Interview with Neil Bush: "Deeper Dialogue"

Jul 16 , 2019

Neil Bush is the Founder and Chairman of the George HW Bush Foundation - named for his father, the 41st President of the United States.

In this interview with James Chau, Bush recounts the stories from his own interactions with China, beginning with his first visit to Beijing in 1975. He also reflects on the modern development of China and advocates for "deeper dialogue" between the U.S. and China - a dialogue that must be globally inclusive, he says.

This interview was recorded at the US-China Trade and Economic Relations Forum in Hong Kong on 9-10 July, 2019.


James Chau: Why don't we start with your parents? Both your father and your mother were these incredible figures of history. We can't forget how much they did also for China. Is there any story that your father shared with you as his son from the time that he lived in China or even afterwards as president? 

Neil Bush: He didn't really share stories. We actually visited China for five weeks during 1975. It overlapped, by the way, with the 4th of July. China back in 1975 was a very, very different place and it was really important, I think in terms of US-China relations that my father was the only president to have ever actually lived in China. So as president and vice president before that, ambassador to the UN, and before that, the chief liaison officer, he learned about China. He understood the subtleties and nuances of working with the Chinese. And so as we've normalized relations there couldn't have been a better, more impactful leader than my Dad. China in 1975 was kind of a dark and freedomless place. And to see the explosion of freedom to see the economy flourish in the open. The season of openness has been really remarkable for me personally and my dad I think had a lot of influence over the dynamics of the US-China relationship that has led to great benefits to both sides. 

James Chau: Your first visit, you said as a young and entering a formative period, definitely during a formative period of your life overlapped with July 4th this great American holiday, which is also a global holiday. If you went to China now on July 4th, what would be the difference between the ways that you celebrate that and what would freedom speak about today? 

Neil Bush: Well, I'm not quite sure how the celebration would be that much different. Honestly, back on July 4th, 1975 we hosted Chinese and others for a barbecue, a classic American tradition with hotdogs and hamburgers. And my parents had us all, my siblings were there as well, and hanging banners and cooking the burgers and handing out the dogs; and it was a kind of a classic opportunity to show American hospitality on a really important holiday in our history. The difference of course would be that if you went to China today compared to 1975, you know, everything's different. Back in those days, you'd ride a bike from the US residence to Tiananmen Square and you'd have to fight your way through thousands of bicyclers. I remember riding my bike down the street and to the stop at a stoplight and there'd be 10 bikes to my side left and right and the guy would look over and almost fall off his bike seeing a big, white guy with a long, big nose. But today, people are driving cars and there's kind of this green movement, they're moving into electric. It's been an amazing transition to see the development of China, in the stages of development and to go through the industrial moment where all kinds of good came out of it, but also the challenges with air quality and pollution. And now to see in the last three years, air quality getting to be much better in Beijing and other major cities, it's just to me a marvel of, in my opinion, good governance to see the government, in five-year-plan after five-year-plan, improve the quality of life for citizens, for so many citizens so effectively. And Americans honestly don't really appreciate the positive benefit to the world of this human development that's taking place in China. My father taught me personally that we need to embrace it and encourage collaboration and cooperation between our two great countries, because clearly our global challenges are growing, and we need to work together to solve major problems. 

James Chau: Your father and mother left their legacies. You have a legacy and process of your own as a contemporary leader. They've heard you speak about those goals in China. They're not simply vertical national goals, they're goals that China and the United States can really unify their positions on for themselves and for wider social good. What do you see? Do you see climate change or disease outbreaks?

Neil Bush: I see every major issue. And it's obvious to anyone that climate has become very volatile and is changing. And, it's pretty clear to me that humans have the capacity to address major challenges. People look at me like I'm crazy, but part of climate change is human caused, but part of it is natural. We have ice ages and heated ages and all those kinds of things that even without human development on earth, we'd have climate change. My question is, why not bring the best minds from China, the US, and all over the world together to say, if the climate change is caused in part by human condition, then fine, let's change that. But if it's caused by natural conditions, can we change the natural condition? Can we change the tilt of the earth? There are tectonic activities that are moving big chunks of earth. Whenever there's a tsunami in Japan, they move the earth by a tiny little fraction that throws things out of sync. Can we put it back in sync in some way? How can we apply the best minds to deal with climate? How can we apply the best minds, like you mentioned, to infectious disease outbreaks? The Ebola outbreak in Africa is a good example of how China did their thing. We did our thing. If we did our things together, it would be a much more effective use of international global resources and collaboration. I mean there are so many issues with technology. I've heard complaint after complaint in Hong Kong and China and clearly in the US. The Internet is being abused by people who are promulgating false news, or fake news, or divisive kinds of news, and there's got to be a way that we can establish global protocol for how to clean up the Internet so that fakeness and falsities aren't spread so casually and with such a terrible impact on dividing nations and dividing people's within nations. So that kind of thing. There's cybersecurity type issues. There's clearly terrorism issues, or issues where civilized people on the planet earth need to get together and work together to solve the problems. It's just simple. To me, it's just, it's profoundly simple to understand that we have to work together. 

James Chau: There is an obvious temptation to lean to one direction, say Neil Bush, what would your father do? But I want to say, what would you do? You're the founder, you're the president of your own foundation on US-China relations. If you could pick one of that myriad of complex issues that you just outlined there, where do you think could be a good starting point where it could be stripped of the noise around it and people can really get to work and create solutions? 

Neil Bush: Yeah, that's a great question. I think there's just so many that need to be done, and I think you can do a lot of things simultaneously. My core belief is that through dialogue, through interaction, through different levels of interaction from president to president, down to working level and expert level, good things happen when you understand your opponent or the other side. If you put your shoes in the other guy's shoes, good things happen: better understanding and more dialogue, which leads to more trust, and trust leads to mutually beneficial conclusions. So I'd be a huge advocate for developing deeper dialogue on all kinds of issues between the United States and China, and everybody globally. It's not just the US and China. My Dad had often stated that the US-China bilateral relationship is the most important relationship in the world. He believed that at his core, as China develops, it's becoming very clear that it's true. So we need to find ways to have dialogue. 

James Chau: I want to ask you, in closing, we have different languages, different cultures, different systems of governance, different histories, different routes of civilization. I'm not the expert here, but I always think that the American and Chinese are actually very similar. They're very ambitious. They're able to do it, and they execute as well. But you have a far richer insight. I think this is your 150th and something trip, uh, to, to China, and of course you went there during the years when it was very difficult. Back in the early 1970s when it was mired in its own national problems. You've seen it change as you describe over there. What is China to you, or what are the Chinese to you, if you could break it down?  

Neil Bush: I've learned a lot about China from being in China in 1975 and visiting over 140 times. It has shaped my global view. For example, I don't believe that democracies work for every country. Clearly in China, they've established some model that works for China. China has created the five-year-plan model, every year it's improved the quality of life. People are enjoying more freedoms than you could have imagined 44 years ago. And so, as China develops, as the institutions become more mature, as the judicial processes, intellectual property protections, the middle class grow, things will change in China. It's become more pluralistic. It's become more meritocracy-based. In Chairman Mao's days, it was a communist country with a dictator and everybody marched in lockstep.

James Chau: Did you meet him on that trip?

Neil Bush: I did not meet him. My dad met him, and there's a famous picture of he and Chairman Mao back in the day. But since then, since Xi Jinping has opened the door, there's been an amazing transformation, and it continues to be transformed. And as I mentioned in my speech, China is inching closer and closer to what people in America call the American dream and what President Xi has called the Chinese dream. I think it's the American dream with Chinese characteristics because people are enjoying more freedoms, more luxuries, more opportunities now than they could have ever met of imagined 44 years ago. So I've learned that democracy doesn't work for everybody. Every country has different sets of institutional systems, and historical and cultural development or histories, and that means the best system for that country is going to be different. So long as the care and concern for the people of those countries is the number one priority. I believe that China is run by people of good intent, that are smart and well-educated, that have had their leadership skills honed at different levels of government, rising to become senior leaders. So I have confidence that China will continue to be well led. In the United States, our system is a little questionable right now. Frankly, I just wonder how in the world we could have elected a guy that honestly has as little experience as President Trump has and has such as little care and concern for people other than himself, truthfully. So anyway, that's another subject for an hour-long therapy session, maybe. 

James Chau: I'm excited, but I think the world should be excited about how you're going to extend your leadership or the Bush Foundation that you created in honor of your parents, but also equally in this rapidly changing world, how you're going to reshape global society for the good. 

Neil Bush: I'm doing my best, doing my best. I might add that in addition to being chairman of The China Bush Foundation, which I founded with my dad's blessing three years ago, I'm the chairman of an organization called Points of Light, which is leading a global movement towards voluntary service to others. My Dad always believed and called on people to find their capacity to help lift individuals, lift communities, be a point of light in the lives of others. And so there's a global movement that the United States is kind of the center pin for all this activity, but it's spreading internationally. I'm very proud of my dad's his personal commitment to history, but also his legacy of promoting service and understanding and trust and lifting others. His whole life was dedicated to finding the best in others and helping people realize their fullest potential. It worked in both the diplomatic front, but also in personal fronts. I feel like I'm a very blessed man to have the opportunity to promote really important family legacies, that really can have, and I hope will have a big, positive impact on society. So thank you James.

James Chau: Neil Bush, thank you for lending and sharing that light. 

Neil Bush: Thank you.