Friday, 6 March 2009

“The China Diary of George H.W. Bush”, Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel (Princeton)


A fascinating account of George H.W. Bush’s time in China

Reviewing a diary is a bit of a strange proposition, but The China Diary offers a great deal of insight into the 41st President’s time as Special Envoy to China, and is written in a very accessible, engaging way.

George Bush went to China in 1974, a time when China and the United States were only just starting to get to know each other again, after a period of estrangement (due to Cold War ideological hostilities). The China Diary is a fascinating look at one of the most formative periods of Bush’s political and diplomatic career, and also a personal-level account of this most important periods of Sino-American relations.

Filled with honest, personal reflections on events of the day, and people he met. We are told about Bush’s frustrations in trying to engage China’s leadership in diplomatic dialogue. We get to know a little more about Bush’s feelings towards some of the key players in the region (Deng Xiaoping) and American politics of the time (Ford, Rumsfeld, and the “ever-difficult” Kissinger). Bush writes about detente, Vietnam, tensions in the Middle East, and even the apparent decline of the United States (which is ironic, given that his son’s presidency has resulted in a tsunami of literature suggesting the nation is in a steep decline).

It offers insights and further understandings, on a personal scale, too. Other than the important, crucial political events of the time, Bush tells us about his own feelings, experiences and opinions on everything from Chinese cuisine, the Chinese people, exploring Beijing on his bicycle (with its “Texas George” plate), his language lessons, to, of course, Ping-Pong.

Engel does a brilliant job, providing passages of historical context and footnote annotations, to set the scene and allow for a wider understanding of what Bush is writing, as well as placing Bush’s experiences in the wider context of his overall career. As someone interested in both the US-China relationship, and also the personalities of the American presidents, this is an invaluable book. It should also hold interest for the general reader, too, with Bush’s lively descriptions and his take of certain events. His opinions on Chinese and American officials are particularly interesting, as are his experiences with Chinese life and the country as a whole.

Engaging, insightful, and accessible, this is a fascinating book, and certainly one of the most interesting published about the 41st President.

Very highly recommended.

Also try: George H.W. Bush, All The Best, George Bush (2001); Timothy Naftali, George H.W. Bush (2007); Derek Chollet & James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars (2008); Margaret MacMillan, Seize the Hour (2007)

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