghai Olympic Expo, 2018.

Former Olympics chief Juan Antonio Samaranch's memory lives long and is celebrated by his surviving children and grandchildren. But Samaranch also remains a household name in China. When in 2001 he announced Beijing to be the host for the 29th Summer Olympics, it was a moment etched on a generation's memory.

China's return to the Olympic family

Samaranch's connection with China started long before the 21st century – as his son, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, remembers. 

"My father said clearly that the Olympics is about something universal and there can be no universality in this world without China," he says. "He fought hard before even being president of the International Olympic Committee to bring China back on stage, to get China to finally march with the rest of the world athletes in Los Angeles at 84."

It was only fitting that Samaranch senior was there to present China its first ever gold medal, to Xu Haifeng for winning the 50-meter shooting event. 

The Olympic dream fulfilled

Samaranch continued to show a strong support to China for Beijing to host the summer games in 2000, and finally succeeded for 2008. There were huge celebrations when he announced – just before his retirement – that the Olympics were coming to the Chinese capital. The country mourned his passing two years later, but his son feels that his legacy and spirit remain.

"It says a lot about Chinese culture, the Chinese people," says Samaranch Jr. "The way they feel about my father, the way they treated my father and my last name being a household name. The friendship my father received from the Chinese people, it was very, very important to him, it was probably one of his most precious treasures. I would also like to earn that same respect."

The first country to host both the summer and winter Olympics

Samaranch Jr. continues to play significant role within the Olympic movement – he's now the vice-president of the IOC, and was part of the Organizing Committee for the Beijing Winter Olympics of 2022. He told CGTN that it was logistically one of the hardest events to organize in Olympic history, but the hosts showed their commitment to the cause.   

"I think they wanted to show the world what a good partner they could be, in a top country, in concert with other nations," he recalls. "In 2022, they wanted to demonstrate that they were here to stay, that they were reliable, and they were capable to deliver."

Building bridges for the future

The family ties were further strengthened by the inauguration of the Samaranch Foundation by his son in to promote closer cultural relations between Spain and China. 

One of their main activities is promoting sport by supplying Spanish coaches for team sports and sponsoring events that promote Olympianism.

He was particularly pleased with the Sanchez Casal Tennis Academy that was set up in Nanjing. It follows other launches in both Barcelona and Florida. The potential for growth in sport is huge. 

The Samaranch family relations with China now spans three generations as their grandson also volunteered to teach football in the north-eastern Province of Jilin to help young children improve their skills, in a network of schools that stretches across the country.

"We have literally hundreds, hundreds of programs, thousands of events every year that are trying to deliver that with very good partners that we have that help us finance those operations."

50th anniversary of strong diplomatic ties with Spain

The year 2023 marks a half-century of continued diplomatic relations between Spain and China. Samaranch Jr believes it's a relationship that has flourished and will continue to do so over the coming decades.  

"There's always been respect for the decisions and the way that China conducted their business," he reflects. "In return, we have always been respected by China, and I cannot forget that always when I went there what I would hear about Spain: The Chinese people would say, Spain is our best friend in Europe."

Keep an open mind 

Samaranch Jr admits that he has had a very fortunate life. The hardworking businessman has set up and been a founding member in a finance firm with offices all over the world. His advice to the younger generation from both countries is the same. 

"Keep an open mind, you will be surprised how many good things you will receive from engaging with China," he says. "Likewise, Spain is a friendly country – great quality of life. The Chinese need to study Spanish as it's the second language in the world. As for the Spanish, you should start to learn Chinese."

Huge opportunity ahead

China and Spain currently enjoy many mutual benefits. Spain's largest non-European trading partner is China; bilateral trade is worth close to $40 billion dollars. Samaranch Jr believes that figure is set to grow over the next few years – starting with Spain's number one industry. 

"Tourism is a great way of getting to know each other, and getting to understand between people from different parts of the world in trade," he says. "We also need to improve our excellent relationships. Trade can and should improve. We are not a significant trading partner of China at this moment compared to other European countries."

The Samaranch legacy continues

The Samaranch relationship that started many decades ago, with his father helping China return to its rightful place on the international stage of sport, has continued. The baton has been passed on to the next generations, to his son and grandson. It's a legacy that will forever be remembered for its positive impact in both Spain and China.     

Full interview by Miguel Moyano Varo for CGTN in Madrid. 


Chief Editor Guo Chun
Editors Sun Lan, Elizabeth Mearns
Planning Yubin Du Writer Ken Browne
Producers Miguel Moyano Varo, Martin Egan
Camera Gabriel Alaiz Rodriguez, Francisco Javier Martínez Adrados
Video Editor Tom Brittle