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Senior Moments

The secret China history of George H. W. Bush.

While visiting his family in Asia after he graduated from Harvard Business School more than three decades ago, George W. Bush discovered the joys of Chinese dentistry. "George got his tooth fixed the day he left for 60 cents, " recorded his father, George H.W. Bush, then America's top diplomat in Beijing. "He is now a great admirer of the Chinese medicine, and he is struggling, as a lot of us are, as to whether this universal health care--how it should work, etc. etc."

We learn of this Bush family struggle--which has, of course, since been resolved--and others from the newly published journal of George H.W. Bush, eventually the forty-first president of the United States. In 1974-1975, he served as head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, effectively the American ambassador to China in the years before there were diplomatic relations. While there, Bush dictated his thoughts into a tape recorder at the end of each day. They were later transcribed and have now been published for the first time in a little-noticed book, The China Diary of George H.W. Bush, edited by Jeffrey E. Engel.

For anyone who relishes historical irony, this book is a collector's item. These days, the senior Bush is regarded as a realist's realist, someone who is skeptical of overemphasizing ideals and principles in U.S. foreign policy. He was also, over the course of his career, one of the Chinese regime's closest friends in the U.S. political hierarchy. He is now remembered for his efforts to maintain ties with Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. When, in his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton promised "an America that will not coddle tyrants from Baghdad to Beijing," he was taking a shot at George H.W. Bush.

So it's bracing to find that back in 1974-1975, while the same George H.W. Bush was stationed in Beijing, he complained that the United States was too soft in dealing with China. He inveighed against China's lack of political freedom. He disliked Henry Kissinger's embrace of Beijing. He made nasty cracks about "China specialists" and "experts" in the United States. He hated America's "euphoria" about all things Chinese. "I firmly believe that when we stand up for our principles, the Chinese understand," noted Bush. "So many China lovers in the United States want to do it exactly their way."

Before he was stationed in China, the elder Bush had been serving as head of the Republican National Committee under Richard Nixon, by any measure a lousy and thankless job. When Nixon resigned, Bush was desperate to get out of Washington for a while. He was sounded out about the embassies in London or Paris, but, to his credit, chose the far less luxurious post in Beijing. This wasn't sheer self-abnegation, though: Bush was eager to run for office again and wanted to be at the center of the diplomatic action. In this, he was to be disappointed.

When Bush landed in Beijing on October 21, 1974, its wind and dust reminded him of places he had encountered in the oil business. "It reminded me very much of West Texas and also of a trip to Kuwait," he observed. He soon tried to establish high-level contact with Chinese leaders. He paid a call on Deng Xiaoping, then a vice premier under Mao Zedong. Bush's initial impression of Deng, eventually the father of China's economic reforms: "He was a very short man." (For American one-liners about China, this ranks right up there with Richard Nixon's verdict on the Great Wall: "It really is a great wall.")

In fact, Bush's introductory session with Deng was misleading. Over the coming months, Bush discovered to his growing frustration that he couldn't see many people or do much. He had little access to top Chinese leaders because he faced two huge obstacles. One was the Chinese government, which kept rebuffing his requests for meetings with the line that it was "bu fangbian" (not convenient). The other problem was, in Bush's words, "Kissinger's strong arm on everything to do with China." The secretary of state wanted all high-level contact with China to be conducted either in Washington or on his own visits to Beijing. Bush was supposed to keep a low profile.

Bush consoled himself by trying to enjoy Beijing. He devoted himself to tennis at the International Club (one of his tennis buddies was the foreign correspondent John Burns, then of the Toronto Globe and Mail). Bush made repeated visits to the low-priced Hong Du tailor shop and took bike rides around the city with Barbara. Meanwhile, he held endless rounds of meetings with other ambassadors, most of whom tried to pump him about what Kissinger was up to with China and/or the Soviet Union. Bush wished he knew.

He learned the hard way that, for officials living overseas, exalted diplomacy must sometimes yield to more visceral concerns. "Saturday my amoeba after-effects came back and right in the middle of my meeting with the Bulgarian ambassador. I was seized," Bush told his diary. "I rather diplomatically explained to him to wait, flipped on the VTR machine so he could see Nixon's coming to China three years ago almost to the day, and whipped into the downstairs men's room, returned weak."

Away from the action, he had time to reflect, both about China and about his own country's role in the world. In his diary, Bush frequently offered thoughts that, in today's idiom, might have caused him to be labeled a neoconservative. "Where is our ideology? Where is our principle? What indeed do we stand for?" he asked. "These things must be made clear, and the American people must understand that as soon as America doesn't stand for something in the world, there is going to be a tremendous erosion of freedom. It is true. It is very true. And yet it is awful hard to convince people of it at home."

He griped regularly about America's failure to apply to China the same standards that applied elsewhere. "The Russians get the kind of criticism that the Chinese avoid, and I am sure it drives the Russians right up the wall," Bush observed. He was particularly incensed when officials in Washington went along with a Chinese request to exclude Israeli, South African, and South Korean reporters from a new exhibit of Chinese archaeological finds at the National Gallery: "We must not permit China, particularly in the United States, to dictate terms to us in an area as sensitive as freedom of the press."

And then there was the question of human rights. "China is very vulnerable on human rights, just as the Soviet Union was," Bush thought. "Some day sure as can be Congress will turn its attention to these aspects of the Chinese policy. ... [T]his euphoric analysis of this society as an open society, as a free society, a soft or gentle society, is simply wrong." All in all, Bush concluded, China was getting more out of its relationship with the United States than the United States was getting from China. "They need us, actually more than we need them in my judgment," he decided. "This is the consensus of the international community incidentally."

Bush's sojourn lasted little more than a year. By the spring of 1975, frustrated by the slow pace of his life in Beijing, he was thinking ahead to his next job. Should he run for governor of Texas or try to do something new in Washington? He kept a watchful eye on potential Republican rivals, such as Elliot Richardson (who had taken the London ambassadorial job) and White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld. Finally, in an administration shake-up beginning in October 1975, President Ford appointed Bush CIA director. "One tends to become more conservative after he has lived here a while," Bush concluded in his diary not long before he left.

Then Bush returned home. The diary stopped. Bush moved on, and, within the confines of the one-party state, so did China. After he became Ronald Reagan's vice president, and during a visit to Beijing in the early weeks of his own presidency, Bush found that China's top leaders would see him and talk to him. And so, in June 1989, after the violent crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Bush tried to telephone Deng Xiaoping, whom he had first gotten to know in Beijing 15 years earlier. Deng wouldn't take the call.

James Mann is author-in-residence at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His books include The China Fantasy and About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship With China, From Nixon to Clinton.

By James Mann