the mid-1970s, George H.W. Bush spent 15 months in Beijing as Washington's top
diplomat in China. During this time,
the future U.S. president developed relationships with China's leaders and
explored the country and its people by riding a bicycle, taking language
lessons – and playing ping-pong. He
kept a diary of his experiences and impressions, and that is the basis for a
new book about the 41st president.
and scholar Jeffrey Engel spent 18 months reading and analyzing Bush's journal,
line by line. He also interviewed the former President before writing his book,
The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President.
really have a wonderful window into his mind, into his soul and into his heart
in many ways, because this was his personal, private account that he never
thought it would see the light of day, and certainly would never be
From 1974 to 1975, Bush served as head of the United States Liaison
Office in Beijing. Engel says he chose to go to China.
had the opportunity to be ambassador to England or ambassador to Paris
[France], but Bush decided to go to China because he thought that China held
the key to a successful 20th century and a successful 21st century," Engel
explains. "He thought that a
peaceful and prosperous China, if integrated into the world system, would allow
the rest of the world to function that much more prosperously. His experience
in China only confirmed that view."
did not only fascinate Bush, Engel says, it also played a key role in his
education as an international strategist.
Bush arrived in China in the early 1970s, he really was intent upon
personalizing diplomacy," he says. "He thought that if he got to know
China's leaders and if China's leaders got to know American leaders, that the
two countries would develop a more close and trusting relationship.
Bush's experiences in China, Engel says, taught him much about
pragmatic realism and personal diplomacy, and that helped him deal with global
issues when he was elected President in 1988.
example, he would call up foreign leaders while president, not when there was a
crisis, but just when nothing was going on, just to get to know them
better," he says. "Then, when those same leaders received a call from
the President during a time of crisis, they knew that this was a man they could
talk to and trust because he had expressed an interest in their life
how President Bush dealt with the Tiananmen Square Crisis in 1989. Democracy
activists had gathered in Beijing's largest public square, demanding greater
political freedoms from Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
first met Deng in 1974 and developed a personal relation with him," Engel
says. "I wouldn't suggest they were friends, but they got to know each
other not just as a person across the table, but more as people, to understand
a little bit more about how the other one thought. Then, when Bush became
president and the Tiananmen Square crisis arose, Bush – because knew Deng
personally – he wrote a personal letter to Deng, in the middle of the crisis
saying, 'let's work as one friend to another, let me help you as a friend.'
That letter had meaning because their relationship went back more than 20 years
at that point."
China's influence on Bush's leadership style, Engel says, goes
far beyond dealing with U.S.-China relations.
we think back on Bush's presidency, so much happened in the international scene
during a single 4-year period: the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union ceased to
exist, Germany is reunited, NAFTA was negotiated, the Panama incident was
prosecuted, the Gulf War was successfully prosecuted," he says. "In
each of those decisions, we can see Bush finding his voice, finding his
understanding of the world, in his time in China, and then having that directly
affect his time in the White House."
says Bush's diary – which is included in the new book – also reveals his
interest in the Chinese people, and in giving them a chance to discover who
Americans really are.
wanted to show China's leaders and people that Americans themselves were not
imperialists," Engel says, "Americans were not all rich capitalists,
that Americans were not out to take over the world. He thought that the best
way to do that would be to live his life as much as possible as an everyday
average person in Beijing. So, he and his wife, Barbara, secured bicycles and
rode throughout Beijing everywhere they had to go."
Engel says although the former President has had an extraordinary career – war
hero, Congressman, ambassador, CIA director – Bush himself considers his time
in China one of the most significant experiences of his life. Since he left the
White House in 1993, George Bush has visited China 21 times. He will return for
the 22nd visit this summer to attend the Summer Olympics as the honorary
captain of Team USA.