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Six years of joy, tears and growing together

By SERGE ABOU (China Daily) Updated: 2015-05-18 13:38

Eleven years ago I accompanied my boss, the former president of the European Commission Romano Prodi, on an official visit to China. I had been appointed European Union ambassador to China but had yet to take up my post. However, this visit would illuminate my six years as ambassador until the end of 2010.

The emotion was inexpressible when for the first time, under a clear Beijing spring sky and in brilliant sunshine, I saw flying together on Tian'anmen Square and Changan Avenue the blue EU flag with its 12 yellow stars and the red flag of China with its five yellow stars.

It was a potent symbol: China's 1.3 billion people warmly welcoming 500 million Europeans. China was refinding its ancient glory and radiance, and Europe was building unity, extending its wings and values to almost all the European continent, adopting a common currency and negotiating a constitutional treaty.

My main mission as ambassador would be to develop and reinforce China-EU relations, and in pursuing this I had four priorities: trade, investment, tourism and student exchanges. In all these areas considerable progress was made, but more importantly we got to know each other better.

I recall one day asking a Chinese leader: "Why do you invest so much in Africa and so little in Europe, which is far more promising?" He replied: "Because Europe is still too complex for us with your social, environmental, energy and business laws and regulations." Today there is more Chinese investment in Europe than the other way round, which once again underlines the fact that China never stops learning.

The task I faced each day in China was to press on with improving collaboration, and I believe that when I was in the country, and since then, we have done a lot. In my time there were hundreds of visits of delegations from both sides, from the yearly summit of heads of state or government to ministers, commissioners, MPs and public servants.

However, for me the most salient events I shared with the Chinese people were ones that deeply symbolized our working together, such as the opening of the Airbus factory in Tianjin by then premier Wen Jiabao in 2009, a giant step for China in aeronautics; the opening ceremony of the new National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, built by a French architect, in 2007, which gave Beijing the status of a new world capital in music and art; and the joint opening by then president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and then vice-premier Li Keqiang of the EU-China Law School near Beijing in 2008.

There were, of course, more solemn events, too. The saddest was the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008. The mobilization of the Chinese people behind the People's Liberation Army to rescue victims as well as the outpouring of help from around the world, including the EU, provided a shaft of light in all the darkness. I will never forget the image of Wen, who, surveying the death and the destruction, was reduced to tears, but found the strength to motivate and encourage rescuers even when it meant putting their own lives in danger.

After that sadness there was the glory of the Olympics three months later: the beauty of the Bird's Nest, the main stadium; the originality of the Water Cube, for swimming and diving; the majesty of the opening ceremony in which Zhang Yimou brought to life the procession of China's contributions to human culture. There was perfection in the organization and enthusiasm from tens of thousands of spectators chanting, "Zhong guo jia you!" ("Go, China!"), and warm hospitality from the citizens of Beijing.

In 2010, the EU, for the first time in its history, took part in an international expo outside Europe, in Shanghai. The EU pavilion was modest compared to that of China. Nevertheless, I was amazed at how attractive it looked. More than six million visitors lined up for hours to see the original copy of the Rome Treaty (the founding act of our union), the original European Cup and various items symbolizing day-to-day life in Europe.

These are the main images that come back to me today, but the most important thing for me was discovering the Chinese people.

I traveled widely in the country and probably visited more cities and provinces than most Chinese do in a lifetime, meeting local leaders, visiting universities and talking to local media. In this context, I may well have been inspired, because two of the people I called on were Xi Jinping, when he was Party chief of Zhejiang province, and Li Keqiang, when he was Party chief of Liaoning province.

The last images I shall leave you with are ones I was treated to when I was invited to the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in 2009. Among all the regiments of the PLA that passed in front of us, there were two made up of women. Each of these soldiers had movie-star looks, and their marching was impeccable. Perhaps not surprisingly it was they who drew the loudest cheers and applause from the tens of thousands who gathered to watch.

The author is former EU ambassador to China. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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