Administration Misplayed China Card at Bush Banquet : U.S. Thought It Had Deal on Inviting Dissident

Times Staff Writer

As President Bush met with some senior Chinese leaders in Beijing last Sunday, his aides sat down with other Chinese leaders for a series of hurried, secret talks.

The Chinese had sent word that their top leaders, including Premier Li Peng, would boycott a banquet hosted by Bush and leave seats empty at the head table unless the White House withdrew an invitation to Fang Lizhi, China’s leading dissident. Bush refused to renege on the invitation.

Then, in the final hours, U.S. and Chinese officials worked out a seeming compromise. The Chinese leaders would come to the President’s dinner. In exchange, there would be ground rules under which Bush and others at the head table would not mix or clink glasses with other guests, such as Fang.

“There was a sense of relief that things had fallen into place,” said one U.S. participant in the secret negotiations.


That relief didn’t last long. While Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and other U.S. officials hosted the banquet, Chinese police kept Fang from getting near the hotel where the dinner was held.

The flap over the Chinese dissident has turned into a public embarrassment for Bush. It has touched off new frictions in relations between the United States and China. And it has spawned a wave of recriminations in the Bush Administration over where things went wrong and who should be blamed.

What follows is a reconstruction of how Bush became the first President in modern times to make a personal overture to a Chinese dissident--and how U.S. officials then unsuccessfully struggled to assuage Chinese irritation over his action.

Fang, 52, an astrophysicist, has emerged in the last three years as the most prominent critic of China’s ruling Communist Party. He has called for democratic reforms in China and called Marxism an outdated doctrine. He has raised questions about high-level profiteering and corruption within party leadership.


“Forty years of socialism have left people despondent,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books last month. ". . . China’s hope, at present, lies in the fact that more and more people have broken free from blind faith in the leadership.”

Fang was expelled from the Communist Party in 1987, but he is not in prison or internal exile. He lives in Beijing, meets with foreign correspondents and attends parties in the American community.

Originated in Beijing

State Department and Bush administration officials now say that the idea to invite Fang to the President’s banquet originated in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, headed by Ambassador Winston Lord. His wife, novelist Betty Bao Lord, often hosts leading Chinese writers and intellectuals, some of whom are out of favor with the party.

Nevertheless, available evidence shows that top Administration officials--including Bush, Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft--knew that Fang had been invited and that it would displease Chinese leaders.

In a planning meeting for the Asian trip held Feb. 20 at Camp David, Md., the President and his advisers talked at length about how to raise human rights questions in China. Asia scholars at the meeting debated whether it would be wise for the United States to identify itself with a particular, individual advocate of human rights, such as Fang. Because the President and his top advisers heard the debate, it is clear they must have realized that Fang was more than one obscure name on a long guest list.

His invitation “was a statement,” one U.S. official said. “We wanted to make a statement, but to do so in a way that was not confrontational to the Chinese leaders.”

Fang’s invitation was meant to underscore U.S. concern for human rights in China and to show a modicum of recognition for democracy. In recent re-evaluations of China’s domestic political situation, American analysts have concluded that there is growing popular dissatisfaction with the current regime and its economic reforms.


A State Department official said that U.S. officials realized there was “some risk” of angering the Chinese. But officials decided the risk was worthwhile. Fang’s invitation “shouldn’t have been offensive (to the Chinese) in principle,” he said. “Was it an affront? Only if the Chinese chose to make it one.”

According to Fang’s account, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent a special messenger to his home Feb. 21 to deliver invitations for him and his wife. The messenger arrived hours after the meeting between Bush and his advisers. In the next five days, as Bush dashed from Washington to Anchorage, Tokyo and Beijing, the Chinese pressed repeatedly for the Americans to withdraw Fang’s invitation.

But the President “was hard as a rock. We stuck by our position. There was no wriggling around by him,” said one U.S. official.

After Bush landed in China on Feb. 25, Chinese officials drew a hard line. U.S. officials were told that Fang’s invitation could “affect the entire dinner” and that unless it was withdrawn, Premier Li and Chinese President Yang Shangkun, a close ally of senior leader Deng Xiaoping, would not attend.

Bush went through his public schedule, attending church and meeting with such leaders as Deng, Li and Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang. Meanwhile, U.S. and Chinese officials conducted secret talks to preserve plans for the banquet and Fang’s invitation.

The talks ended in an apparent compromise that would let the Chinese leaders appear at the American dinner, as long as they, Bush and others at the head table did not move about the room to visit with other invited guests.

“It looked as if satisfactory arrangements had been made,” said one U.S. official in the talks. “We were led to believe the dinner was going to go ahead as planned. . . . And we went through the banquet thinking Fang was there. It was only afterwards that we found out he wasn’t there.”

It remains unclear why the Chinese did not stick to the agreement.


But in retrospect, U.S. officials admit they underestimated the strength of Chinese reaction to Fang’s invitation. They concede they were unwilling to have the President follow up with a strong reaction to the Fang incident that might affect Bush’s future dealings with Chinese leaders.