Walk into the exhibit hall at Beijing’s Cultural Palace of Nationalities and there is George W. Bush, larger than life on a 15-foot-high video screen, praising China’s growth.
The 43rd American president is shown again, waving an American flag with his wife, at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and yet again, walking with Chinese President Hu Jintao past an honor guard in the Great Hall of the People.
Bush might be leaving office with record-high disapproval ratings in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, but he has many fans in China. He is depicted in a dozen flattering photographs on display at an exhibit in Beijing marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Contemplating his imminent departure, many Chinese are openly expressing affection toward the man they call Xiao Bush, or “Young Bush,” to distinguish him from “Old Bush,” the 41st U.S. president.
“Bush made some mistakes in foreign policy, especially with Iraq, but for the Chinese, he had been a true friend,” said Mao Baoshu, a retired nuclear specialist who was attending the exhibit Tuesday.
Many Chinese credit the Bush administration’s free-trade policies with helping the Chinese economy blossom over the last eight years. They appreciate its efforts to rein in the fiery anti-Beijing rhetoric of former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian. And Bush’s attendance of the opening ceremony of last summer’s Olympics, at a time when many world leaders were urging a boycott because of China’s human rights record, is viewed with deep gratitude.
“We will never forget that the leader of the most developed country in the world stood up to pressure to come to the Olympics,” Mao said.
In fact, China’s appreciation of Bush is part of an unlikely romance between the Republican Party and the Chinese Communist Party that dates to President Nixon’s historic visit in 1972.
Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who as national security advisor set up the China trip the year before, also are lavishly celebrated in the photo exhibit, which opened Monday. Jimmy Carter, who was president when the treaty to normalize ties was signed in 1979, attended an opening ceremony, as did Kissinger.
Though both Carter and Bill Clinton have places of honor on the walls, the GOP reigns in the display of photographs. One particularly popular image, which frequently appears in the Chinese media, shows George H.W. Bush in 1974, when he was the top U.S. envoy to Beijing, posing casually with a bicycle in front of the Forbidden City.
“Generally, China is a country that likes order and strength,” Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of the relationship between China and the Republican Party. He was in Beijing this week to speak about the 30th anniversary of normalized ties.
“There is a long story here,” Donohue said. “It started with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. . . . Then, the relationship with George W. Bush, the current president, was helped by his father and the turmoil around the world after 9/11.”
Chinese political scientists also see Sept. 11 as a turning point for the Bush administration’s attitudes toward their nation. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush described China as a “strategic competitor” and, after taking office, further angered the Chinese by pledging to do whatever it took to defend Taiwan, which is viewed by Beijing as a renegade province.
“Things changed after 9/11. China extended its hand to Bush, promising to support the war on terror,” said Shen Dingli, a professor of American studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. He said that Beijing, in return, felt that it had Washington’s support for its campaign against Muslim separatists in western China. And even though the Bush administration in October approved a $6.5-billion arms sale to Taiwan, the package excluded U.S.-made submarines, which China had argued were offensive weapons.
“Over time, Bush came to understand that China is a very important friend when it comes to national security interests,” Shen said.
China’s current fears have more to do with its economy and the perception that Democratic administrations are far more protectionist in their trade policies. Both President-elect Barack Obama and his nominee for secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, criticized China’s record on product safety during the primary campaign -- and Obama at one point called for a ban on imports of Chinese-made toys.
“Our fear over Obama is that he will tie human rights, climate changes and so on as conditions for trade policy. That would make China lose face,” said Shen.
During the primaries, Obama was not popular in China, and people following the election campaign tended to favor Clinton, his then-rival. But his popularity soared after he won the election, and a Chinese translation of his book “The Audacity of Hope” soared to the top of the bestseller list here.
“The Chinese have a comfort level with predictability. The older generation in China likes the Bush name and also the Clinton name because they are familiar and they are a dynasty,” said Russell C. Leong, director of the U.S.-China Media Brief at UCLA, who studied attitudes of students in Beijing toward U.S. elections in the fall. “But the younger people, they go with a winner. They are intrigued by Obama.”
Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.