James Mann: The Bush who emerges from his China diary

Roundup: Talking About History

[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.]

While visiting his family in Asia after he graduated from Harvard Business School mor 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 Chines 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....

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