In the meeting, the scholars discussed the question of how Bush should raise human rights issues on his trip to China. And, outside the meeting, they discovered that he had decided to do something that neither he nor any other American President, vice president or Cabinet secretary had ever done.
Bush was planning to invite a small group of Chinese dissidents to a dinner he planned to host for Chinese leaders in Beijing. Among the dissidents to be invited would be Fang Lizhi. Since the Richard M. Nixon Administration's opening to China in 1972, no senior U.S. official had met with or recognized any sort of domestic opposition to the Chinese Communist Party.
Bush's invitation to the dissidents was a momentous decision--yet not, from an American point of view, a particularly surprising one.
Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz had repeatedly met with Soviet dissidents. And the previous summer, during a trip to Moscow, President Ronald Reagan had invited a large group of dissidents to the U.S. Embassy. Reagan's meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev had proceeded without any major disruptions.
If the Soviet Union could tolerate American recognition of its dissidents, then couldn't China? After all, China had launched its reform program well before the Soviets, and it had enjoyed much closer relations with the United States.
The Bush Administration may have had other reasons for extending the invitation. By all indications, the CIA in 1988 was giving U.S. policy-makers much more pessimistic reports about the state of China's economic reforms and the popularity of Deng Xiaoping's regime than at any previous time over the past decade.
By inviting Fang and other dissidents to dinner, the Bush Administration was hedging its bets, sending out a signal that its relationship with China did not rest exclusively on its ties to the senior leadership. The United States was, in effect, officially acknowledging the existence of China's small but growing democracy movement and, more broadly, the extent of popular dissatisfaction with the Chinese leadership.
"We wanted to make a statement, but to do so in a way that was not confrontational to the Chinese leaders," explained one U.S. official. Administration officials realized there was "some risk" that the invitation might anger Chinese leaders, but they decided to take the risk.
Shortly after the Camp David meeting, a special messenger sent by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing arrived at Fang's apartment to deliver banquet invitations to Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian. Other dissidents invited by the White House included Marxist theoretician Su Shaozhi, playwright Wu Zuguang and political scientist Yan Jiaqi.
The invitations, no matter how small a step they might have seemed to the United States, represented a dramatic break in U.S. policy toward Beijing. And that is exactly how they were perceived in China, both by the top leaders and by the dissidents.
The Chinese leadership accepted with relative equanimity the invitations to Su, Wu and Yan. But the morning after the Camp David planning session, when The Los Angeles Times broke the news of Fang's invitation, Chinese officials reacted with fury. "Deng and (Chinese President) Yang Shangkun were especially outraged," said an American diplomat.
For five days, while Bush traveled from Washington to Tokyo to Beijing, Chinese officials tried to persuade Washington to withdraw the invitation to Fang. The United States refused.
After Bush arrived in Beijing, Chinese officials announced that Yang and Premier Li Peng might not attend the President's dinner unless he withdrew the invitation to Fang. U.S. officials again refused, although they agreed to a compromise in which Bush would not move from table to table at the banquet and thus would not clink glasses with Fang. That concession seemed to mollify Yang and Li, who agreed to attend Bush's dinner.
On the night of Sunday, Feb. 26, Link and his wife attempted to escort Fang and his wife to the banquet at the Great Wall Hotel in northeastern Beijing. Link had arranged for a car, a white Nissan, with a driver. Fang was wearing a Western suit and Li an evening dress.
They never made it. About 700 yards from the hotel, Chinese authorities had set up a barricade to clear all guests for the banquet. The other dissidents were allowed to pass. But when the car carrying Fang arrived, police told the driver to pull over. When he parked, they were surrounded by men whom they believed to be plainclothes police officers.
Fang, holding his invitation, was told he was not on the official guest list. And over the next two hours, police blocked his repeated efforts to reach the banquet.
Inside, the banquet proceeded on schedule. Bush and President Yang delivered the customary toasts to one another.
"We went through the banquet thinking Fang was there," said one State Department official. "It was only afterward that we found out he wasn't there."