WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush ’68 met Friday afternoon with Yale President Richard Levin, China’s Ambassador to the United States Zhou Wenzhong and other participants in the upcoming Yale trip to China.

At the Oval Office meeting, Bush conveyed his greetings to Chinese President Hu Jintao, who invited the Yale delegation to China in a speech at Yale in April 2006. The group of 100 faculty, students and administrators is expected to meet with senior Chinese government officials during the 10-day trip, which begins May 15.

Oval Office Visit

Participants on the trip to China meet with President Bush. (Courtesy Eric Draper)

Levin said the idea for the presidential sendoff originated with Zhou, and was organized by Yale. Bush has granted similar meetings to other Yale groups, including a number of Chinese officials participating in the China-Yale Senior Government Leadership Program last summer.

At Friday’s meeting, Bush spoke about the diplomatic importance of personal connections between Americans and the Chinese in overcoming American “protectionism” and “Chinese nationalism,” which he called the biggest prospective stumbling blocks to friendly relations between the two countries.

“The best diplomacy is … person-to-person diplomacy,” Bush said.

Bush voiced concern about some Americans’ belief that China is stealing jobs from the U.S., suggesting instead that the Chinese should create a better pension and old-age health care system so that Chinese consumers will save less and consume more American goods.

But Bush also referred to historic tensions between the United States and China over the issue of Taiwan, and when Zhou asked Bush to continue to keep an eye on Taiwan’s activities, Bush reiterated his opposition to any “unilateral” change — from the mainland government or from Taiwan — to the status quo.

A discussion of Sudan also exposed some disagreement between the two countries. Although cooperation between China and the U.S. over Sudan has improved in recent months, China — which invests heavily in Sudan and relies on its oil exports — has in the past been reluctant to intervene to stop violence in the Darfur region. When Zhou told Bush that China now plans to send a delegation of engineers to Sudan to pave the way for peacekeepers, Bush expressed appreciation for China’s willingness to become involved but also asked what engineers could do to save lives. In the event that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir does not allow peacekeeping troops into the country, Bush said, he is prepared to follow through on his earlier promise of sanctions.

Before the meeting at the White House, Zhou hosted a luncheon for the Yale group at his official residence. Wishing Levin and the students “bon voyage,” the ambassador described the trip as setting “another record for Yale” because sending a delegation of this size and composition is relatively unprecedented.

Topics of conversation at the lunch ranged from the next round of Chinese elections, expected to take place next year, to Chez Panisse — the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant started by Alice Waters, who also spearheaded the introduction of sustainable food to Yale dining halls.

The full delegation to China includes 62 undergraduate and graduate students and 38 faculty and administrators. The group will travel to Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, and their itinerary includes stops at major tourist destinations as well as meetings with professors and students from local universities.