Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 5

By June Teufel Dreyer

Precisely thirty years to the day after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China, President George W. Bush arrived in Beijing. Although the Chinese press made much of the symbolism, the two visits were quite different. Nixon, an unpopular president trying to wind down an even more unpopular war in an area distant from most Americans’ concerns, aimed for maximum publicity. The thirteen-hour time difference between Washington and Beijing notwithstanding, events were scheduled for prime-time television viewing in the United States. Americans were mesmerized by performances of colorful revolutionary operas, and enchanted by the panda bears that Chinese leader Mao Zedong presented to Nixon.

By contrast, Bush arrived as a self-confident president basking in high approval ratings. These partly reflected the public’s feeling that he was running a successful campaign against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who had killed thousands of civilians in direct attacks on U.S. territory. Nixon had visited China and China only; Bush arrived after trips to Japan and South Korea, thus indicating the importance of American relations with other Asian states. Whereas Nixon’s visit consumed an entire week, Bush scheduled only thirty hours on Chinese soil and allowed a bare minimum of nonbusiness events. The photo-op sensitive press obligingly gave air time to Chinese children holding tiny U.S. flags and serenading Bush with “Edelweiss” —apparently they believe it to be an American song—and Chinese President Jiang Zemin serenading George and Laura Bush with “O Sole Mio.” Most viewers, however, were quite literally tuned out. They were mesmerized by ice skating events at the Winter Olympics, the search for the murderers of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the latest stage of the unfolding war against terrorism.

The substance of the two visits was as different as their tones. From the time Nixon’s travel plans were announced, it was clearly understood that the trip would bring about a geopolitical realignment of momentous import. Bush’s visit, it was made known beforehand, would produce no new communiques or major changes in policies. The best that could be hoped for was, in the bland language of diplomacy, to seek common ground and reserve differences of opinion. Most of the common ground is to be found in truisms, such as the desirability of peace and stability in Asia, the need for economic development and the necessity of protecting the environment. Unfortunately, achievement of these uncontroversial goals depends on careful management of the ongoing controversial issues between the two countries. These may be briefly summarized as:

— the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction