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A Dissident for Dinner — George H.W. Bush’s Ill-Fated Banquet in China

An essential part of being an ambassador is knowing how to push the envelope when it comes to dealing with repressive regimes and opening up to human rights, while also ensuring that these efforts do not cross the line and detrimentally impact the relations between the two countries. Succeeding in such policies requires a delicate touch, especially so when it comes to a nation as tough on dissent and free speech as China.

Winston Lord had to walk this tightrope as Ambassador to China, when Embassy Beijing was preparing for President George H.W. Bush’s state visit. The Embassy had proposed inviting several people to the February 26, 1989 state dinner, including renowned scientist and dissident Fang Lizhi. Although the Chinese had given their approval for the guest list, they reneged just a few days before the start of the visit.

Fang was not allowed to attend the banquet, which became a major source of irritation in U.S.-China bilateral relations (not to mention Embassy Beijing’s relationship with Washington). On June 5, 1989, after the Chinese government began its crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, Fang sought asylum at the embassy and stayed for over a year, until June 1990, when the Chinese government finally allowed him to leave the country.

Ambassador Lord was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Nancy Bernkopf Tucker beginning in April 1998. James Larocco, who served as Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs in Beijing from 1988-1990, was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in January 2011. Fang’s autobiography, much of which he wrote while in the embassy, was finally published in February 2016.

Read about Chinese surveillance while Fang was at Embassy Beijing. Also read Ambassador Lord’s account of Kissinger’s secret negotiations with China, which led to President Nixon’s historic trip. Go here for other Moments on China.


“A dinner party that turned out to be a revolution”

Winston Lord, Ambassador to China, 1985-1989

LORD:  Mao Zedong once said that a revolution is not a dinner party. Well, this turned out to be a dinner party that turned out to be a revolution. In order to draw up a guest list that we had to have approved by Washington, we asked each section of the Embassy to come up with suggestions as to who should be included. We came up with a full list which we sent into Washington a couple of weeks before the visit, soon after they had asked for it. It included all kinds of people, officials, American businesspeople, Chinese, academics, you name it.

It also included a few dissidents, depending on how you define dissidents, at least pro-reformers, several of them, one of whom was Fang Lizhi, who had been at Hefei University. He was outspoken on political reform, going around giving speeches that the Chinese authorities were not happy with.

He had lost his job there, but was still an official research worker for the Chinese government in Beijing. So, he was still officially that. Although clearly pushing the envelope on political reform, he was not some wild-eyed radical trying to overthrow the government, but obviously was someone of some controversy.

At the same time, he was a widely respected scientist, a world-class astrophysicist. Three different sections of our embassy individually recommended Fang be on the list.

Our view was the following which we explained in a cable we sent back with the guest lists. We pointed out the several reformers/dissidents with explanations of all of them on the list. We said the Chinese won’t like this but frankly we did not expect an explosion in the reaction. We said we thought it was important that the President demonstrate his overall concern with human rights as part of our engagement with the Chinese, out of principle, to lift the morale of reformers, to try to help the China situation and to protect himself with his domestic audience and Congress back home.

If we had a separate meeting with dissidents — after all, Reagan had done this in Russia — if we had a separate meeting with dissidents, generally or with Fang in particular, this we felt would be overly provocative to the Chinese. Particularly in such a very short visit with so many friends, so many vice premiers and others were disappointed not to see him. To say he couldn’t see Vice Premier so and so, but then he sees dissidents, we just felt this was going too far. But we thought it was important that he show some demonstration of concern for human rights for all the reasons I mentioned.

Thus we had him visiting a church on Sunday morning, which he did. We had him refer to human rights although much more gingerly than we do now. There were related elements in his remarks on TV. We had Secretary [of State James] Baker raise the issue of human rights as well.

“We did not see there would be an explosion”

We felt the other way to do it was to include a few dissidents in the banquet, which after all was huge. Not have a separate meeting. This was a nice balance. We sent the list in to Washington. Given the usual inertia you usually get on those things, we got no response approving the list. We were running out of time because we had to issue the invitations.

Actually, in putting together the list, we got suggestions from three different sections, the political section, the science and technology section, and the USIA [U.S. Information Agency] section, press and culture. Each suggested separately several dissidents including Fang. I would have added him if he wasn’t included….

The point is even before we got to the list, three different sections independently had suggested him and other dissidents. So, we sent it to the White House and the State Department, the whole list on February 10. As I say, we had a few dissidents, and we specifically foresaw some problems. To be fair we did not see there would be an explosion. We got no reply, so we sent a moderately changed guest list with some additions and some deletions on February 18, but no changes among the reformers.

Again, I made sure we flagged Fang in particular for Washington. By now we are running out of time; the President is arriving about a week later.

Finally, the top White House advance man called the White House and got approval on the phone for the whole list. We had to move fast on the invitations. We had one of our Chinese local employees (who report to the Chinese security service all the time) call the Academy of Sciences to extend the invitations orally to those at the Academy, including Fang. We did a lot of invitations by phone to alert people, and then we were going to follow up with a written invitation.

We heard the next day on February 22 some confused report about somebody saying Fang wasn’t actually on the list. It turns out later that a protocol person from the Foreign Ministry called over to the Academy later and said Fang wasn’t invited after we had invited him.

We then got the invitations out. In many cases we had to hand carry them to many places; we had such short notice. We had somebody from the Embassy hand carry the invitation to Mrs. Fang for both of them. We did this in many other places because of time constraints.

That evening at an advance team banquet, a protocol guy complains, taking us aside. It wasn’t a huge complaint but it was the first warning we got. We said, “Relax, big crowd, diverse. Don’t get so upset about this. We’re inviting Fang as a world renowned scientist.” We immediately alerted Washington to this. “This could be trouble. We want you to know they reacted to the Fang invitation.”

Then for the next 48 hours, getting closer and closer to the President getting there, we didn’t hear anything from the Chinese, so we began to feel pretty good and figured this wasn’t going to be a problem.

Meanwhile, somehow the French press runs with something in Taiwan about how we invited Fang and some idiot in our Embassy on background said, yes, we did this to make a statement. The Chinese would have reacted anyway, I’m sure. Throughout this, however, a tremendous, warm reception was building for Bush and very warm friendly media coverage continued to go forward. We kind of figured we were pretty well home free.

Then at 6:30 on Friday, February 24 (the day before the President’s arrival), the Vice Minister, a guy named Zhu Qizhen, said he wanted to see me. I get a little nervous; I wonder what this is about. I think I probably know what it is about although I thought we were home free.

So I go out to Daoyutai guest house (pictured) for a final thank you to the advance team and then to the Foreign Ministry. I don’t remember the exact chronology. Zhu said this is a real problem for the Chinese, their leadership. I don’t have this exactly right, but it was, I believe, around 9:00 Friday night.

“By now, I know I have a disaster on my hands”

We had the roughest meeting I have ever had with the Chinese. With Zhu I went through all the arguments about how they shouldn’t blow this out of proportion. It is just one person at a banquet. He is being invited as a renowned scientist, etc. I, of course, when I first heard their complaints, just on my own said to the Chinese, I will report this. I said, “I can’t speak for Washington but I am sure they won’t want change to the guest list.”

I couldn’t imagine, particularly after it had leaked, that we could back off from this. The President would have gotten massive criticism. Because there was so little time, I didn’t want the Chinese to have any illusion that we were going to back away.

I immediately sent a message to Korea and Air Force One. It was less than 20 hours before the President’s arrival. I kept sending messages in. I mention all of this because it comes up later about whether I kept Washington informed. [National Security Advisor Brent] Scowcroft in response to my cable calls me in the middle of the night and tells me to go in for another appointment. We both knew the Chinese were listening in so we made points about not causing controversy for their benefit. I go in at 9:30 that Saturday morning to try to turn this around again. Another tough go around.

Again, I send another wire to the plane. Then at 12:30, the President is landing four hours later. The Vice Minister calls me again. This is a message from President Yang Shangkun to President Bush, basically saying if Fang Lizhi comes to the banquet, Yang is not coming and nobody else is coming from the leadership.

By now, I know I have a disaster on my hands. With each development I sent a cable either by NIACT [Night Action] or Flash, which is almost like a nuclear war, to make sure the President’s party on the plane knew exactly what was happening. The last one they didn’t get because it was so shortly before they landed in Beijing. The last Yang message, Bush didn’t get that until he was at the guest house. He was well aware of the problem, but he had not realized it had escalated to this point.

I went up on the plane to greet the President, which you usually do. He was distinctly unfriendly. You could tell he was mad at me about how this whole thing had come up. I rode in with Baker and I said I still thought there was a chance that either the Chinese would relent or Fang would decide not to cause trouble and not come. Something might happen.

“The Chinese are keeping us hanging”

We proceed with the trip. The whole time Bush was nervous, as we all were, about how this was going to come out. It would be a clear debacle to have a return banquet and no Chinese leaders there. It would not have gone unnoticed by the press. (Photo: Time Magazine)

Throughout, the Chinese are keeping us hanging. Their official position remains the same. We go through the rest of the trip. Bush has a meeting and a working lunch with [Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party] Deng [Xiaoping] that goes very well. He gives Deng some boots and Deng gives him a bicycle.

He meets with the Embassy staff, and now, he and Mrs. Bush are not all that friendly to us. They figure we had gotten them into this trouble. In his remarks to the Embassy employees, he barely mentions the Ambassador or his wife which a week earlier would have been unthinkable. He has meetings with all these other people and they all go well. I won’t go into all the details. He was given a warm welcoming banquet.

All is going very well in substance. There is one meeting which is running late that we are nervous about because he is due to go on live television. He races there and goes on at the last minute, and that goes well. It is a very productive, good trip, but this incident is hanging over us, and obviously keeping everyone on edge. Let me segue for a minute to show the edge.

Finally at the President’s meeting Sunday afternoon with Zhao Ziyang, the banquet being Sunday night, we get a note passed to me from the Chinese that the Chinese leaders have now agreed to come to the banquet. We are throwing our hats in the air and figure everything is fine. They didn’t say anything about Fang not coming; they just said they were coming. The Chinese said they don’t want any press conference about Fang at the banquet or him at the head table….

We had this big Texas-style barbecue at the Great Wall Hotel. We had all friendly people at Fang’s table but made sure his table wasn’t in direct line of sight of the leaders. We were trying to be as sensitive as possible. We go through the banquet. I’m feeling great. We are having good discussions and the toasts are great, and everything is terrific. I can’t see Fang’s table from where I am sitting at the head table. I’m just assuming he is there. I don’t see anything. We all assumed that.

“It turned out to be a disaster beyond my wildest dreams”

At one point [my wife] Bette got a note passed to her during the banquet saying an academic — they got the name wrong but something that rhymes with “Perry Link” — wants to see you. Bette didn’t know what that was about, and said I’ll see him later or something.

It turns out as the history books now know that it was Perry Link who was with Fang and his wife. They had gone to the hotel and were turned away by the Chinese security and weren’t allowed to attend. None of this we knew until I got into the car after dinner, feeling euphoric at the end of this trip. My Economic Counselor lets me know that Fang is at the Embassy. He couldn’t go to the banquet; he had been prevented by Chinese authorities. My heart stopped. I knew the press was going to get a hold of this. It turned out to be a disaster beyond my wildest dreams.

We get back to the guest house and Fang holds a press conference at a hotel. That’s all the press cares about, nothing else about the trip. It is all down the drain.

Meanwhile, I should point out for the history books that Scowcroft had told me beforehand on Saturday that first this was just a fantastic job of getting ready by the Embassy for the President. Secondly he volunteered the Fang problem, which is still up in the air, was certainly not the Embassy’s fault. He was mad that it hadn’t been brought to his attention or Baker’s attention, that lower-level people had cleared the guest list.

I immediately said, ”I don’t want them to get burned, that it is nobody’s fault. None of us could have predicted the Chinese would be so unreasonable.”

Back to the unfolding disaster. I had to take a sleeping pill to get to sleep. It was a low point in my career; I can tell you that. You know you don’t want to see a presidential trip go down in flames particularly when you are in the middle of it.

The U.S. side is having breakfast the next morning in the guest house, the top of the American team. I am purposefully, obviously not invited to the breakfast with the President, Baker, and Scowcroft. It was highly unusual, the Ambassador not being there, having a skull session on what to do.

They decided to have the President say he complained to the Chinese before he got on the plane at the airport, and they would issue a stronger statement once they were airborne, not on Chinese soil. The President does this at the airport and I am sent in to Zhu to complain as well.

I spend the next couple of days madly working on the press, sending cables to the party, playing up the positive side of the visit. The Chinese are beginning to relax about it and cooling off about it and playing up the positive themes. I am urging the White House to do the same.

It was clear that Bush was so pissed off at what had happened that he wasn’t hearing much of this. The whole idea was to put a positive spin on the trip, which had the virtue of being true. It was important for a variety of reasons, and the Chinese were willing to play ball at that point. We were making some progress; this thing was quieting down.

Then there was a backgrounder in the press that was given by Scowcroft….The backgrounder was by a senior White House official effectively saying the Embassy had screwed up the President’s visit, it hadn’t kept the Washington team informed about the Chinese being upset, and it had invited Fang Lizhi on its own. All of which is totally untrue, of course.

“Fang Lizhi ended up staying with us as a guest of the embassy”

James Larocco, Minister-Counselor, Economic Affairs, Embassy Beijing, 1988-1990

LAROCCO: Near the end of his tour, President Bush came to China. We had meetings and I was the note taker for the meeting with Li Peng who was unintelligible in any language. In those days, we were required to write up the meetings as verbatim as possible.

After the meeting was over, I went back to the embassy, despondent over my task of trying to make any sense of what Li Peng said. Even though I was invited to the gala banquet for Bush, I had to skip it. I was the only officer at the Embassy that evening.

I was deep in thought tapping out my report when I got a call from the Marine at Post 1 [the main entrance to the Embassy]. “There is some guy here at the gate, some Chinese guy and he needs to talk to somebody.”

I went down there. I thought, What do I do? I don’t want to blow this thing. I invited him in. It turned out to be the well-known dissident Fang Lizhi. He showed me his invitation to the dinner, and I knew he was on the list of invitees.

He then told me he had repeatedly been stopped by Chinese security officers and prevented from reaching the dinner. He wanted to lodge a formal protest on the one hand, and requested an embassy escort to the dinner as well.

We didn’t have reliable cell phones in those days. I tried to reach people and I couldn’t. It was in the middle of the banquet, and I assumed phones were turned off. I sat with him for a period of time, which turned out to be the right thing to do. I listened carefully to his protest, his desire to attend the dinner, but I had no vehicles that could transport him to the dinner and I had no idea even at what point the dinner was at.

I said, “I need to get your story. Stay here.” He was smoking cigarettes endlessly and very, very nervous. “Just stay calm.” I sat there and talked with him until I finally was able to contact a political officer at the dinner who knew Fang. He rushed back to the embassy. By that time, the dinner was over, so Fang was extremely disappointed.

As it turned out, Fang Lizhi ended up staying with us as a guest of the embassy, as both we and he feared for his safety. He was hidden from view, and we did a damn good job confusing the Chinese as to where exactly he was. He was with us for a full year. Bill Stanton was his guardian, and I don’t know whether Bill has ever written anything about his year with Dr. Fang. (Pictured: Former U.S. Embassy Beijing chancery)

There were plenty of recriminations after this event and it became a cause celebre of the media back in the U.S. Some in our government blamed us at the embassy for inviting dissidents at all to the formal state banquet. Why did we do this?

We let Washington handle the press inquiries, but we made it clear to Washington, quietly of course, that there were no secrets here. Everything was clear. I was at the meetings in which a suggested guest list was prepared. A decision was made by our country team to recommend including some notable dissidents. This was sent to Washington and fully approved. Ambassador Lord took some unfair heat for this incident, but he handled it deftly.

LORD: We hadn’t predicted the time bomb, but nobody did. We did point out probable Chinese irritations. I still think it was the right thing to do obviously. We kept Washington fully posted. The White House and State had cleared the list, including Fang, etc.

My Embassy colleagues were about ready to lob nuclear bombs on Washington. I immediately called the entire senior staff together and said no one is to talk to the press. We are supposed to support the President and show a united front. This is a stupid backgrounder and it is unfair to the Embassy and not in American interests but I don’t want any stories coming out of here. Keep your mouth shut.

Nothing came out of the Embassy. So there was total discipline by the outraged Embassy staff. Over the next two days with the help of [Peter] Tomsen and my wife, I drafted a secret message to Scowcroft with a copy to Baker. I knew Scowcroft had done this, but I didn’t want Baker to think, no matter what the subject, that I was communicating with the National Security Advisor without keeping the Secretary of State informed. Baker was in Vienna; Scowcroft was in Washington.

“The thrust of my message — We looked wimpish and weak to the Chinese, which is not a good idea at any time”

I had it double encrypted and sent by the CIA through the White House Situation Room, hand delivered so no one else would see it except Scowcroft and the same procedure in Vienna with Baker. I rewrote the message about 10 times. I wanted to keep it professional and cool.

I basically said the following. I pointed out the President’s trip had gone well and we should otherwise accentuate the positive. I said I’m a professional, I have been around for 30 years. There are times when you need a scapegoat for the national interest or the President, and an Ambassador or someone else should take a fall. I don’t have any problem with that principle. I think that’s time honored and sometimes useful.

But, leaving that aside, first, of course, you will remember the chronology – I did clear the list, I did keep them posted and so on. I did it just clinically. Then leaving that aside, let’s just look at it from the U.S. national interest. What has this backgrounder done besides being totally inaccurate?

Number one, it revived the whole issue, just when the Chinese and the American sides were letting it die. So, it overtook any positive play. Number two, it looked weak to the Chinese, having the President look defensive and embarrassed about inviting somebody who was not a bomb thrower at a banquet with 900 people. Reagan had gone to Moscow and met separately with dissidents. This backgrounder made it look like we are so sorry we hurt the Chinese feelings.

That is not the way I said it in my message, but it is the thrust of my message. We looked wimpish and weak to the Chinese which is not a good idea at any time with any country particularly not the Chinese, and particularly not for a new President of the United States starting out a new relationship with the Chinese. It is just a bad way to begin with these guys.

Thirdly, it was wrong. It is the Chinese who should be on the defensive. It is the Chinese who screwed things up, not the U.S. Their reaction was totally out of bounds. It was the Chinese who had misbehaved. Fourth, even though the trip was said not to have gone well, the President at least was getting credit with Congress and the press and human rights groups for inviting dissidents to his banquet. They were saying at least he has the guts to do this.

So the background undercuts all his credit with the human rights and congressional types by making clear that he was sorry this guy came to the banquet and he hurt the Chinese feelings. Finally, and this was the least important because I was leaving anyway, he had destroyed any possible influence I could have in my remaining tenure as Ambassador. In effect he was saying to the world and the Chinese this Ambassador is out of control, did something on his own, didn’t tell us about your reaction, and ruined my trip.