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Bush 41 In China: Kinda Like Old Times

Former President George H. W. Bush, while visiting Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, discusses how China has changed in the last 20 years. Video by Mike Abramowitz/The Washington Post

During his 14 months as the U.S. envoy to China in 1974 and 1975, as China was beginning to emerge from decades of isolation, Bush threw himself enthusiastically into a round of embassy receptions, encounters with government bureaucrats and a handful of meetings with senior officials such as Deng Xiaoping. Most famously, he and wife Barbara bicycled around Beijing regularly, trying to get to know ordinary Chinese. "It was a continuing revelation," Bush says of his time here. "It was fun."

By his own account, he had mixed success: The closed nature of China, at the time still in the last throes of the Cultural Revolution, made it very hard for the gregarious Bush to make the kind of contacts he had hoped for when he first arrived at the U.S. Liaison Office, as the embassy was known in the days before formal diplomatic relations. His diary brims with frustration over the opaque nature of Chinese officialdom.

His subsequent experience as president also gave him a painful lesson in the limits of personal diplomacy. During his time in China, Bush established a relationship with Deng, but came to be badly disappointed by the Chinese leader during the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989. His critics said Bush was naive.

Looking back, Bush suggests things might have been worse if he had not had a preexisting relationship with the future leader. Bush sees the episode as just one more example of how much things have changed in China, along with the architecture, the commerce and the pollution.

"When I left China [to become director of the CIA], Deng Xiaoping gave this going-away lunch, to the envy of a lot of ambassadors because they could never get to see this guy," Bush recalls. "But he gave this going-away lunch for me in the Great Hall, with Barbara, others. And he said to me, 'Have you been spying on me the whole time?' -- which I thought showed a nice sense of humor and a personal style."

But Bush points out: "Even when Tiananmen Square happened, I couldn't talk to him on the telephone. Today President Hu and President Bush talk back and forth. You couldn't do that back then. It's a dramatic change."

At 84, Bush seems as sharp as ever in his observations, though he moves around more slowly than he did during his once frenetic days of shopping, biking and tennis in Beijing. The former president has undergone hip and back surgeries and was helped up the stairs to his seat at the basketball game by a Secret Service agent.

During the interview, he's wearing an open-collar white shirt, blue blazer with a patch marking his honorary captainship, and orange socks. As he warms enthusiastically to the subject of China, he employs the same familiar hand gestures that comedian Dana Carvey once satirized on "Saturday Night Live."

In the audience at the embassy event Friday was Henry A. Kissinger, who along with President Richard Nixon was one of the architects of the opening to China in the early 1970s. One of the intriguing sub-themes of Bush's China diary is his feelings about the strong-willed secretary of state: While admiring of his diplomatic skills, the China envoy is also disturbed by Kissinger's secretive and Machiavellian ways.

Three decades later, Bush seems a bit uneasy talking about the diary's extensive discussions of Kissinger.

"Everybody wants to focus on that, and I hope you also read in the [book's foreword] the kind things I said of him, the respect I have for him," Bush says in the interview. "But he wasn't easy on his staff."

Jeffrey A. Engel, the Texas A&M professor who edited the diary, says the ex-president made no effort to interfere with his work. The diary, which the envoy dictated onto tapes (they were later transcribed by aides), offer an arresting portrait of a future president eagerly engaged in the routine business of daily diplomacy.

Bush comes across as a hands-on ambassador who pays attention to details like the cost of his meals or the quality of school for the children of embassy officials. While he later came to be described by some as relatively tolerant of China's human rights abuses, in the diary (which Engel says Bush never thought would be made public) he emerges as a clear-eyed and sharp critic of the Communist Party's repression and what he describes as its empty "canons of rhetoric."

Still, in the interview, Bush adopts a longer-term view of China's political evolution: He says he strongly agreed with his son's critique last week of China for its lack of liberty ("He made a profound statement"), but he also says that "there are far more individual liberties in China today and human rights than when I lived there. It's not even a close call, and China doesn't get any credit for that from these groups that say it's not far enough."

Bush says he is glad the opening ceremonies went off without a hitch on Friday. "I think some people were predicting that people would try to disrupt it, and I would be totally out of sympathy with that," he adds, before praising President Bush's decision to come to China for the Olympics.

"Remember the big flurry -- the president has got to boycott the opening ceremony?" Bush asks. "Well, he didn't do that, and I think he made the right decision. And I think the fact that he made that decision had a lot to do with others' approach to it, [not] boycotting, and I think it did a lot to strengthen the U.S.-China relationship today, which is better than at any time in history, if you take the word of Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders."

"Give credit," says the former president once known as the China desk officer at the White House, "for how far they have come; that's what I do."

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