Richard Bush was a young boy when he followed his missionary parents to Asia in 1950. They wanted to go to China but the border was closed.

After spending five years in the Philippines in the early 1950s and then five years in Dallas, Texas, his father planned to go to Burma, and found it was closed, too. The family ended up in Hong Kong in 1960 and lived there for five years.

“We lived in Hong Kong by accident. It was a lucky accident for me,” Bush recalled of his teenage years in Hong Kong.

Bush attended a British high school that taught the UK curriculum, but nothing about China and the Chinese language.

While Hong Kong’s per capital GDP last year was ranked by the IMF 24th in the world right after Japan, Bush remembered that the living standards of locals at the time were very low. But to young Bush, Hong Kong was a safe place, especially for foreigners.

“Some of my teenage friends and I could go anywhere, our parents let us go, so it was a wonderful place to grow up,” said Bush, now director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and senior fellow of foreign policy of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.

Like most high school students, Bush didn’t care much about what was happening in the world, yet he remembered that once the two children of their family’s Chinese maid came from Guangdong on the Chinese mainland and stayed with them for a while. Famine on the Chinese mainland arising from the Great Leap Forward movement in the late 1950s triggered an exodus of people pouring into Hong Kong in mid 1962. Many were sent back by the then British authorities in Hong Kong.

Bush also remembered that every year during the Chinese Lunar New Year, the Cantonese people would line up at the railroad station to go home to the mainland and take things to their relatives.

China study

When Bush returned to the US in 1965 to enroll in Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, he opted to study European history because that’s what he had studied at the British high school in Hong Kong.

After a year or two he realized that he was actually much more interested in China. “So I took any course that’s related to China and Asia,” he said. At that time, Lawrence University had little to offer in that area and there was no Chinese language class either.

Bush decided to pursue further studies in graduate school at Columbia University, first under Michel Oksenberg, a noted China scholar who later played a critical role in the normalization of relations between China and the US when he served in the Carter administration. When Oskenberg moved to the University of Michigan in 1973, Andrew Nathan, another well-known China specialist and political scientist who is still teaching at Columbia, became Bush’s advisor.

At Columbia, Bush focused on Chinese politics. However, he chose to do something different in his PhD dissertation, focusing on the relationship between the KMT government and the cotton textile industry from 1927-1937. He talked at length about how that industry evolved in the Shanghai area before and after WWII and how it later moved to Hong Kong, contributing to the manufacturing boom there.

While doing research for his dissertation, Bush and his wife spent about a year in Taiwan in the mid 1970s. Their daughter of 39 years was adopted there when she was just six weeks old. Bush pointed to a wedding photo in his office of his daughter and her groom.

It was also during the dissertation years that Bush started to work for the then China Council at Asia Society to provide information for American journalists stationed both in and outside the US. He described it as interesting work but he said it was very stressful during the dissertation years.

Congressional years

In 1983, the rising China hand became a staff consultant in the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, chaired then by Stephen Solarz, a Democrat Congressman from New York.

Bush described Solarz as very smart. “He was interested in US-China relations and understood the basic principles of US-China relations. But he was also interested in fostering democracy and human rights in Taiwan,” Bush said.

After Solarz lost the election in 1992 and left Congress in the beginning of 1993, Bush was invited by Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana who was then becoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to work for the full committee.

Bush recalled occasions when some members would take initiatives to complicate US-China relations. “Those of us who favored US-China relations had to fight back,” he said.

While the US Congress is often regarded a difficult place for US-China relations, Bush explained that he did not know much about the current situation, having been away from Capitol Hill for 19 years. “But my impression is that the quality of the Chinese diplomats who do Congressional affairs has improved a lot,” he said.

“I think China has put a lot of resources into developing these talents,” he said, commending the diplomats for their level of English, their understanding of how the system works and their ways of promoting China’s views and interests.

However, Bush believes the mood in Congress is tougher for China now compared with the decade after 1979 when there was a passive consensus in favor of the relationship. He described what came after that as active consensus against the relationship.

“I think there are still a number of members who understand why China is important for the United States, economically and otherwise. But I think the best time was really from 1979 to 1989,” he said.

Taiwan Straits

In 1995, Bush worked as a national intelligence officer for East Asia and a member at the National Intelligence Council (NIC), shouldering a senior responsibility for analytical work from Japan to Burma.

In 1997, he became chairman of the board of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a non-profit corporation established in 1979 to serve US interests in Taiwan in an unofficial manner. Bush said a lot of people were confused by his job at AIT, since he was based in Washington rather than Taipei.

However, when Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui proposed the so-called special state-to-state relationship with the mainland in 1999, Bush said it came as a great surprise to Washington as well as to Beijing. As the situation grew tense, Bush was asked by the US administration to go to Taiwan to convey the US’ views.

Many Chinese on the mainland believed the US wielded a decisive influence on Taiwan’s policy making, Bush disagreed. He said it was probably truer before Taiwan had its elections in the mid 1990s.

“I tell you from my personal experience, they don’t take our instructions. Just because we request something doesn’t mean they do it,” Bush said.

An expert on cross-Strait relations, Bush praised the efforts made by both sides of the Taiwan Straits in improving the relationship, starting with the icebreaking trip to the Chinese mainland by then KMT chairman Lien Chan in April 2005. Many had suggested that Lien and then Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for defusing the decades of hostilities across the straits.

Bush said he is not sure about the Nobel Prize. Describing that trip as laying a certain foundation for the cross-strait relationship, Bush said it really required Hu Jintao and Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 to act on the principles of the Hu-Lien meeting.

In the same boat

Now director of Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings, Bush focuses not only on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, but also Korea and Japan, including China-Japan ties.

He said he had lately not delved into the US-China relations as in-depth as some of his colleagues. But with US President Barack Obama set to take off to China in November for the APEC leaders’ summit and a visit to the country, Bush said that both sides should remember that they have a common goal — to avoid strategic rivalry. That’s also how he interpreted the new type of major country relationship.

Bush said the leaders have to have a close personal relationship and have a good understanding how they are, in a way. in the same boat. “That the better the relationship is, the better it is for each country and for each leader,” he said.

Speaking fluent Chinese, Bush believes the two countries should expand areas of cooperation. “Because you expand the areas of cooperation, you build mutual trust and you can have mutual confidence in each other,” he said.

“If you always fight about difficult issues, you’ll never have a firm foundation,” he said.

Bush pointed out that the two countries have done quite a good job in cooperating on North Korea, Iran and climate change.

“We are independently taking action towards the same goals, this isn’t by any treaty,” Bush said of the joint efforts by the two countries on climate change in recent years.

He also saw huge opportunities for mutual benefits in the economic relationship. “If we can do a bilateral investment treaty, that would be a huge achievement,” he said.

The 66-year-old acknowledged that there are some issues that won’t be solved. “For each of those we need to develop techniques to manage them, to reduce the possibility that they could create huge problems,” he said.

By CHEN WEIHUA October 3, 2014 in China Daily