It was November 1992 when I got the call from George H.W. Bush — just a week removed from the bitter re-election campaign he had lost. When he asked me to go to China, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Hanging up the phone, I wondered, “Why China? Why me? Why now?”
President Bush had a very clear idea about what he wanted me to do and why. He asked me to go to Beijing to reconvene the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade with my counterpart — and do it right away. This would restart the economic relationship that had been stalled since the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989. Since then, the Sino-U.S. relationship had been at a low point.
Besides restarting the economic relationship, my trip would signal the end of the ban on high-level government-to-government contact. This had another salutary effect, Bush said. It would give the Clinton administration a clearer path to continuing the relationship with China. Maintaining engagement with China, despite our disagreements, was something Bush felt keenly about.
After all, he had served as our chief liaison to China in the 1970s, even before diplomatic recognition occurred in 1979.
I realized not only that this mission was important, but also that time was of the essence. Inauguration Day was only a few weeks away, so we hurriedly assembled a delegation.
From the right side of the political spectrum, Sen. Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, called and told me emphatically that I should not go. “They are communists,” he said, and “we should not deal with them.”
From the left, there was considerable concern and anger at China over human rights after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
From the outset, this mission was controversial.
I understood there was a diplomatic aspect to this mission, but knew I was the secretary of commerce — not the secretary of state. That meant I better develop some business for U.S. companies. Before we left, we sent messages to our Chinese counterparts about the new business relationships I hoped would result from this mission. At the top was an order for six Boeing 777 aircraft from China Southern airlines. The entire order had been put on hold by the Chinese side.
We arrived in Beijing on Dec. 16, 1992, with admittedly some trepidation, not knowing how our delegation would be received. My counterpart was Minister Li Lanqing. His first words to me were, “You’ll get your aircraft order.”
A fantastic start.
We reconvened the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade and had two days of productive meetings during which we covered many issues.
We met with Premier Li Peng. In addition, I presided over the signing of several new business contracts. At the end of the day, we brought back nearly $1 billion worth of signed contracts for U.S. companies.
Today, decades later, the U.S.-China economic relationship is huge, enormously complex, multi-faceted and interdependent — and there are disagreements, differences of approach and tensions. The current administration is looking to “rebalance” the economic relationship.
I believe a rebalance is in order, and sooner rather than later. My hope is the Chinese side will make many of the structural changes for which the U.S. side, especially the business community, has been advocating for years.