George H. W. Bush: An old friend of Chinese people

Bush poses with his wife Barbara in Beijing in 1974. Photo: CNN

China has expressed grief over the death of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States (US) between 1989 and 1993, who died on Saturday at the age of 94.

During a meeting with US President Donald Trump at the 2018 G20 Summit in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that he was "greatly saddened" by Bush's passing.

"Former President Bush is an old friend of the Chinese people," said Xi. "He had made significant contributions to the China-US friendship and relationship during his lifetime."

The title which was given to Bush, according to diplomatic analysts, is usually reserved for other communist leaders or sympathizers, or a select number of world dignitaries – such as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch – for outstanding contributions to Beijing's relations with the rest of the world.

Xi also expressed his sympathies for the Bush family, and asked Trump to convey a message of condolence.

State media praised Bush for his role in promoting cooperation between China and the US.

Bush, who died in Houston on Friday, realized in the 1980s that China was different from the Soviet Union, and recognized the potential for cooperation, the state-run English newspaper China Daily said in an editorial.

"It is fair to say, Bush was a statesman of vision, not only for being a co-founder of the US dominance in the post-Cold War era, but also his insightful observations on China, which were the key for the forming of the US' China policies in the 1980s and beyond," the piece added.

A number of Chinese netizens also paid tribute to Bush on social media, although he had been criticized for waging the Gulf War during his presidency.

"Bush was an open-minded president in the US history. His role in helping to improve the China-US relations should be recognized and remembered," said a Weibo user.

"Another celebrity withdrew from the historical arena. Rest in peace, President Bush," said another.

Envoy to China

From 1974 to 1975, Bush served as the head of the US Liaison Office in Beijing, which was established following former President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972 to break the ice.

The appointment meant that he was the US' unofficial envoy to the country, as the US did not have full diplomatic relations with the communist People's Republic of China at that time.

During his stay in Beijing, Bush often spent much time cycling through the Chinese capital's narrow hutong alleyways with his wife Barbara Pierce, who passed away about seven months ago at the age of 73, earning himself the nickname of "bicycle-riding envoy".

During the period, Bush met with several key Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, as well as numerous senior military and diplomatic officials.

The experience had a huge influence on Bush's foreign policy toward Beijing after taking office in the White House, and helped steer the China-US relations through several tumultuous decades.

Handling sensitive issues

As Former President Ronald Reagan's vice-president, Bush took two special visits to China to help handle the Taiwan issue, which has often been a game changer in the China-US relations.

On May 1982, Beijing and Washington released a historical joint statement on arms sales to the self-governing island, according to Tao Wenzhao from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"Although much of the details remains unclear, Bush's meeting with top Chinese leaders and especially Deng proved to be fruitful and paved the way for the eventual signing of the August 17 communique," said Tao.

Bush is also remembered for smoothing ties following the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Despite widespread condemnation and moves to isolate China in the West, he sent his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, on a secret mission to reassure Beijing that there would be no major rupture in ties.

'I love the Chinese People'

Bush made his feelings on China clear in the foreword to his China diaries, which he wrote in 2007.

"I love the Chinese people. One of my dreams for our world is that these two powerful giants will continue working toward a full partnership and friendship that will bring peace and prosperity to people everywhere," he said.

Sharp contrast to Trump

Bush's legacy in China stands in sharp contrast to that of Trump who has slapped massive tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese imports since March, bringing the bilateral ties down to the lowest point in 40 years.

During the G20 summit, Xi and Trump agreed to halt new trade tariffs for 90 days to allow for talks amid an escalating trade war.

If at the end of that period of time, the parties are unable to reach an agreement, new tariffs will be slapped on Chinese imports, according to a spokesperson for the White House.

The Trump administration also angered Beijing by selling advanced arms to Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province, and establishing an embassy on the island.

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