Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book about Tiananmen: A World Transformed

President George H. W. Bush was only in office for four years but during that period (1989-1993) he saw what could be termed as the most dramatic change of world politics in our modern history. His memoir A World Transformed, co-authored with his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and published in 1998, candidly recorded the foreign policy operations of his administration.

With the fall of Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the wars in Panama and Gulf, it is perhaps understandable that the book only has a very small number of pages devoted to the effects and aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre and the China affair in general. They are pretty much limited to Chapter 4: "Untying a Knot."

The chapter or book did include any thoughts or reactions of the authors while the 1989 student movement was in progress. Rather, it started right after the massacre, which caught the President by surprise. The chapter did contain valuable first-hand information on the thought process, strategy, as well as tactics the authors invoked, including excerpts of Bush's diaries at the time. It also provided a glimpse to the behind-the-scene, and sometimes secret, personal diplomacy spearheaded by Scowcroft. Both of them had been to China and met Deng Xiaoping personally before 1989 -- Bush as the first envoy to the People's Republic and Scowcroft as a participant of diplomatic missions by Presidents Nixon and Ford.

The title of the chapter is a phrase borrowed from a Chinese proverb meaning that a knot could only be untied by the one who originally tied it. Here, the knot is referring to the estranged state of the US-China relationship with Deng Xiaoping and Bush alternatively blaming the other as the one who tied it up.

The title accurately reflects President Bush's view on the situation. He never saw it as an opportunity to advocate liberty and human rights in China or condemning tyranny, but just a troublesome mess he had to untangle with his diplomatic skill. From the very beginning, he was fixated at preserving the fragile US-China relationship and determined to go out of his way to achieve it. He did condemn the Chinese government and impose limited sanctions. But he did it largely because he had to, not because he wanted to, as he repeated explained to his "old-friend" Deng Xiaoping in his then-secret personal communications.

The book also contains fleeting descriptions of the fights the Bush White House put up against the Congress and American public opinions in various China-related issues such as the scope of sanctions, the Most Favored Nation status, and the protection of Chinese students in the US. (The last one was largely a political turf fight with both sides making the same policy actions.)

Most foreign policy memoiors written by top government officials tend to be dry and largely unreadable. Bush and Scowcroft's A World Transformed is a refreshing exception. The book is written in a style that interlaces either author's first-person account of the events with a supplemental third-person story-telling to provide background and perspectives. As such, the entire book reads like a fascinating conversation recounting the past by a pair of old hands. Unfortunately, against the back drop of the emerging New World Order, Tiananmen and China did not receive a proper billing in their account.

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