The United States is currently mourning the death of former President George H.W. Bush but Iraqis are certainly not, nor are Iranians and while Russia has officially sent condolences, many more Russians will remember that Bush broke many significant promises made to the Soviet and Russian leadership during his Presidency. In China however, the story is different.
Long before becoming Vice President in 1981, the elder Bush was the de-facto US Ambassador to China even before Washington formally recognised the People’s Republic as the one Chinese state in 1979. As the Head of U.S. Liaison Office in China in 1974 and 1975, Bush continued to purvey the Nixonian policy of rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China and as the CIA asset that Bush always was (even before becoming CIA director), he tended to take the time to understand Chinese culture and the Chinese people in a far more detailed manner than most career politicians.
In an age before China’s modern industrial revolution that followed on from the great reforms of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Bush was frequently seen riding a bicycle through Beijing and was said to enjoy a positive relationship with Mao Zedong in the PRC founder’s final years.
Fast forward to 1989 when Bush was in the first year of his own presidency while China had come a long way in terms of economic reform since the mid 1970s. Yet it was in 1989 that China faced a major challenge to its internal stability in spite of over a decade of profound economic success. In June of 1989, Chinese officials moved to restrain agitators who had gathered in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing in order to prevent violence and lawlessness from spreading throughout the nation. This was in keeping with China’s desire to avoid a social and economic collapse that by June of 1989 was already well underway in the neighbouring Soviet Union.
Because many of the anti-government agitators in China had either lived in or were being advised by American agents, the stage was clearly set for the American media and US politicians to view those in Beijing breaking the law in a favourable way while painting Chinese law enforcement in a unilaterally negative light. Yet in an age where the US (including under George H.W. Bush) used lawlessness abroad as an excuse to call for war and/or the funding of radical military groups in the pursuit of so-called ‘regime change’, George H.W. Bush offered a highly measured response to the events in Beijing in June of 1989.
While Bush did end up suspending military sales to China, beyond this, few meaningful measures were taken against China while Bush did his best to allow the media to let off steam over the issue without getting trapped in a regime change cycle that could have unleashed a major war. This is not to say that Bush was anti-war by any means. But having helped to improve US relations with China in the 1970s, he had enough common sense not to risk ruining all that he and others had worked hard to achieve over a domestic Chinese law enforcement matter that on the whole had no profound effect on Chinese society with the benefit of hindsight. To Bush’s credit, he seemed to have enough foresight to understand that the social situation in China would normalise rapidly as it indeed ended up doing.
Beyond this, while Bush was arrogantly revelling in the destruction of the Soviet Union, he nevertheless maintained the style of policies towards China that he partly helped to craft during the age of Nixon and Ford. In a further irony, Bush’s own policy towards Moscow could be accurately summed up in the words of Chinese master military strategist Sun Tzu who in The Art of War stated,
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”.
But while Bush waited for the USSR to destroy itself before swooping in so as to enforce his idea of a “new world order” on a broken Russian people, when it came to China, Bush took a far more measured approach. Perhaps this was because the US underestimated China’s ability to transform itself into a major economic superpower or perhaps it was merely because of the fondness Bush shared with his Chinese friends dating back to the 1970s – but nevertheless the fact is that a President who had reckless relations with the USSR, Panama, Iraq and Iran, had generally sensible relations with China.
Whatever the reason, Bush’s uniquely rational policy towards China means that while Bush made many enemies both domestically and in terms of foreign policy during his lifetime – in China he is remembered is a friend.