The red front-line

China’s Communist Party is splurging on new local drop-in centres

Filling them can be a challenge

In shenzhen’s glistening tech district, opposite the headquarters of Tencent, a giant digital conglomerate, the Communist Party vies for attention. “Follow the party, start your business” is etched into a futuristic-looking cube at the entrance to a two-storey building, its walls sprayed with paintings of giant robots.

In the lobby stands a life-size statue of Mao Zedong, flanked by other Communist leaders. But most visitors bypass the exhibit on the party’s history and head directly upstairs.

Xi Jinping Thought is not as appealing as the free classes on offer: calligraphy, kick-boxing, Pilates and Zumba. There are lectures on career-building and buying property in Shenzhen, a city bordering on Hong Kong that is one of the world’s most expensive property markets. At lunchtime, workers can enjoy free massages.

“Most people find study sessions about the history of the Communist Party too dry,” says one of the centre’s staff. “They prefer attending yoga or lectures about blockchain. We even held a speed-dating event recently where we matched 15 couples.”

The building is known as a “party-masses service centre”. In recent years they have proliferated in cities, towns and villages across the country. It has been the biggest effort by the party to develop its physical infrastructure at the grassroots in decades. They are partly intended to be “one-stop shops” at which locals can get access to a wide variety of bureaucratic services that hitherto may have required visits to distant government offices.

In Shenzhen, where they are called “community service centres” in English (perhaps to obscure their Communist links to politically sensitive foreigners), there are more than 1,000 of them. One is at the city’s airport. It offers karaoke, a flight simulator and a library of more than 3,500 books.

Providing entertainment and helping with government paperwork, however, are secondary functions of these centres. Their main purpose is to give ordinary party members space to meet and discuss such matters as Xi Jinping Thought and the party’s latest directives.

The dismantling of many state-owned firms in the 1980s and 1990s stripped the party of much of its grassroots presence. In recent years it has been scrambling to rebuild this by setting up party organisations within private businesses and ngos. But these often consist of just a few people who lack regular contact with higher-level party committees.

The service centres help to bring disparate party bodies under one roof and make it easier to mobilise them when needed, such as to help the public during covid-related lockdowns. The one in the airport describes itself as a “red home” for nearly 10,000 party members working in more than 30 airport-related businesses. It has a dance hall that doubles as a meeting room.

Building and decking out these facilities has not been cheap. In the past two years a district of Dongguan, a city near Shenzhen, has spent more than 190m yuan (about $28m) on them.

Jiayuguan, a far less affluent city about 3,000km to the north-east on the edge of the Gobi desert, has forked out a similar amount in the past five years. Nor has it been optional. Progress made in building them is used to evaluate officials’ performance.

Cities have specified minimum areas for their floor space. In Shenzhen it is 650 square metres for neighbourhood ones, or more than half the size of an Olympic swimming pool. But some officials like to go larger. Shenzhen boasts the biggest neighbourhood-level party-masses centre in Guangdong province, at 8,000 square metres.

Officials have good reason to show enthusiasm. Rebuilding the party at the grassroots has been a priority for Mr Xi since he took over as China’s leader in 2012. On trips outside the capital he has paid several visits to party-masses centres.

During one such in July, in the north-eastern city of Changchun, he paraphrased Mao, saying that effective work at the grassroots was essential for ensuring that the party can “sit tight on the fishing terrace despite the rising wind and waves”—in other words, maintain its grip on power.

In cosmopolitan cities such as Shenzhen, it involves appealing to a young tech-savvy elite that has little time for earnest study of party ideology. Hence the effort to entice people with services such as free advice on starting up a business.

Ryan Manuel of Official China, a research firm, compares the new centres to churches in Western cities that provide busy professionals with a sense of community by arranging sports activities and night classes. In both cases the main aim remains to inspire a belief—in God at the churches, or in the party at the centres.

Even by the party’s admission, the new centres—despite being hailed as the “red front-line”—do not always perform as hoped. An article published in 2018 by the website of the People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, said many centres were “empty shells”.

In some places, “the hardware is classy but the service doesn’t match and footfall is low,” lamented a county official near Kunming in another online article. In places where the buildings were empty, she wrote, citizens were also devoid of “satisfaction and happiness”.

But the party does not have to worry about attracting recruits, whose swearing-in ceremonies are often held in the new centres. In 2018 only about 10% of applicants were accepted to join the party, which has over 90m members.

“Despite the party trying to be more inclusive and reach out to more people, the party itself remains highly selective in recruitment of members,” says Feng Chucheng of Plenum, a research firm. The party wants the bright tech workers of Shenzhen, but only those who will comply with its orders without question. Karaoke skills confer no advantage.

What’s Biden’s New China Policy? It Looks a Lot Like Trump’s

Even with an administration change in January, China would face continued heightened friction with the U.S.

By Jacob M. Schlesinger

China’s Xi Jinping, left, and Joe Biden, both of whom were vice presidents at the time, walk together in Dujiangyan outside Chengdu in China’s southwest province of Sichuan in 2011. PETER PARKS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Whoever wins the presidential election, one thing is clear: The U.S. has turned a corner in its relations with China and is likely to maintain a harder line.

In the past four years, President Trump, a longtime trade hawk, broke with decades of policy that broadly fostered closer ties between the two giants. Seeing China as a growing and often dishonest competitor, his administration has imposed tariffs on two-thirds of Chinese imports, moved to curb Chinese investments in the U.S. and pressured allies to shun Chinese technology.

Advisers to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden say they share the Trump administration’s assessment that China is a disruptive competitor. This suggests that even with an administration change in January, friction between China and the U.S. would remain high.

Continued tension between the world’s two largest economies portends big shifts for global businesses as they rethink supply chains and technological systems in an increasingly divided world. It also would push allies into choosing between the two poles.

“I think there is a broad recognition in the Democratic Party that Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices,” says Kurt Campbell, the top Asia official in the Obama State Department, now a senior adviser to the Biden campaign.
Biden aides say they would expand the American-government-backed campaign to compete in strategic high-tech sectors such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and the next-generation 5G wireless standard. These policies are meant to curb Chinese economic power and influence, and reduce interdependence.

Mr. Trump’s tariffs also could remain under a President Biden. While Mr. Biden has criticized the Trump trade war as self-destructive, the campaign has refused to pledge removing the levies, saying only they would be re-evaluated. Democrats in Congress say they would pressure him to keep some tariffs in place to protect American workers.

But the two candidates are sending different signals on tactics and messaging. Biden advisers dismiss as unrealistic the rhetoric of some Trump backers about a new Cold War along the lines of the standoff between the U.S. and Soviet Union. They note more than $500 billion in goods crossed the Pacific between the two countries last year, even during the trade war. Apple Inc., for instance, still relies heavily on Chinese producers for key components of its iPhones.

Mr. Biden, right, listens as Mr. Xi speaks during a meeting in Los Angeles in 2012.

They also criticize the way that President Trump has gone about confronting China. “The application of his strategy to negotiate and contend with them has just been a mess,” said Mr. Campbell.

The Trump team argues that Mr. Biden represents the longtime establishment that encouraged China’s rise in the first place, including fostering a global free-trade system that many Americans now blame for hurting U.S. factory jobs. In 2000, as one of the most influential lawmakers on international policy, Mr. Biden used his clout to back Bill Clinton’s deal letting China into the World Trade Organization.
“Donald Trump has been fearless in…cleaning up the mess made by career politicians like Biden,” said Michigan Republican Rep. Jack Bergman during a Trump campaign call Wednesday on the escalating China debate. He said Mr. Biden, despite his new rhetoric, can’t break from the old mind-set.

A more bare-knuckled China policy also would represent a notable shift for Mr. Biden and his foreign-policy team. Most of them served in the Obama administration, which some say in retrospect was too soft on China and too slow to recognize President Xi Jinping’s nationalist and authoritarian bent.

Mr. Biden says he would work more closely than Mr. Trump has to rally allies in a coordinated global campaign to pressure Beijing. He says Mr. Trump’s efforts would be far more effective if he worked with other countries, rather than simultaneously engaging in trade fights with Europe, Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Japan.

“We make up 25% of the world’s economy but we poked our finger in the eyes of all of our allies out there,” Mr. Biden said recently. “The way China will respond is when we gather the rest of the world.”

Mr. Biden also says he would place a higher emphasis than Mr. Trump on cooperating with China on global challenges he considers as vital to American interests as confronting Beijing.

Where Mr. Trump has this year tried to isolate China over the pandemic—and the World Health Organization over its ties to China—Mr. Biden would likely take a more global approach to containing the virus. Where Mr. Trump plays down concerns over climate change, Mr. Biden calls it “an existential threat.” Mr. Biden can’t address his climate agenda without help from China, the world’s largest carbon emitter.

That could complicate any attempts to strike a harder line against Beijing. “Should there be an easing up of competition if there’s a prospect of cooperation? What if China links those two?” asks Thomas Wright, a foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The candidates’ contrasting diplomatic approaches reflect their clashing governing philosophies.

Mr. Biden spent much of his four decades in government working with world leaders to help shape the modern American-led global order. Mr. Trump’s late-life entry into politics was animated by his opposition to that order. He has at times questioned the value of longtime military and trade relations with Japan and South Korea, two American allies in China’s orbit.

For more than four decades, presidents from both parties, joined by executives of multinational corporations, sought to encourage China’s integration with the U.S. and the world. They argued that would benefit the U.S. and would lead to greater openness as Beijing followed global rules.

President Trump and President Xi leave an event in Beijing in 2017.

President Obama began his term seeking closer ties with Beijing and asked his vice president to develop a relationship with Mr. Xi. Mr. Biden boasts about having spent more time with the Chinese leader than any other foreign official, saying the two had 25 hours of private meals and logged 24,000 miles of travel together.

“It is in our self-interest that China continue to prosper,” Mr. Biden said during a 2011 visit to the country, a quote cited often by the Trump campaign. Biden supporters say Mr. Trump has made similar comments as president.

The Obama-Biden administration’s early views on China had been based on assumptions that Mr. Xi would continue the market-liberalizing policies of his predecessors. As the Chinese leader consolidated power and reversed many of those measures, officials say, their views on China changed.

Biden aides say he observed firsthand the increasingly autocratic tendencies of Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders. In a 2013 meeting, aides say, he told Mr. Xi the U.S. would ignore Beijing’s attempt to expand its air defense zone, and would back allies doing the same. Some critics at the time said Mr. Biden should have publicly demanded China remove the zone, which he didn’t do on that trip.

Near the end of Mr. Obama’s term, the U.S. began to crack down on cyber-theft, challenged Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and tightened scrutiny of Chinese investment in U.S. technology. Mr. Biden took the lead in criticizing Chinese trade practices—though the administration’s actions consisted mainly of filing complaints with the World Trade Organization in Geneva.

President Trump accelerated the turn against China. He blasted the WTO as too slow and weak, and launched a trade war that imposed tariffs on $370 billion of Chinese imports. He has curbed Chinese tech companies including Huawei Technologies Co. and ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok.

     Huawei's first directly managed flagship store in Shenzhen. / PHOTO: MAO SIQIAN/XINHUA/ZUMA PRESS

The pressure campaign expanded in the Covid-19 pandemic, which Mr. Trump blames on China. The U.S. has closed the Chinese consulate in Houston for alleged economic espionage, ramped up military exercises in the South China Sea and imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials.

In the six months since Mr. Biden effectively sealed the Democratic nomination, the incumbent and challenger have traded barbs on China. Each campaign has produced video ads featuring footage of the opposing candidate meeting with Mr. Xi. “Biden stands up for China,” the Trump ad says. “Trump rolled over for the Chinese,” counters the Biden spot.

The new Washington consensus no longer sees China on a path to adopting Western political and economic systems, but rather as an authoritarian rival. The hostility isn’t just over trade, but also stems from the crackdown in Hong Kong and repression of Uighur Muslims.

“Regardless of who wins, U.S. policy toward China is going to be tougher over the next five years than the last five years,” says Richard Haass, a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “China has changed, and U.S. thinking on China has changed.”

Lawmakers have introduced more than 200 bills addressing China in the current congressional session, double the number in the previous one. In a summer Pew Research Center poll, 73% of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of China, just 22% a favorable one. In 2011, 51% had a positive view, 36% a negative one.

“The Chinese people…feel very disappointed about what is happening in this country towards China, there’s a rising anger among the Chinese public,” Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the U.S., told the annual Aspen Security Forum last month. He said leaders need to “not allow any miscalculation or misperceptions to hijack the relations.”

One Biden critique of the Trump China policy is that it has inflicted economic damage on the U.S. without triggering the Chinese economic reforms Mr. Trump has demanded. The fallout to the U.S. has included a plunge in agricultural exports, as well as higher costs and supply disruptions for U.S. companies dependent on Chinese imports.

A Moody’s Analytics study late last year estimated the China trade war cost the U.S. economy about 300,000 jobs and shaved 0.3% off U.S. gross domestic product.

Trump officials say much of the lost sales will ultimately be made up with China purchase pledges made in a January trade agreement.

President Obama meets with President Xi at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2016. / PHOTO: DENNIS BRACK/GETTY IMAGES

Biden advisers see China policy as just as much about rebuilding the U.S. economy as containing China’s. “The debate should be about who’s going to make America more competitive,” says Ely Ratner, a Biden national security aide in the Obama administration now at the Center for a New American Security.

America policy makers have long tried to coax Beijing to move toward American-style capitalism. If elected, Mr. Biden’s plans to bolster growth include a nod to Chinese-style state intervention. He has an ambitious “Buy American” proposal that would earmark more federal funds for U.S. companies.

Mr. Biden says his China policy would include a heavy emphasis on promoting democracy and human rights. He sees this as enabling the U.S. to compete with Beijing globally on values, not just commerce, a traditional American foreign-policy framework that Mr. Trump has played down.

That would also inform Mr. Biden’s technology policies. “As the vice president sees it, there’s a division in the world between techno-democracies and techno-autocracies,” said Antony Blinken, the campaign’s senior foreign-policy adviser. The democracies see technology as a tool for fostering greater freedom, the autocracies sell dictators enhanced surveillance and censorship tools.

A President Biden would have to manage divisions among Democrats over how to confront China. One battle within the party is over the military. One side wants big Pentagon budget cuts and the other hopes for more military support for Asian allies.

Another fight looms over trade. Many Democrats oppose new free-trade agreements. Others say those pacts are vital to bolstering alliances to counter China.

At the end of his term, Mr. Obama negotiated the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership with that goal in mind. At the time, Mr. Biden supported it. Mr. Trump ran against TPP in his 2016 campaign and pulled the U.S. out. Now the Biden campaign says rejoining the bloc isn’t a top priority.

Then Vice President Biden walks the red carpet at a welcome ceremony in Beijing in 2011.


I’ve Never Seen the American West in Such Deep Distress

We’re choking on smoke and staring out at Martian-red skies in a world becoming uninhabitable.

By Timothy Egan

A fire burning across Butt Canyon Road in Napa County, Calif., in August.
A fire burning across Butt Canyon Road in Napa County, Calif., in August.Credit...Ian C. Bates for The New York Times

The open road in the Big Empty part of the American West has always been therapeutic. Vacant skies, horizons that stretch to infinity, country without clutter. The soul needs to roam, too.

After six months of confinement, I was a caged bird gnawing at the bars. Ahead were mountains beyond mountains, rivers that hustled out of tight canyons, and winds strong enough to knock a prairie chicken down.

Alas, my map was obsolete. The West of 2020 is very sick. Like much of the country, we Westerners are at one another’s throats, struggling to put our lives back together under a madman for a president. But unlike the rest of the country, we’re also choking on smoke and staring out at Martian-red skies in a world becoming uninhabitable.

My map should have included hot spots of the coronavirus and wildfire. I spent as much time checking an air quality index app as the weather forecast. And the live-free-or-die ethos of tumbledown towns defying mask orders turned many a curious detour into a perilous proposition.

Even the historical markers, commemorating wagon trains in trespass over Native land, rivers dammed for oligarchs of industry and agriculture, rail lines built on migrant labor, seemed out of sync and out of time.

I left Puget Sound with the sun burnishing Mount Rainier’s glaciers, a string of bluebird days in the contrails of the season. But I no sooner crested the Cascades than the smoke of the arid interior blotted out the way ahead, a harbinger of a week when the West would blow up.

About 330,000 acres of the Evergreen State burned on Monday — more land consumed by fire in a single day than all the acreage of an entire typical season in Washington.

Yakima Valley, ripe with Christmas ornament apples and pinch-me peaches, was monochrome gray, in fierce battle with runaway flames. But it’s also one of the hardest-hit areas in the country for Covid-19. This year, all that beautiful fruit is picked at a terrible cost, in lives and sickness, to people living in cramped, temporary quarters.

Then, I went across the mighty Columbia, the river of the West, and along the Snake, formerly two of the most crowded salmon highways in the world, now held in the harness of hydroelectric dams. Some of the feeder streams — the Umatilla, the Grand Ronde, the Malheur — looked anemic and infirm.

Oregon held California’s smoke, and many of its recent refugees. A record 2.5 million acres have burned in the Golden State this year, and the fire season has only just begun.

“I have no patience for climate change deniers,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a state with 150 million dead trees and temperatures that recently reached 121 degrees in Los Angeles County.

Meanwhile, the world’s most dangerous climate change denier continued to spout gibberish.

“You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” said President Trump, scolding California.

That’s like telling people to drain their wading pools in advance of a hurricane. Nearly 48 percent of the land in California is federally owned. Those are his floors. And this West in distress is made sicker by his defiance of the globe’s existential threat. If ash were falling on his hair, he’d be more alert.

We followed a road along the old Oregon Trail into Idaho, then picked up parts of the southern branch into Utah. The historical markers note that immigrants recruited by Mormons pushed and pulled wooden handcarts, essentially large wheelbarrows, across the continent’s midsection. It was insane, leading to many deaths.

I’d always marveled at those who walked thousands of miles to grab off a piece of dry turf to call their own. But this time around I wondered more about the people whose land was being taken. The Shoshone, Bannock and Northern Paiutes lived well without having to push 300-pound carts over the Continental Divide.

I’d never seen southern Wyoming in such a bad way. The sky was white with heat, and then blue-white with smoke, the endless beige tableau of the land littered with the detritus of oil, coal and gas extraction. We saw one fire go off like a nuclear bomb.

Here is another bit of insanity in the hellscape of this season: Wyoming’s desperate effort to hold on to its earth-killing coal plants is a contributing cause to all the climate-change fires.

An unrelated thought: How come Wyoming, with a falling population of 567,000, has two United States senators, while Washington, D.C., with more than 700,000 people, has none?

Colorado’s skies were blood red, another Rocky Mountain sigh, as we came under the cloud of the Cameron Peak Fire, one of the 10 largest in state history, all of them coming since 2002.

The authorities urged everyone to stay indoors. My parked car, in Boulder, took on a coat of falling ash. Overnight, temperatures dropped 50 degrees, and by morning snow was falling on cedars and muffling some of the fires along the Front Range.

Back home, an endangered orca named Tahlequah, who had captured the world’s attention when she carried her dead baby for 17 days in 2018, gave birth to a healthy calf. New life in the Salish Sea, fresh snow on the Flatirons; it was enough of a hint that nature can make things right, if only we give it a chance.

Timothy Egan (@nytegan) is a contributing opinion writer who covers the environment, the American West and politics. He is a winner of the National Book Award and author, most recently, of “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.”

The Last Macho

Rise and Fall of Spain's Former King Juan Carlos

After the end of the Franco era, King Juan Carlos I helped his country become wealthy and democratic. Today he is exiled, with his legacy clouded by possible connections to tax fraud. What happened?

By Helene Zuber

Juan Carlos I estranged himself from his family. His wife Sofía did not join him in exile.
Juan Carlos I estranged himself from his family. His wife Sofía did not join him in exile. Foto: Europa Press / Getty Images

In Cuba, in November 1999, everyone loves the Spanish king. Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader, cordially receives him at the airport in Havana. Later, when Juan Carlos walks through the historic city center with his entourage, residents applaud from their windows and balconies. People chant, "Long live Spain!" and "Viva el Rey.” Construction workers shake his hand and a street cleaner gets a kiss on the cheek.

"Never in my life have I dreamed of anything so wonderful," the worker later told the journalists accompanying the king, of which I was one. The Spanish king was there for the Ibero-American Summit of heads of state and government. He was 61 years old and at the apex of his international stature. People even liked him back home, regardless of whether they were on the left or the right of the political spectrum.

I found myself recalling that day this August, when a Spanish website posted an entirely different image of the king. It showed an old man, his face hidden behind a corona mask, leaning heavily on the railing as he descends the stairs from a private plane.

The aircraft had carried him from the northwest corner of his kingdom to a different continent. Juan Carlos I, 82, who abdicated the throne in 2014, had turned his back on his country - weakened by illness, wounded by the scorn of many of his compatriots after various scandals, and mocked by half the world.

His destination was only confirmed two weeks later: He had flown to Abu Dhabi and would be staying for a time with his friend, Prince Mohamed bin Zayed.

He had made far too many missteps in recent years – to the point that had become a burden for his son, King Felipe VI, for the monarchy and for the stability of Spain's political system. The rise and fall of Juan Carlos I illustrate the deep changes Spain has undergone in the 45 years since its former dictator, Francisco Franco, died in 1975.

The king, who is part of the Bourbon dynasty, helped the country develop from an almost medieval corporate state to a high-tech kingdom and the fourth-largest economy in the European Union. But in recent years, Juan Carlos no longer understood the degree to which Spaniards had also changed, and that if the monarchy was to survive, it would have to adapt to Spain’s new culture and relinquish some privileges.

Juan Carlos was proclaimed king by the two houses of Spanish parliament on Nov. 22, 1975 and crowned five days later in the Iglesia de San Jerónimo El Real in the heart of Madrid. For nearly four preceding decades, Franco had isolated his people in a backward regime that was strictly regimented by the Catholic Church.

Even young women wore black at the time and they were not allowed to travel abroad without the permission of their father or husband. Only very few people had bank accounts. Villages were under the control of the priest and the military police force known as Guardia Civil. Only the most privileged owned a car.

Juan Carlos embodied the rebirth of an ossified country. Immediately after he was crowned, the young king traveled with his wife Sofía - a princess of Greece and Schleswig-Holstein and the great-granddaughter of the last German emperor – through the country, from Andalusia to Basque country.

Sofía, who spoke Spanish with an accent, listened just as amiably to fieldworkers as she did to fishermen. There were only very few monarchists at the time, and it was partly thanks to Sofía that the "Reyes" – the royals installed by grace of the dictator – slowly achieved the acceptance of even those Spaniards who had believed in the republic.

"Like a Ping-Pong Ball”

That support was far from inevitable for Juan Carlos, who was born in exile in 1938 as the second child of an impoverished family in Rome. From very early on, it was impressed upon him that he must win back the throne that his grandfather, Alfonso XIII, had abdicated without resistance in April 1931, when the republic was proclaimed. His father negotiated with the dictator and sent his 10-year-old son back to Spain, entrusting his well-being to Franco.

Later, in one of his rare interviews, Juan Carlos said he had felt "like a ping-pong ball" between the two.

Juan Carlos married Sofía, a third cousin, in 1962, right in the middle of the Franco dictatorship. He was crowned in 1975 shortly after Franco's death. Several years of economic upswing and growing prosperity in Spain followed, during which Juan Carlos led a life of excess, including a fateful hunting trip to Botswana in 2006.

Juan Carlos married Sofía, a third cousin, in 1962, right in the middle of the Franco dictatorship. He was crowned in 1975 shortly after Franco's death. Several years of economic upswing and growing prosperity in Spain followed, during which Juan Carlos led a life of excess, including a fateful hunting trip to Botswana in 2006.

His teachers encountered a shy, young prince with a mournful look. Later, during his university studies in Madrid, he was seen as a peculiar outsider who was accosted by both leftist students and followers of Franco. Even at the beginning of his reign, intellectuals mocked him as "El Breve," meaning "the short-lived one," in the belief that he would soon be gone.

But Juan Carlos surprised the country by distancing himself from the dictator after just a few months. In July 1976, he installed the young lawyer Adolfo Suárez as prime minister, a man for whom even the daughters of the Franco elite had a soft spot.

With his connections to senior members of the previous regime, Suárez helped the king disempower Francoism and transform Spain into a democracy. He got rid of the Francoist parliament, announced an amnesty for political prisoners and legalized political parties. Even the Communist Party was allowed to take part in the first elections, held in 1977.

A commission, which included representatives from all parties who had won seats in parliament, drafted a new constitution. In that document, the king renounced the claim to absolute authority that Franco had envisioned for him. Juan Carlos wanted to be the king of all Spaniards. He understood that it was the only way to guarantee a future for the Spanish monarchy.

Today, all actions taken by the monarch must still be vouched for by a member of the elected government, since the king himself has no decision-making powers. Almost all parliamentarians approved the new constitution, and Spanish voters followed suit in a referendum.

Solving the Coup

But while Juan Carlos was respected abroad, dissatisfaction from old Franco supporters was growing inside Spain. The officer corps and the military police, especially, were growing increasingly skeptical. On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1981, the Guardia Civil took the lawmakers hostage in parliament while collaborators occupied the public broadcasting station. It was the first serious test for the king and the young democracy.

A television camera captured footage of the Guardia Civil commander firing shots into the air with his pistol as politicians sought cover on the floor among the benches. Juan Carlos was the only member of state leadership who was not apprehended, because his military trainer managed to convince the conspirators that they were acting in the king's name.

Inside his residence in the Palace of Zarzuela, he spent hours on the phone with the commanders of the troops. He made it clear to them that he, as commander-in-chief of the military, did not support the putsch. He kept his son, the 13-year-old Felipe, at his side throughout to teach him how a king solves such crises.

Ultimately, Juan Carlos went on television to address the people of Spain and the country's senior military officers, who still hadn't thrown their support behind the putsch. The crown, the king said, "will not tolerate, in any degree whatsoever, the actions or behavior of anyone attempting through use of force to interrupt the democratic process of the Constitution, which the Spanish people approved by a vote in referendum." 

Rumors of affairs were a constant companion to Juan Carlos throughout his life. His former mistress Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn even came along on some official trips (2006). Nevertheless, he sought to project the image of an intact family life (1972).

Rumors of affairs were a constant companion to Juan Carlos throughout his life. His former mistress Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn even came along on some official trips (2006). Nevertheless, he sought to project the image of an intact family life (1972).

The putsch failed. And with his commitment to the Constitution, the king won over the hearts of the nation. They became passionate supporters of their king, Juan Carlos, if not of the monarchy.

Golden Years for Spain

It marked the beginning of several good years for Spain. The country became a member of NATO and joined the European Economic Community. The country's military also learned the rules of democracy. Highways, airports, desalination facilities, windfarms and high-speed rail connections were built, all of it with billions in assistance from Brussels.

Felipe González, who served as Spanish prime minister for many years as head of the Socialist Workers' Party, still defends the king to this day, saying Juan Carlos "rendered fantastic service to Spain during a whole series of difficult situations" during those years. The king, says González, managed to reestablish Spain's standing in the world.

He was also friendly with journalists. I can recall how he would always receive us foreign correspondents during trips and receptions and address us in English, French and sometimes even with a few words of German. The press refrained from publicly criticizing him - even if his lifestyle provided plenty of ammunition for gossip.

On the island of Mallorca, there were rumors of a liaison with an interior decorator. In Madrid, some said that the king would frequently speed through town at night on his motorcycle clad in leather, only to disappear in the garage of a former beauty queen. In summer, he would bob about on the Fortuna, a yacht given to him by a group of Balearic businessmen.

When paparazzi offered papers nude photos taken aboard the vessel, none of them wanted to print the images. There was talk of dubious bankers and financiers, but most Spaniards were proud of their macho king who pursued women.

During these untroubled years, I frequently encountered the king and his family at receptions and conferences in Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin and elsewhere. In 2004, shortly after her son's wedding, Queen Sofía assisted his new wife Letizia with the difficult process of integrating into the Bourbon family. Prior to meeting the prince, Letizia worked an editor and presenter for the Spanish state broadcaster.

So Sofía invited four Spanish male journalists and myself to the Royal Academy of History in Madrid so she could learn more about how the press works. Isn't being a journalist the most wonderful job in the world? she asked me as we were both slurping paper cups of tea she had brought along in a thermos. It was an intimate moment, just the two of us. The men had stepped outside for a cigarette.

Sofía was educated in Greece and in Salem, a German boarding school, for life as a royal. She studied music and archeology, and understood something that her husband, who had grown up under Franco, refused to recognize: In the 21st century, it was vital for the king of a democratic society to avoid seeming pompous or like he was benefitting from the throne.

His job was to serve the people, since voters could mandate their lawmakers to change the Constitution and get rid of the monarchy. But Juan Carlos continued to act as though he was invincible.

Corinna Scandal

The pact of silence ended in April 2012. During an elephant hunt in Botswana, Juan Carlos broke his hip and had to be flown to Madrid for surgery. For the first time, the Spanish media revealed the name of his companion: Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, née Larsen, a twice-divorced German businesswoman with two children and close ties to magnates in Saudi Arabia.

Juan Carlos had met her eight years earlier during a hunt. Now, Spaniards could read in the papers that the king's "intimate friend" had organized Prince Felipe's honeymoon and sometimes lived in the Zarzuela Palace compound with her son. But it wasn't the affair that soured Spaniards on their king, it was the fact that he was galivanting around Africa with his apparent mistress even as Spain was facing insolvency.

Franco kept Spain isolated under his iron-fisted rule for almost four decades. Juan Carlos led the country out of this dark era (1973), but it is now up to his son Felipe, the new king, to guide Spain through its current crisis (2018).

Franco kept Spain isolated under his iron-fisted rule for almost four decades. Juan Carlos led the country out of this dark era (1973), but it is now up to his son Felipe, the new king, to guide Spain through its current crisis (2018).

At home, the conservative government was making increasingly deep cuts to social benefits and millions of jobs were being lost, particularly among young people. Meanwhile, the king’s favored son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, a former professional handball player who had married Juan Carlos’ daughter Cristina, was facing charges for embezzling public funds through a charitable foundation.

Corruption had caught up to the Spanish royal family, for the entire world to see. And when Juan Carlos was released from hospital, he found it necessary to apologize to his people. "I am very sorry. I made a mistake and it won't happen again," he said to the gathered television cameras.

His wife, Queen Sofía, meanwhile, endured all of the escapades and maintained the appearance of an intact, dynastic marriage. Juan Carlos consistently praised her as a "real professional." She stood by her philandering husband, performing her official duties impeccably. But inside the palace, they lived in separate wings.

Juan Carlos never managed to win back his compatriots. Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn suddenly departed Spain that summer and has complained ever since that she was removed from the country by Spanish secret service. Nevertheless, a 2014 survey found that only less than half of respondents still supported the monarchy. Juan Carlos saw no other choice than to abdicate in favor of his son - and last year stepped back from all functions.

A Pared-Down Monarchy

Immediately after his father's abdication, Felipe VI introduced stricter regulations governing the use of public money and increased transparency for how the royal family spends what it is allotted from the national budget. He even pays 42 percent tax on his own annual income, currently set at 242,769 euros ($288,034), far less than that drawn by other kings in Europe.

Felipe immediately removed his two older sisters from the inner circle of the "Familia Real" so they no longer draw an allowance. He has also banned all his relatives from engaging in business dealings or accepting gifts. The royal family now only consists of his wife, their daughters Leonor (the heir to the throne) and Sofía, and his parents.

This spring, King Felipe eliminated his father's annual allowance of almost 200,000 euros, leaving him only with the honorary title of "Rey emérito." Pressured by the leftist coalition government, he also prepared for Juan Carlos' departure from the Palace of Zarzuela.

The reason? In March, while the entire country was stuck at home during the lockdown, the scope of the Corinna affair came to light. His former lover has been charged with money laundering in Switzerland, and her defense is nothing short of an indictment of Juan Carlos. The former Spanish king has been exposed.

Helene Zuber, DER SPIEGEL's Spain correspondent, has been reporting on the Spanish royal family for decades. Here, she is shaking hands with Juan Carlos in Berlin in 2007 as then-German President Horst Köhler stands by.

Helene Zuber, DER SPIEGEL's Spain correspondent, has been reporting on the Spanish royal family for decades. Here, she is shaking hands with Juan Carlos in Berlin in 2007 as then-German President Horst Köhler stands by.

The most recent revelations about the king come from 2015, when Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn confided in a former criminal investigator who had worked for years as a private detective to the rich. "He is obsessed by money," she said about Juan Carlos, adding that he had brought suitcases full of cash into Spain. "Sometimes, it was 5 million," she said.

Corinna apparently didn't know that the man was recording their conversations. The recordings later ended up in the hands of corruption investigators in Geneva. The former criminal investigator, who has been in pre-trial detention since November 2017, apparently also leaked the recordings to the press in an apparent attempt to force his release.

The Swiss investigators are primarily interested in a generous gift of $100 million from the House of Saud, the equivalent at the time of around 65 million euros. In 2008, it landed in an account at a private Swiss bank that belonged to a foundation based in Panama whose beneficiaries were Juan Carlos, his son and his daughter Elena.

When Felipe VI. learned of the account last year, he renounced his inheritance and informed the Spanish government. It turned out that two months after the ill-advised safari in Botswana, 65 million euros landed in a Bahamas account belonging to Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. She claimed Juan Carlos had given her the money "out of gratitude and love."

According to her testimony, the money was paid to Juan Carlos as a kickback for the role he played in the construction of the high-speed rail link between Mecca and Medina. A majority Spanish consortium won the contract years after Juan Carlos made a state visit to Riyadh in 2006. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn had been in his delegation.

Friends of Juan Carlos say that he had always feared not having any money at his disposal following his abdication. They say he even proposed to Corinna at one point, but she declined. His biographer, Paul Preston, has shown understanding for his antics. Juan Carlos, he wrote, was robbed of his childhood and youth, and endured a dangerous time after he ascended to the throne. He argues that this likely led the king to think he finally had a right to a bit of pleasure and indulgence.

Prosecutors in Madrid have since launched their own investigation and Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn is set to provide video testimony in late September - no doubt a source of some concern in the royal family.

Juan Carlos enjoys immunity, at least up until his abdication -- though some constitutional lawyers believe it is granted for life. Still, the transfers of bribe money among tax shelters has destroyed his reputation with younger Spaniards.

A Precarious Royal Family

The king is recently said to have admitted to friends that, for Spaniards under the age of 40, he will likely be remembered "as the guy with Corinna, the elephants and the suitcases." In Spain, the country's highest court is now examining whether there is sufficient evidence to put the former head of state on trial.

Juan Carlos has left behind a wounded country, with one of the highest numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths in Europe. Given that Spain's economy relies heavily on tourism, many people are worried about yet another economic crisis.

The political stability of the Juan Carlos era, which saw conservative governments alternating their hold on power with center-left governments, is a thing of the past. Disillusioned by the cronyism and corruption in the traditional political parties, Spanish voters in recent years have turned elsewhere – to the liberals, the far right and the left-wing protest party Podemos.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez currently leads a weak, leftist coalition. They are still using the budget passed by the conservatives in 2015 because they haven't even managed to pass a budget of their own. In Catalonia, meanwhile, support has grown for parties demanding secession from Spain.

Felipe VI must now prove to the younger generation how advantageous it is for Spain not to have to choose a head of state from among bickering political parties, and to explain to his country why a royal family is necessary at all.

Following his departure, Juan Carlos I released a statement saying he would continue to cooperate with the public prosecutor's investigation. The young king, meanwhile, traveled to Mallorca for the summer holidays with Letizia and their daughters. His mother Sofía was waiting for them there in the Marivent Palace. She opted not to accompany her husband out of the country. Her place, she always said, was at the side of the king. And the king is now named Felipe.