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‘The Events Were Regrettable’

George H.W. Bush and China

Politicians, more than most people, need to worry about public image. It’s their job. In a democratic system, few voters know a candidate personally. The public image is what attracts or repels them. In his dealings with China, George H.W. Bush did what he could to protect his image—but paid a very high price for it ethically.

In late February 1989, a month after becoming president, Bush visited Beijing and invited roughly 500 people to a “Texas barbecue” at a posh Beijing hotel. The invitees included Fang Lizhi, the famous astrophysicist and political dissident. He was suggested by the U.S. Embassy as a gesture of support for human rights. In two messages to Washington, the embassy noted his controversial nature. The White House and State Department cleared the guest list, including Fang.

Thus, the Chinese and U.S. governments both knew in advance about Fang’s invitation. There were tense consultations about it in both capitals. The Chinese side threatened that its leaders would not attend if Fang were in the room. But then, in the afternoon before the banquet was to happen, word came that they would attend. It seemed an impasse had been broken. What the Chinese side did not tell the U.S. was that it was marshalling hundreds of police to block Fang physically if he showed up. Fang did show up, and was indeed blocked and denied further transportation of any kind; police tailed him for three hours as he and his wife walked the chill streets of the city. The next day, the story blazed in headlines around the world.

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And H.W.’s response? At a brain-trust breakfast the next morning, he and his advisors decided to say only, as he left the capital, that the events were regrettable. A fuller statement would follow. But the only significant statement to follow turned out to be by the president’s National Security Council advisor Brent Scowcroft in a press backgrounder, blaming everything on U.S. Ambassador Winston Lord. Scowcroft said Lord had invited Fang without vetting the matter with Washington. In fact, though, Lord had vetted twice. Washington knew. Why would Scowcroft lie? Why would H.W. let him? Apparently, to protect a politician’s image, you have to do what you have to do.

On June 5, 1989, Fang and his wife Li Shuxian went to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to ask whether they could stay a few days, to see if things might calm down after the shocking massacre of the previous day. Fang and Li were numbers one and two on a government “wanted” list. Two high-ranking diplomats at the embassy, Raymond Burghardt and McKinney Russell, talked with them for more than three hours about the pros and cons—mostly the cons—of staying in the embassy, and they decided not to stay. They said they would go to the Jianguo Hotel to spend the night, and they did. Then, at about 11:00 p.m., Burghardt knocked on their hotel-room door to invite them back to the embassy to stay as long as they needed “as the guests of [President Bush].”

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The abrupt reversal in U.S. attitude happened because, in the intervening hours, high-level consultations in Washington produced the judgment that if something horrendous happened to the Fangs, and if it were known that they had asked for help at the embassy and had been turned away, the Bush administration would look terrible. So what was the key principle at work here? Concern for a dissident, or concern for the public impression that the president is concerned for a dissident?

In the wake of the massacre, Bush announced on June 20 a ban on all high-level exchanges with the Chinese government. Then, quickly violating his own ban, in July he dispatched Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on a mission to Beijing “as friends to resume our important dialogue.” And what to do about the public image problem here? That was easy. Keep the Scowcroft-Eagleburger trip secret. Very secret. Even the refueling of aircraft, in some reports, was done in mid-air so as to avoid any questions on the ground. The New York Times and other major media did not report the secret trip until five months later, after public outrage over the massacre had faded a bit.

May he rest in peace. But let’s not forget the realities as we enjoy the parade of images.