While Americans are pleased to be rid of former President Bush, China is not nearly as jubilant. As despised Bush was at home in recent years, he left a much less negative -- albeit more mixed -- legacy both among the rulers and people of the People's Republic.
W. came to power promising a tougher line against China than Bill Clinton. Clinton had worked to foster a partnership with the Chinese government and as a result, is still highly regarded here both by the people and the government. But like so many of America's foreign relationships during the Bush administration, the War of Terror changed the trajectory of the Washington-Beijing dialogue. As a result, stability -- both economic and political -- became an increasingly necessary aspect of Sino-US relations.
Interestingly, September 11th changed Sino-American relations for the better. 9/11 shifted the entire focus of Bush's foreign policy to the Middle East and away from potential conflicts with China. Tibet, human rights, and Falun Gong, all perennial stumbling blocks in America's relationship with China, were rendered of secondary importance overnight. Moreover, Bush's War on Terror allowed China to take a firmer stance against its own domestic separatists. For example, Bush declared Islamic militants in China's Muslim western province of Xinjiang as a terrorist organization (a rather dubious distinction), much to China's pleasure. Thus, Bush's post-9/11 ultimatum of "you're either with us against us," gave China a means to suppress internal unrest with force as well as an incentive to stand with the United States in its War on Terror.
With much of Bush's focus on Iraq, he could not afford to deal with Taiwan, a constant thorn in America's relationship with China. As a result, Bush held firm against any moves towards independence on the part of the Taiwanese. While former Taiwanese President Chen Shui Bian did his best to cause trouble with China, Bush's made America's opposition to any changes to the status quo very clear and kept Taiwan-China relations stable and thus Beijing happy. Bush played the balancing act very well between Taiwan and China and again, China appreciated this.
Most importantly, however, was Bush's ability to stand up to the more protectionist elements of not only the Democratic Party, but also his own Republican Party. Bush backed free-trade policies that have been the foundation for Chinese economic growth. Despite the din of anger over the trade deficit with China, Bush stood firm and China benefited. Not only did he block serious anti-Chinese protectionist economic legislation, the Schumer-Graham bill is just one example of this, he employed Hank Paulson to work for greater currency flexibility so as to head off Congressional scrutiny over currency manipulation. Paulson and Bush used a series of top level strategic dialogues to help lower the decibel of protectionist sentiments on both sides and prevent potentially heavy-handed Congressional intervention. (It bears noting that Obama Treasury Secretary designee, Tim Geithner, has already stated that he believes China is manipulating its currency, a departure from Bush and a move that is likely to remind China just how valuable an ally Bush was.)
Despite the fact that Bush ushered in an era of unprecedented Sino-US stability and provided key benefits to the leadership in Beijing, Bush is not a popular man with the populace of China. The reason is as predictable as it is simple: Iraq. China has a long and bloody history of foreign powers involving themselves in domestic politics. The very idea of a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation is a not a popular proposition anywhere, much less in a country that is still licking its wounds from what it terms its "century of shame" when the nation was carved up by colonial powers.
But apart from the actual invasion, America's justifications for the war struck a raw nerve here. Whether intended or not, Bush's reasons for war came across as didactic and messianic. Thus, Bush's bombast and rhetoric about the moral imperative of America and the transformative power of democracy appeared to China as thinly veiled imperialism and further hypocrisy. Coupled with the spy plane incident over Hainan Island in 2001, continued Chinese grievances over the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, and continued arm sales to and support of Taiwan, the Iraq War came to represent not only the very worst of Cowboy diplomacy, but also as further evidence of a perceived American desire to run the world at the expense of China. This historical exasperation and underlying suspicion coalesced to create a massive surge of antipathy towards Bush.
Therefore, despite Bush's overall positive impact on Sino-American relations, his exit is more bittersweet than one would expect given his largely positive record here. Indeed, George W. Bush departs defined by the Iraq War and its aftermath in a country that largely benefitted from his presidency. Thus, Bush's leaves a legacy of stability yet deep and simmering resentment in what will likely be America's most important partner as it hoists itself out of economic ruin.