How George H.W. Bush became Beijing’s ‘old friend’ in the White House

Chinese President Xi Jinping has praised George H.W. Bush’s role in helping to improve China-US relations, in a tribute to the former president of the United States who died on Saturday at the age of 94.

In comments made during a meeting with US President Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Argentina, Xi said that he was “greatly saddened” by the late president’s passing, describing him as “someone who made important contributions to the China-US friendship and relationship during his lifetime.”

Xi expressed his sympathies for the Bush family, and asked Trump to convey a message of condolence.

Bush is best remembered in China for his time in Beijing as the US’ unofficial ambassador to the country in the mid-1970s. It was an experience that would go on to influence his foreign policy decision making, and help steer US-China relations through several tumultuous decades.

Known in Beijing as the “bicycle-riding envoy” on account of the many hours he spent cycling through the capital’s narrow hutong alleyways with his wife Barbara, Bush endeared himself to local residents with his down-to-earth practicality and apparent enthusiasm for Chinese life.

As the US’ chief diplomatic envoy in China during a period before the US had formally opened an official Beijing embassy, Bush met with several key Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, as well as numerous military and diplomatic heads.

“There’s no doubt Beijing sees him as the best friend China has ever had in the White House, certainly in the category of Nixon,” said Jeffrey Engel, Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, referring to former US President Richard Nixon, who opened relations with Communist China in 1972.

Envoy to China

Following Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, Washington established a US liaison office in the Chinese capital with a chief envoy to act as an unofficial ambassador in an attempt to help break the ice.

Beginning in 1974, Bush arrived in the capital aged 50 as the second US envoy to Beijing, during a period in which China had yet to fully emerge from decades of self-imposed isolation.

“He thought the future lay in Asia and the future lay in China,” said Engel, of Bush’s decision to accept the role in the Chinese capital.

Bush had traveled to Beijing with the intention of meeting “the next generation of China’s leaders,” according to his diary. But although Bush twice met Chairman Mao Zedong, more often than not he found his diplomatic efforts thwarted.

“They are polite, they are strong, but they always talk about principle. And when they don’t want to give an answer they just obfuscate and sit there. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world,” he wrote in his diaries during his stay in Beijing.

But by the time he left in 1975 to take up the role of CIA director under the Ford administration, Bush had developed a special appreciation for and understanding of the Chinese government, Orville Schell, director of the Asia’s Society’s Center on US-China relations, told CNN.

“He did bond with the country. I think (after he left) he felt a certain custodial sense towards China,” said Schell.

Massacre in Beijing

Elected to the US Presidency in 1988, Bush took office at a time when relations between the United States and China were at an all time high, as the two countries engaged in increasing levels of economic cooperation.

But that would soon change, when little over a year later, the Chinese Communist Party ordered the military to clear pro-democracy protestors camping in the center of Beijing, leading to hundreds, if not thousands of deaths.

“Bush was president during the single most difficult moment of Chinese-American relations since the Korean War,” said Engel, who worked with Bush on editing and publishing his China diaries.

The events of June 4, 1989, provoked a massive outcry around the world. The Bush administration immediately moved to impose sanctions on the Chinese government, including suspending arms sales and military exchanges.

But behind the scenes Bush made the controversial decision to reach out to Beijing’s then leader Deng Xiaoping to smooth relations following the brutal massacre, an act which the Chinese government never forgot.

“My long history with Deng and the other leaders made it possible for us to work through the crises without derailing Sino-American relations,” Bush wrote in the foreword to his China diaries in 2007.

Bush secretly sent his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, on a mission to China in July 1989 to ensure diplomatic relations were maintained at a time when the world was rapidly isolating China.

The diplomatic overture, described by Schell as a “tough call,” led to widespread outrage in the United States after it was first reported by CNN in July 1989.

Declassified US State Department documents later revealed how Bush hoped to “manage short-term events in a way that will best assure a healthy relationship over time,” a strategy seemingly guided by his recognition that China was too important a country to completely isolate.

“Deng Xiaoping never forgot that after 1989, when China’s luck was really down and Deng was smarting from a terrible self-inflicted wound, Bush came to the rescue,” said Schell.

Engel pointed out years later, when Bush was looking to build consensus in the UN Security Council in 1991 for action against Iraq during the First Gulf War, China didn’t use its veto power against the United States.

‘I love the Chinese people’

During one of Bush’s dozens of post-presidency visits to China in 2006, Engel, who was traveling with him, said the former US leader’s reception upon his arrival in the country was “amazing.”

“He was not greeted as a former President, he was greeted as President … He remarked at the time, nowhere else in the world did they treat him with as much reverence as when he went to China,” he said.

Engel admits part of the grand reception was due to the fact Bush’s son, George, was then in the White House. “(But) there’s also no doubt they were treating him as a great old friend of China,” he said.

One of Bush’s last visits to China was during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where he told the Washington Post in a rare interview China was an important “friend” and “supporter” of the US.

Schell said the Chinese people always had a soft spot for the first Bush president. “During that period in the liaison mission, he got a sense of ‘face,’ that if you are too direct in your criticisms (of China) you cause a loss of face and they never get over it,” he said.

“Clinton had a little of that, and Hilary certainly did and Obama did. And (Beijing) never warmed up to them.”

For Bush’s party, he made his feelings on China clear in the foreword to his China diaries, which he wrote in 2007.

“I love the Chinese people. One of my dreams for our world is that these two powerful giants will continue working toward a full partnership and friendship that will bring peace and prosperity to people everywhere,” Bush said.