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The Bush Family Affair with China

From H.W. sitting down with Mao in 1975 to Neil Bush shipping off millions of masks to China last year.

Neil Bush, left, son of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, is introduced at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China at the Great Hall of the People on January 10, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein-Pool/Getty Images)

This decision has not come easily. Those were the foreboding words of Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston, Texas, as he gathered with other city officials before TV cameras on March 11, 2020. Local stations broke into daytime programming with the news everyone was dreading. 

Turner coughed and announced that he was signing a public health emergency declaration. “In the best interest of the health and safety of the people, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which we all deeply love, is cancelled.” The annual event had come to symbolize Texas culture as much as Mardi Gras defines New Orleans. The reason for closing it was the outbreak of Covid-19, Turner said. 

News accounts said the virus that originated in China had arrived in the Lone Star State. A few hours after Turner’s declaration, the Houston metro area of more than seven million people ground to a halt, along with the rest of the country. 

Watching the shutdown was 65-year-old Houstonian Neil M. Bush, scion of a family with deep roots in Texas. Son and brother to two U.S. presidents, Neil chairs the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, a 501c3 organization named for his late father, the 41st president, who was, in Neil’s words, “a huge believer in the importance of the bilateral relationship between China and the U.S.” 

The purpose of the foundation, Neil said, was “to get Americans to change their negative views” of China and recognize the country’s “natural kindness and gift giving.” 

As the group’s leader, Neil had inside information on what was happening in China. During the last four decades, he had traveled to the country more than 150 times. Before most Americans ever heard the words “Covid-19,” Neil received reports that people in China were dying from a mysterious virus. To try to control it, the Chinese government ordered its citizens to wear medical face masks when they went outside.

There were few places in the U.S. that still made masks and other protective gear. China produced 20 million masks each day. 

In early February 2020, the Bush Foundation found two million masks close to home, in Mexico. They persuaded Chubb and Walmart to pay for the masks, and FedEx flew them without charge to China, even though the bulk of the world’s masks were already made there. 

As Houston and the rest of the country locked down in mid-March, Neil was acutely aware of something that made him, and the Bush family, unique: a decades-long devotion to work in China. 

Following Turner’s address, doctors interviewed on TV said the virus would kill millions across the planet. 

* * *

Spindly and resembling his father in his awkward mannerisms, Neil Bush introduces himself in speeches, “I’m Neil Bush, the favorite son of George and Barbara Bush,” a quip that usually generates uncomfortable laughter. Both his parents died seven months apart in 2018 and their deaths left him raw. When talking about them, he often tears up. 

For three years before their deaths, Neil and the rest of the Bushes anguished over the family legacy. After President George H.W. Bush’s reelection loss in 1992 and President George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq, the family’s political reputation was shattered. Even Barbara Bush seemed eager to call it quits. “There are other people out there that are very qualified,” she said on Today in 2013. “We’ve had enough Bushes.”

Neil’s brother, former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, tried to resurrect the family business by launching a campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 2015. His placards read “JEB!” but any enthusiasm that may have existed died on June 15 of that year with a buzzsaw aimed right at the Bushes and the policies they championed. 

Donald Trump lambasted military interventionism and “free trade” with China in his campaign for president. He also did something unthinkable to other Republican candidates: held former President George W. Bush to account for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 

When you talk about George Bush, I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time,” Trump said in an interview he gave to Bloomberg TV in 2015.

He also assailed decades of rotten trade deals, culminating with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, a watershed move that was encouraged by Bush 43. The result was that thousands of factories in the U.S. closed. Many of them moved to China. 

On a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Jeb said his father grew so angry watching Trump’s critiques that he threw his shoes at the TV set. 

Maureen Dowd always said the Bushes suffered from daddy issues. Maybe what made them so angry about Trump was that he sounded a lot like their patriarch, Prescott Sheldon Bush, the Republican U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952 until 1963. “I was never a free trader,” the old man said in an oral history in 1966. “I never felt that we could abolish tariffs and do away with all protective devices, because we would have been flooded with imports which would have hurt our economy, hurt our defense posture, and I felt that these things had to be done gradually, selectively.”

The most important theme in Trump’s campaign and later presidency was China, how it was set on dominating and controlling the United States. For years, Trump had called China “our biggest long-term challenge.” He charged that Democrats and Republicans, and especially the Bushes, had disregarded China’s bad behavior so they could gain access to Chinese markets. 

Trump also said, “Obama bowed to China and allowed them to steal our future.” He emphasized China’s currency manipulation and its theft of intellectual property. “Those who pretend China is our friend are either naïve, incompetent or both. The Chinese can be reined in easily—we are their biggest customer. All we need is a president willing to stand up, not bow down to China.” 

In June 2020, William P. Barr, who had served as attorney general for H.W. from 1991 to 1993 and was now Trump’s attorney general, delivered a speech where he declared that the U.S.’s response to the global ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party was “the most important issue for our nation and the world in the 21st century.” Barr also accused China of engaging in industrial espionage, cyberattacks, and extortion. 

“As the pandemic spread around the world, the PRC hoarded the masks for itself, blocking producers, including American companies, from exporting them to other countries that needed them,” Barr said. “It then attempted to exploit the shortage for propaganda purposes, shipping limited quantities of often defective equipment and requiring foreign leaders to publicly thank Beijing for these shipments.” 

It was a remarkable address coming from someone who had been an integral part of an administration that made trade and cooperation with China a centerpiece. The attorney general’s warnings were echoed in major speeches by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, and even FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Maybe the biggest thing Trump did as president was apply tariffs on imported goods from China, measures President Joe Biden has kept in place. Because these transformations were such a departure from Bush family policies, they made a future for them in national politics difficult. 

In December 2019, Neil’s 33-year-old son, Pierce Mallon Bush, announced a surprise run for U.S. Congress from Texas’s 22nd District. He decided to eschew his family’s policies and instead campaign on Trump’s, including tightening the border. 

Pierce Bush lost the GOP primary. Republicans chose Sheriff Troy Nehls of Fort Bend County, who also campaigned on Trump’s issues—“Standing with President Trump” read a banner on his website. Two days after winning, the sheriff removed the pro-Trump banner. He still went on to beat the Democrat in the general by almost 29,000 votes.  

* * *

Neil Bush struggled for decades to find his footing. The media took note of him when he was just 26, but only because he happened to be friends with Scott Hinckley, brother of the man who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Neil and Scott had planned to have dinner together in Denver on March 31, 1981, the day John Hinckley shot Reagan and three others in Washington. During ABC TV’s live coverage of the assassination attempt, correspondent Steven Greer reported glibly, “Their plans have been canceled.” 

By the early 1990s, Neil’s image had grown even more dubious. Democrats and the media made him the face of the savings and loan meltdown. His story was featured on the cover of Playboy in June 1991: “HOW NEIL BUSH WENT ASTRAY.” The tagline: “Running with the biggest rats of the S&L mess, the president’s son became the poster boy of bunko banking.”

“I was never accused of anything illegal, and yet I would be confronted by people, ‘You should be thrown in jail.’ I remember going to Washington and there were ‘Jail Neil Bush’ signs pasted on the telephone poles. It hurt me business-wise for a long time,” he said. 

Neil found his destiny with China, a country integral to the Bush family since President Richard M. Nixon appointed ex-congressman George H.W. Bush as ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. (Nixon told his aide Bob Haldeman, “Bush will do anything for the cause.”)

On October 25, 1971, the U.N. voted to admit the People’s Republic of China and expel Taiwan. U.N. Secretary General U Thant asked all members to “endorse the tremendous step forward” and “set aside suspicion and bitterness.” Neil, then 16, was in New York visiting his parents.

“The first thing [dad] did when the Chinese delegation arrived was invite them to a lunch at my grandmother’s home in Connecticut to show kind of American hospitality, to welcome them with open arms,” Neil said, choking up. “From that point on, his first real contact with Chinese leaders, my dad has had an affection for the Chinese people and has high aspirations for how our two great countries should be working together.” 

After Watergate, President Gerald Ford huddled with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about prospects for H.W. They thought he would make a good ambassador because he was easy to control. Ford offered the embassy in London or Paris. Bush didn’t want to pay what it would cost a diplomat to entertain in those cities, so he counteroffered with China instead, where the U.S. didn’t have an embassy but needed an “envoy.” Ford accepted and appointed Bush as head of the United States Liaison Office in Peking (now Beijing). Bush concluded that the experts on China knew just about as much as he did, so he did little to prepare for the job.

The post made H.W. into Washington’s chief representative in China. He held the job for 15 months, and the tenure appears to have had the largest role in forming his view of diplomacy. 

Bush pedaled around Peking on a bicycle. He also kept a diary on a tape recorder. Much of it is about his dog, C. Fred; eating Chinese food (“They must have put something stimulating in the food, I couldn’t sleep all night”); and trying to “win over” the Chinese people and officials. Kissinger told him that goal was pointless. Still, Bush tried to organize cocktails, dinners, sightseeing. “My hyper-adrenaline, political instincts tell me that the fun of this job is going to be to try to do more, make more contacts… it will be fun trying,” he recorded.

When Kissinger visited in 1975, he took Bush and another diplomat, Winston Lord, with him to pay their respects to 81-year-old Mao Zedong. Mao seemed ancient and was surrounded by medical devices. He grunted a few formalities. When they tried to broach an issue of Sino-American relations, the old commie waved it away. “Fang go pi,” he muttered. Translation: “dog fart.” Toward the end of the meeting, Mao managed to get out a few words. “God blesses you, not us,” he said. “God does not like us because I am a militant warlord, also a communist. No, he doesn’t like me… He likes you three.” 

Bush still didn’t get the communist machinations swirling around him, nor did he understand the general upheaval under way in the country. “I wish I could tell what China’s real interest is,” he said into his recorder. He also never seemed to grasp that it was dangerous for the Chinese if they socialized with him, that the government would penalize them for befriending an American. 

To keep control, Kissinger cut H.W. out of the foreign service loop, a strategy that became obvious to Bush. Rather than learning about the surrender of the Vietnamese countryside through the State Department, Bush overheard chatter at an embassy drinking party.

“I clearly feel we are not fully clued in by Washington,” Bush said into his tape recorder. “I am just not going to worry about Kissinger’s peculiar style of operation, where he holds all the cards up against his chest and refuses to clue people in on what is really happening.” 

Most of the time, Bush just seemed bewildered. “It’s difficult to define our function here,” he said on the tape.

Former U.S. President George Bush speaks on October 23, 2002, with Chinese President Jiang Zemin at a dinner sponsored by the City of Houston and Asia Society Greater Houston Partnership.(David J. Phillip/AFP via Getty Images)

* * *

After relocating to Houston, Neil Bush found there were investments to be made, enterprises to start. China seemed a good fit. Government officials there also wanted prominent Americans, and they fêted this son and brother to presidents when he visited. 

Neil immersed himself in Asian business enterprises. SingHaiyi Group Ltd., a property development and management company based in Singapore, made Neil chairman. Executives wanted to invest in the U.S., and through what Neil calls “a networking of mine,” they found projects. 

One was the Tri-County Mall in Cincinnati, Ohio. Wives of Neil’s friends recommended he purchase and redevelop it. “I said, ‘It must be in a good neighborhood if my friends are coming here,’” he told WCPO-TV in 2013. 

Neil did well. He moved into a house across from his parents in Tanglewood, a Houston neighborhood where they’d lived since the 1960s. 

Neil described his approach to life when he appeared on All the Best, a podcast hosted by George H.W. Bush’s grandson, Sam LeBlond, who is also Neil’s nephew. In a November 2019 episode, “The Meaning of Service,” Sam asked, “Can you give me more insight into your professional roles? How do you find time to do it all?”

Neil said, “I’ve found that the busier that you are, the more fun you have and the more you get done.” Neil went on to say that his real passion is leading the “Bush legacy movements.” 

This must be quite a job because there are more than half a dozen such organizations. The George W. Bush Presidential Center’s motto is “World changers shaped here.” The George W. Bush Institute goes by “Shaping global leadership for future generations.” Points of Light is about “creating a global culture of volunteering” with a “global network” in 38 countries. (At a rally in Montana in 2018, Trump mocked Peggy Noonan’s famous phrase. “Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? And it was put out by a Republican, wasn’t it? I know one thing, ‘Make America Great Again’ we understand. ‘Putting America First’ we understand.”)  

The boards of directors for the “Bush legacy movements” are peppered with executives from Google, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Starbucks, General Motors, Disney Parks, MoneyGram, and other major corporations.

As the initial strains of the novel coronavirus were swirling around Wuhan, unknown to the rest of the world, Neil said on Sam’s podcast: “I’m the chairman of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for China relations, which is kind of a controversial situation right now given the hostility that Americans have towards China. Dad believed strongly that China should be an ally, dealing with our world’s biggest global challenges.” 

* * *

When I lived in Washington, columnist Bob Novak schooled me on where George H.W. Bush stood when he announced he was running for president in 1980. Bob covered the campaign and said Bush hadn’t been elected to anything except two terms as a congressman from Houston more than a decade earlier. Nor had he run for anything since losing his second Senate race nine years earlier. Bob said any future Bush had in politics depended on an appointment by a Republican president. 

That appointment came at the GOP convention in Detroit. After Ronald Reagan’s nomination was assured, he considered selecting former President Ford as his running mate. But when Ford gave an interview to Walter Cronkite in the CBS convention booth and said that if Reagan chose him, they would go to Washington as co-presidents, Reagan went in a different direction and named Bush as his V.P. 

When I worked as an intern in former President Reagan’s personal office in Century City in 1991, it was rare to hear a mention of Bush, including by Reagan himself. An exception came in an interview Reagan gave to a former assistant, Martin Anderson, who asked about his vice president. “Would it be fair to say, given the extraordinary number of meetings, private one-on-ones with the vice president, that looking back on it he was probably your main advisor?” 

Reagan answered, “I think he recognized his position as such that he didn’t attempt to volunteer something and say, ‘You ought to be doing…’ No, he wouldn’t do that at all.” 

“But if you asked for his advice, he certainly would have.”

“Yes. But I always noticed—did you ever notice?—that in the cabinet meetings, in there with everyone else there, he never, never spoke up? He’d answer a question directly if I asked him.” 

I recall stories about the weekly lunches Bush had with Reagan in the White House. Reagan loved practical jokes, especially when the vice president was the butt. On one such occasion, Reagan announced to Bush, “We really must isolate the things that America makes in the world and what we do best.” Bush nodded agreement. Reagan said, “For instance, condoms. Condoms are the thing that America makes that are best.” Bush said, “I didn’t know that.” Reagan said, “Yeah, that’s why at the end of each condom it has this huge ‘MADE IN THE USA’ printed on it.” Bush said, “I didn’t know that.” Reagan replied, “Well, George, you have to unroll them all the way to see it.” 

When Bush ran for president again in 1988, he listened to his longtime friend and advisor James A. Baker III, who realized that the path to victory was campaigning on the idea of a continuation of a successful two-term Reagan presidency. “We wanted it to be about the same issues that the Reagan-Bush administration had been pursuing,” Baker said in an oral history. “We wanted it to be about lower taxes. We wanted it to be about strong defense.”

But over the course of George H.W. Bush’s presidential term, he sent us to war in the Persian Gulf, raised taxes, and pushed for “free trade,” including with China. He said that “the more economic contact we have with China, the more they are going to see the fruits of market economies.” That philosophy didn’t seem to work very well when, after the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, Bush called his “old friend” Deng Xiaoping to lodge a protest. Deng refused to take his call. 

Still, in 1990, Bush said, “The whole fact that we’ve had economic involvement with China has moved China more toward reform than if we hadn’t had it.”

In July 1991, the National Victory Celebration Parade was held in Washington. Some 800,000 people turned out to cheer for the troops returning from Desert Storm. President Bush appeared to salute them and celebrate. According to polls, almost 89 percent of the American people approved of the job Bush was doing. 

By the time he traveled to Los Angeles for the opening of the Reagan Library in November 1991, the country had grown weary. Factories were closing. There was a recession. A few weeks later, Pat Buchanan went to New Hampshire to challenge Bush for the Republican nomination. 

“He is yesterday, and we are tomorrow,” Buchanan said. “He is a globalist, and we are nationalists. He believes in some Pax Universalis; we believe in the Old Republic. He would put Americans’ wealth and power at the service of some vague New World Order; we will put America first.” 

In the presidential debate on October 11, 1992, Bill Clinton accused Bush of coddling tyrants. “I think it is a mistake for us to do what this [Bush] administration did when all those kids went out there carrying the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square.” It was still fresh in the public’s mind. 

Clinton continued: “Mr. Bush sent two people in secret to toast the Chinese leaders and basically tell them not to worry about it. They rewarded him by opening negotiations with Iran to transfer nuclear technology. That was their response to that sort of action… I would be firm. I would say, ‘If you want to continue Most Favored Nations status for your government-owned industries as well as your private ones, observe human rights in the future. Open your society. Recognize the legitimacy of those kids that were carrying the Statue of Liberty.’” 

Bush gave a garbled reply, “Governor Clinton’s philosophy is to isolate China. He says don’t do it, but the policies he’s expounding of putting conditions on MFN and kind of humiliating them is now the way you make the kind of progress we are getting… We are the ones that have lowered the barrier to products with [U.S. Trade Representative] Carla Hill’s negotiation.” 

You can see why Bush lost. 

A decade later, H.W.’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, who delivered that infamous toast to the Chinese, admitted, “I do have a regret about the trip to China in December of 1989, where I was, in effect, sandbagged by the Chinese. That’s a personal regret… It certainly didn’t help the view of the Bush administration and the way we were treating China.”

By the time of the election, just 37 percent of the country approved of Bush. A spectacular fall, the lowest number for an incumbent president since William Howard Taft in 1912.

* * *

About 20 years ago, I became friends with a man who helped run the Communist Party on the West Coast, a very successful screenwriter named Richard Collins. He lived in Brentwood, used Brooks Brothers diaries, and produced the TV series Remington Steele, but at one time he oversaw one of the most ambitious communist operations in the world. He showed me how the communist business model hasn’t changed for a century. The party uses whatever is the technology of the day, Collins said, but the basic plan for expansion is the same as it was in the time of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. 

In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who sees himself as Stalin’s successor, delivered a speech in which he talked about the importance of influencing and shaping the world. All the Chinese Communist functionaries were present for Xi’s address: the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Propaganda Department, the Political-Legal Commission, the People’s Liberation Army, the Organization Department, and—essential to Xi’s overarching goal—the United Front Work Department, which is tasked with “managing relations with non-CCP elites and organizations with social, commercial, or academic influence inside and outside China.” 

Collins told me how he and other party officials would establish a “front,” an organization whose membership is made up of non-communists (with a few exceptions) and their goal would be to pursue an objective which, on the surface, has no obvious relationship to communism itself. 

The members become convinced they are serving U.S. interests by advocating “harmony” and “cooperation” between the U.S. and the communist country. In the case of the Chinese Communist Party, these apparent purposes help with its networking. They create “linkages” which can then be exploited by targeting individuals for grooming. Collins said the party leaders loved deploying psychological methods. They’d reassure the people in the front group that they were working for the “greater good,” praise their work as brilliant when it was hackery, and give them promotions and money. The front group would help advance the real communist objective, without the supporters aware they were spreading the communist party’s messages and extending its influence. 

For the Chinese Communists, sympathizers are vital. These people are non-communists who are opposed to certain features of communism but believe it’s permissible to associate with them to advance “causes.” Collins said that the sympathizers are always naïve dreamers: If I’m tolerant and understanding, the communists will abandon their brutality, dictatorship, and deception. They think the Communist Party will become a benign, worthy movement. No more murdering Nobel Peace Prize laureates. They think involvement in a communist country’s markets will do magical things. 

For decades, people at the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth, Heritage Foundation, and Cato Institute believed this about China. In some ways, that belief was understandable, because their dreams came true in Korea and Taiwan. Both countries were run by dictators, then they “democratized” and became free and peaceful. But if you looked at China and understood its history, it was obvious it was going to be different. 

* * *

“The FBI was all over the catastrophe. They busted in on a meeting. They were up the ass of the whole thing.” I’m listening to Joshua Eisenman, a professor of U.S.-China relations at Notre Dame who used to teach at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s telling me a fantastic story about the time the Chinese Communist Party tried to take over part of the LBJ School of Public Affairs. His first indication that something was up came when he and other scholars went to China for a conference in 2017.

The group’s host was a former U.S. foreign service employee, David J. Firestein. For several years beginning in the late 1990s, Firestein, who is fluent in Chinese and Russian, worked various positions in embassies in Beijing and Moscow. He also taught a course on political consulting at Moscow State University. Now Firestein was working for the EastWest Institute, a think tank, and promising to bring millions to UT to underwrite a new China Public Policy Center at the LBJ School. 

During meetings in China, Eisenman says he detected a “lickspittle nature” to the events. Critiques of the Chinese government were always vague and never unpacked. He asked Firestein, “Why are we pulling punches? Why are we not engaging?”

“I was used to working at the American Foreign Policy Council, where exchanges were robust,” he recalls. “We were honest. We were bringing important people together and letting them speak forthrightly. The lack of this during the UT trip made me ask Firestein, what is going on?”

Firestein told him. His benefactor was something called the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). Eisenman recognized it as a Chinese Communist Party front that operates in the U.S. It is led by Tung Chee-haw, vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a self-described United Front Organization. In fact, CUSEF is registered in the U.S. as an “agent of a foreign principal.” 

The Chinese government didn’t want disagreements; in fact, the goal was to build more entities at UT focused on U.S.-China “cooperation.” Lectures about what China may be doing wrong aren’t on the agenda, Firestein said.

That’s when Eisenman realized that Firestein’s project at UT wouldn’t permit anyone to ever go off script because the Chinese communists were paying for it, as part of Xi’s influence operation. The center had to be in the interests of China. 

“We have an obligation to the truth,” Eisenman said. “Things shouldn’t be sugarcoated. The goal should be to introduce China as it is, not China as China would like for us to see them. That’s our obligation. I was clear with Firestein that I wasn’t going to stand by and allow him to use these Communist Party funds at this public university. I have to teach my students in an objective fashion.”

Eisenman alerted then-dean Angela Evans and other senior faculty by email and then in person when he returned to campus in the fall. Soon Firestein attracted the attention of the Texas congressional delegation in Washington. FBI agents came to campus to question professors, Evans, and UT president Gregory L. Fenves. 

Fenves cancelled Firestein’s plan. “The University will not accept programmatic funding from CUSEF,” he wrote in January 2018. “Neither will we accept any funds for travel, student exchanges, or other initiatives from the organization… We must ensure that the receipt of outside funding does not create potential conflicts of interest or place limits on academic freedom and the robust exchange of ideas. I am concerned about this if we were to accept funding from CUSEF.” 

It wasn’t a total loss for Firestein, though. He’d already hooked up with Neil Bush. 

* * *

In the wake of President Trump’s meeting with Xi at the G20 summit in Japan in June 2019, Neil Bush appeared at what he called a “deeply urgent and important gathering” at the Auberge Discovery Bay hotel in Hong Kong. It was a conference co-sponsored by CUSEF, the same group that tried to embed itself at UT, and another front operation, the China Center for International Economic Exchanges. Among the other Americans participating were chairman of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, Ed Feulner; former White House chief of staff in the Obama administration, William Daley; and president of the China Center at the U.S. Chamber, Jeremie Waterman. 

The lectern wobbled as Neil stood behind it, and music continued over him as he started to deliver his keynote. Neil said that his foundation was “gearing up to do great work” and that it was “run so ably by a real China expert, David Firestein.” From the audience, Firestein nodded with approval. 

For the most part, Neil’s speech was his usual patter—“Dad often stated that the U.S.-China relationship was the most important bilateral relationship in the world… China has benefited consumers with lower cost, high-quality goods”—but about five minutes in, Neil’s speech took a bizarre turn. He said he had just returned from a family trip to Croatia where he’d been “in full vacation mode.” One evening, his “quite astute” son-in-law asked about China. “Fueled by some wine,” Neil said, the discussion during the family trip turned heated. 

Hard as it may be to believe, Neil then proceeded to describe the most damning criticisms of China, in the voice of his son-in-law. The treatment of ethnic minorities. Use of facial recognition techniques that keep tabs on citizens. The plan for big data to give individuals a social credit rating designed to control behavior. Use of intrusive Big Brother tactics, including monitoring social media to crack down on government critics. 

Neil said his son-in-law called China “nefarious” and “aggressive” and said the country sought to dominate the world. “I still love the boy,” Neil remarked, “but he even compared authoritarian rule of China to that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hitler in Nazi Germany. I almost flew out of my seat at this point.”

We don’t know what Neil said to his son-in-law that night on the family vacation. But his words about him at the communist-funded conference aren’t in doubt. He then proceeded to throw his son-in-law under the proverbial bus in front of the comrades.

“Clearly the wine was speaking,” Neil said. “My son-in-law has never been to China. His facts and assumptions are clearly flawed and based on half-truths or all-out fake news. His views show just how hysterical and challenging the times are. My son-in-law and many Americans only know what they hear.” 

He closed his speech by imploring, “Those who believe the U.S. and China ought to work together need to find our voices… I advise my American friends not to meddle too much in the internal affairs of China.” He urged the U.S. and China to “collaborate.” He also said the U.S. and China “must set parameters to address the proliferation of fake news and to control other aspects of the cloud and internet and many others.” 

In the most devastating time of the pandemic, when the U.S. and the rest of the world became desperate for medical face masks, Neil Bush realized that his sending two million masks to China in early February 2020 might be too much of a tell. In April, the Bush Foundation contacted Houston’s Mayor Turner with the news that it was going to donate 35,000 masks to the city. On April 27, 2020, Turner called a press conference for “a special, appreciative announcement.” From behind the same lectern where he announced the shutdown, Turner, who this time appeared masked, informed the public of the “generous donation from the Bush Foundation and our friends in China.” 

Turner then introduced Neil Bush, who was also wearing a mask. “My father advocated for closer ties between China and the U.S. for years,” he said. “When China was going through the peak of the coronavirus, the Bush-China Foundation found sponsors and sent desperately needed supplies from Mexico to China. This is what Americans do.” Bush concluded, “China continues to be a reliable trading partner for our country during this time of need.” 

* * *

For months, I asked Neil Bush if he would meet or talk on the phone. I wanted to ask him how he thought Covid-19 would impact U.S.-China relations. I was curious what he had to say about the role the Chinese Communist Party played in the way the virus was handled in China. About the Xinjiang internment camps where an estimated million Uyghurs are being “reeducated.” What can be done about the Chinese communists harvesting the organs of religious minorities? I wondered what blame he thinks the Communist Party deserves. When Neil refused to meet or talk, I even sent him my questions, hopeful I’d get written replies. His assistant said in the end he just didn’t have time. 

I also tried to get Firestein on the phone, to no avail. He emailed: “Many thanks for reaching out; much appreciated. Alas, the timing is problematic for me; I’m in the midst of a heavy travel period and don’t really have any additional bandwidth over the next couple of weeks… this is probably the busiest time of year for us. I do greatly appreciate your contacting me; thank you again and all the best with this article.” 

I tried former president George W. Bush to see what he has to say about the work of the Bush-China Foundation but he, too, was busy. 

* * *

With all the flash and pizzazz one would expect of a high-school A.V. club circa 1995, the video begins with a woman speaking too closely into a microphone. She introduces the man who is sitting in the spartan studio, Dr. Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization. “Live from Beijing,” the program (now posted to YouTube) is part of the center’s “Global Dialogue Series.” 

Appearing through videoconferencing are Neil Bush, “a very distinguished guest,” and David Firestein, “a very old friend of China and a senior China hand.” Their faces are often too close to the screen. It’s not unlike zooming with your grandparent. “You do such wonderful work bringing ideas and helping inform the public,” Dr. Huiyao says to them. 

For close to two hours, with some 200,000 viewers watching live, according to Dr. Huiyao, Bush and Firestein hit all the usual talking points. Firestein attacks Trump for “racially charged and racist rhetoric.” He says, “The language matters, the communication matters, and boy, what I wouldn’t give to have a way of thinking about communication and thinking about bringing people together of the type we saw under the presidency of George H.W. Bush. To his credit, Joe Biden has banned [racist] language in the White House… I think we’re getting back to norms that were established under many presidents.”

Firestein also urges the U.S. to reopen the Chinese consulate in Houston, desist from efforts to shut down Confucius Institutes, and pursue trade and investment with China. 

About an hour into the program, Neil launches into a monologue on the origin of Covid-19. “Who cares where it originated?” he says. “Whether it originated in a lab, or from a bat, or from the United States—wherever it originated, who cares?… Throw away the crazy conspiracy theories and just assume that there was an origin of some kind. It doesn’t matter where it originated. Let’s deal with it together.” 

Still curious about the masks the Bush Foundation sent to China and where they fit in with the whole scheme, I called Peter Navarro, who at the time the masks were sent was assistant to the president and director of trade and manufacturing policy in the White House. He is also tough as nails on the China issue. 

Do you know anything about Neil Bush sending two million masks to China when we needed them? I asked. 

“No, I don’t,” Navarro said. “But what I do know is that the Bush family, and that person, should be registered foreign agents for the Chinese Communist Party. He’s the Republican equivalent of Hunter Biden who basically sold out the country and traded off their famous fathers’ names. This happened because it’s part of the Chinese Communist Party game plan, their strategy. It’s either money pots or honey pots. With honey pots, it’s like Eric Swalwell—he’s sleeping with a Chinese spy and she gets information from him. With Neil Bush and Hunter Biden, it’s the money pot. The Chinese Communist Party, that’s what they do. They co-opt our politicians.” 

U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao meet with the press after their bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People November 20, 2005 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Adrian Bradshaw-Pool/Getty Images)

Nobody wants to air the family laundry if they don’t have to. Given that, it’s easy to see why George W. Bush feels more comfortable talking about his hobby of painting portraits of immigrants, as he did last summer on C-SPAN when he was interviewed by his daughter Barbara. Or why, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he stood up at Shanksville where one of the hijacked planes crashed and compared the terrorists who killed 2,977 Americans to Trump supporters. It’s important for the Bushes to change the subject. 

Reflecting on the four decades of Bushes in China and what it has wrought, and the $5 million or so the Bush-China Foundation gets from a Chinese Communist Party front, I was reminded of the remark W. made after he listened to Donald Trump’s inaugural address in 2017. The speech where Trump said, “Washington flourished but the people did not share its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country.” In the words of W., “That was some weird shit.”

John Meroney, a writer in Los Angeles, is consulting producer of The People v. The Klan, a CNN Original Series.

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