WASHINGTON — How many nations can send to America an ambassador who has been a personal friend of the Bush family for nearly a quarter-century?
Even America’s closest allies, such as Britain, Japan and Israel, can’t manage to do that.
But China can — and will.
Early next year, Beijing will dispatch to Washington a new envoy known to most people as Yang Jiechi, China’s smart and polished vice foreign minister.
But to the Bushes, and to family associates such as former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, he is better known as “Tiger” Yang — a nickname derived when, as a young man fresh from the London School of Economics, he served as host for the senior George Bush and his friends on a groundbreaking, private journey to Tibet in 1977.
“(Yang) was with us the whole time,” James Lilley, who was on that trip and later served as Bush’s ambassador to Beijing, recalled in a 1996 interview. “We hit it off with him right away.”
At several sensitive junctures over the past two decades, including the aftermath of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, the man they call Tiger has emerged as a hidden liaison between the Bushes and the Chinese leadership.
The story of China’s soon-to-be ambassador should serve as a caution to anyone who predicts — based merely on President-elect George W. Bush’s campaign description of China as a “strategic competitor” — that the new administration is headed for a confrontation with Beijing.
Perhaps that will be true. But it’s far from certain. Those who focus only on the prickly relationship between America and China of the past decade forget that there also remains a legacy of personal ties from the 1970s and 1980s, when Washington and Beijing were tacit allies against the Soviet Union.
With America and China, sometimes foreign policy boils down to history, and history boils down to biography. Here, then, is the little-known tale of Tiger Yang and the Bushes.
In 1977, after Jimmy Carter was elected president, the senior George Bush lost his job as CIA director. He had previously served in 1974-75 as head of the U.S. liaison office in Beijing.
The Chinese government invited Bush to visit China with a large delegation, including Baker, Lilley and Chase Untermeyer, the family friend who first began working for the elder Bush when he ran for Congress in 1966.
Bush already had quietly informed the Chinese that he planned to run for president in 1980. In Beijing, the delegation met with China’s emerging new leader, Deng Xiaoping. Bush also brought a Pennzoil executive with him, and the Americans talked with Deng about prospects for developing China’s offshore oil industry.
The Chinese granted the Bush delegation what was then a rare privilege: a tour of Tibet, which had been closed to Americans since the end of China’s civil war in 1949.
Officially, Yang was the interpreter on that 16-day journey. But he was more than that: He was the one Chinese official who befriended the Bush entourage. “Everybody liked him,” Lilley recalled.
In the 23 years since then, Yang has risen through the ranks of the Chinese government. He served as the interpreter for Deng when U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited China in 1984. In recent years, he has been in charge of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s ties with the Clinton administration. But Yang has also played a further, special role in China’s dealings with the Bush family.
In late 1989, when President Bush sent his aides Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger on a secret mission to Beijing to try to win the freedom of Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, Bush sent along Untermeyer, who had grown especially close to Yang on the 1977 trip.
Untermeyer’s mission was to deliver a personal message from the president to Yang that, despite the tensions over the Tiananmen bloodshed, Bush wanted to preserve the relationship that had developed between Washington and Beijing over the previous two decades.
And in the summer of 1992, when China discovered that Bush was about to open the way for Taiwan to buy F-16 warplanes, Beijing sent Yang to talk with the president. Usually, dignitaries deliver their messages in the West Wing. But Bush welcomed Yang in the White House residential quarters, to which few diplomats have entree.
Personal ties go only so far. Despite Bush’s secret 1989 message through Untermeyer to Yang, China didn’t allow the dissident to leave the country for several more months. In 1992, Bush ultimately went ahead with the Taiwan arms sale, despite Yang’s appeals.
Still, the fact remains that with Yang arriving as ambassador, China will be able to call upon what it calls “guanxi” — that is, personal connections — to the Bush clan.
The signals already are flashing back and forth between China and the incoming Bush administration. A few days ago, Beijing privately sent word it won’t insist that Bush repeat word-for-word all the promises made by President Bill Clinton. The message: We won’t be too tough, at least at the start.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.