In 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.
Historian 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.
"We 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 published."
From 1974 to 1975, Bush served as head of the United States Liaison Office in Beijing. Engel says he chose to go to China.
"He 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."
China did not only fascinate Bush, Engel says, it also played a key role in his education as an international strategist.
"When 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.
"For 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 beforehand."
That's 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.
"Bush 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.
"If 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."
Engel 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.
"He 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.