One of George H. W. Bush’s less discussed jobs, lost among president of the United States, ambassador to the United Nations, and CIA director, was head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing during the Nixon administration. Bush’s China journal has recently been published, and it reveals frustration at being made irrelevant by direct contacts between Henry Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping.
When Bush landed in Beijing on October 21, 1974, its wind and dust reminded him of places he had encountered in the oil business. “It reminded me very much of West Texas and also of a trip to Kuwait,” he observed. He soon tried to establish high-level contact with Chinese leaders. He paid a call on Deng Xiaoping, then a vice premier under Mao Zedong. Bush’s initial impression of Deng, eventually the father of China’s economic reforms: “He was a very short man.” (For American one-liners about China, this ranks right up there with Richard Nixon’s verdict on the Great Wall: “It really is a great wall.”)
And then there was the question of human rights. “China is very vulnerable on human rights, just as the Soviet Union was,” Bush thought. “Some day sure as can be Congress will turn its attention to these aspects of the Chinese policy. … [T]his euphoric analysis of this society as an open society, as a free society, a soft or gentle society, is simply wrong.” All in all, Bush concluded, China was getting more out of its relationship with the United States than the United States was getting from China. “They need us, actually more than we need them in my judgment,” he decided. “This is the consensus of the international community incidentally.”