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Henry Kissinger’s On China

by Elizabeth C. Economy
May 26, 2011

Chinese President Jiang Zemin talks to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a luncheon address to U.S. business groups in New York October 23, 1995.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin talks to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a luncheon address to U.S. business groups in New York October 23, 1995. (Jim Bourg / Courtesy Reuters)

A month or so ago, a publicist for Henry Kissinger’s new book On China sent along an advance copy for me to review on Asia Unbound.  Since the book runs over 500 pages, it took me a while to find the time to sit down and plow through it.  In the meantime, some excellent reviews by Jonathan Spence and the Economist, as well as a fascinating interview between Kissinger and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, have been published that bear reading.

After picking up and putting down the book several times over the past few days, what struck me most were not the amusing anecdotes and insights—and there were certainly some to be found—but rather the very narrow lens through which Mr. Kissinger views China. The result is that he illuminates one aspect of the country exceedingly well, but obfuscates easily as much in the process.

Mr. Kissinger tells his story through the eyes of China’s paramount leaders: Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and, to a lesser extent, Hu Jintao. This gives an appealing spareness and elegance to the narrative, but it is disconcerting as well, particularly since Mr. Kissinger is such a fan of China’s leaders.

Mr. Kissinger portrays Mao Zedong, for example, as selflessly committed to perpetual revolution for the sake of transforming China into a great power. He does not offer an alternative plausible explanation—that Mao’s perpetual revolution (and practice of imprisoning virtually all of his top advisors who challenged him in the midst of his crazy campaign fervor) might have derived at least partly from his wish to keep his rivals off balance and remain in power.

This sense of tunnel vision is heightened by the strongly deterministic bent of Mr. Kissinger’s narrative: China’s history is that of a once and destined-to-be-again great power. With that as his framework, China’s political culture, as well as every policy initiative, and every period of tumult and transition propel China toward this great power end state. China’s leaders are wise and strategic, and the Chinese people are patient and resilient.

Since China’s future is pre-ordained, Mr. Kissinger does not find much need to illuminate the nuances and complexity of Chinese policy. Mr. Kissinger briefly mentions the 2001 EP-3 incident, in which a Chinese fighter jet crashed and a U.S. spy plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island and the crew was kept for 11 days. The incident clearly demonstrated the lack of a crisis management mechanism both within China as well as between China and the United States. It also was one of the first times that Chinese nationalism—expressed via the Internet—was turned against a Chinese leader, in this case Jiang Zemin, for being too weak in the face of perceived U.S. aggression. Mr. Kissinger’s assessment of the event, however, was merely that neither Jiang Zemin nor President Bush allowed the incident to torpedo the relationship. True, but not terribly enlightening.

Of course, it is precisely this elite perspective that makes Mr. Kissinger’s book unique. And, if read alongside other books on Chinese history and foreign policy, then On China is value-added. There are several fascinating anecdotes from times when Mr. Kissinger sat next to Mao, Zhou, and Deng that no one else can offer in precisely the same first-hand manner. As an added bonus, as I noted earlier, Mr. Kissinger writes in an elegant and spare manner, which makes even 500 pages a reasonably easy read.

Two final notes for the potential reader: Given the title “On China”, I was surprised that the book was a history book—and primarily a history of Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations at that. While there is some discussion of what transpires within China, the focus is on China’s strategic outlook and foreign policy. So don’t pick up the book to gain insight into the dramatic political, social, and economic trends that are shaping the country today. Do pick it up if it will be fun for you—as it was for me—to  see parallels between how Chinese foreign policy was conducted in the 1800s and how it is conducted today.

And perhaps a nitpick: Somewhere in the book Mr. Kissinger should have mentioned that he left statesmanship with China for business with China. Nowhere does he discuss Kissinger Associates, the highly successful consulting firm he founded almost three decades ago, which does a thriving business providing entrée to Chinese officials and business leaders for foreign companies. Indeed, Mr. Kissinger has spent more time negotiating business than negotiating policy.

I don’t think that Mr. Kissinger’s views of Chinese political history have been unduly shaped by the past thirty years of doing business. As former congressman Stephen Solarz is quoted as saying in Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger: A Biography, “Dr. Kissinger has always defended oppressive dictatorships whether or not he had a financial stake in them.” Still, it seems like a rather significant omission in such a personal accounting. We might also have benefited from Mr. Kissinger’s real-time insights on China. Then again, I suppose we already know what he would say.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Rodney W. Nichols

    Brilliantly fair and critical all at once. Liz cares about evidence and objectivity — and she can assess China as well as any analyst around. Yes, Kissinger’s book is a wonderful read, and yes, he is hardly the only expert on the underlying reasons and purposes for China’s actions today and into the future.

  • Posted by Gringo Capet

    For many in the US establishment and its fringes, China has been the ‘near-peer rival’ since at least the mid-1990s; and for good reason. At least since mid-1989, when the 41st President took some credit for the USA in building the intellectual bases through scholarly exchanges, especially the large flow of Chinese youth to US campuses and back, for the pro-democracy movement which was eventually crushed at the Tienanmen Square and surrounding districts in early June, many Chinese have suspected that the USA has been working to subvert the PRC and integrate it into the US-led security order as the kind of subordinate actor that Boris Yeltsin’s Russia became in the early 1990s. Most Chinese interested in their country’s foreign relations reject such an approach.

    After nearly two decades of covert collaboration against the Soviet Union, the US and China have clearly drifted apart. In the context of transitional fluidity at the systemic level, this drift is potentially destabilising and even threatening. But the present state of affairs did not suddenly materialise. US persistence in formally maintaining the ‘one China’ policy juxtaposed to the contradictions of the Taiwan Relations Act (having one’s strategic cake and eating it, too!), deployment of two carrier strike groups off Taiwan to deter Chinese military action, the ‘accidental’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 (no Chinese analyst I have spoken to on this – almost all of them US returnees – believes the USAF could have erroneously struck the Chinese chancery), the EP-3 vs. J-8II collision in April 2001, the more recent ‘Impeccable incident,’ and continuous close-in US surveillance of Chinese naval/air surface- and submarine activities, added to the boosted forward deployments of PACOM forces, repeated naval-air exercises in China’s vicinity, and reinforced alliances with China’s neighbours have created a backdrop against which the formal roll-out of the AirSea Battle operational concept designed to deter, and if deterrence failed, defeat in battle the PLA, has placed China in the 21st century in the position in which the Soviet Union found itself in the late 20th, ironically, against a clandestine US-China coalition.

    The critical issue for the two powers is to manage the dynamic transition which they, and the rest of us, are experiencing and one whose end-state is less than clear at this stage. The fact that Sino-US economic, financial and commercial relations have acquired semi-symbiotic features which could generate suicidal pressures for both if dramatic disruptions, such as military conflict, burst forth, should give warriors on both shores of the Pacific thoughtful pause.

    The problem for the rest of us is that if the USA and China went down, they would take the planet with them. Where is sober statesmanship so apparent in 1989-91 now when we need it even more!

  • Posted by MichalG

    Good to know that there is another book from H. Kissinger! He is right that Chinese have a lot of time and wisdom.

    I don’t think that they need to attack anyone. They can simple win economically.

  • Posted by Marty Martel

    This book ‘On China’ by Henry Kissinger is an attempt to justify what was considered by American foreign policy establishment as Kissinger/Nixon’s ‘stroke of genius’ in 1972 but now has come back to haunt U. S. with the rise of China to challenge America’s super power status in the world.

    Afterall China was a pariah country in the world just like today’s North Korea until Nixon’s 1972 visit. All the West European and East Asian countries stayed away from China following the US lead until 1972 and embraced China after Nixon’s visit. While US would not give MFN status to Soviet Union (remember Jackson-Vanik amendment?) unless Russia shed Communism, it had no problem giving it to China’s Communist dictators with a capitalist mask. Trade with China expanded by leaps and bounds during 12 years of Republican rule beginning in 1981. After campaigning against butchers of Beijing in 1992 elections, even Bill Clinton became enthusiastic supporter of trade with China once he took lessons in foreign policy from Nixon in early 1993 during a special Whitehouse-arranged meeting. US also promoted China to a super power status by accepting it as a permanent UNSC member.

    Had it not been for that Nixon embrace in 1972, China’s rise to super power status would have been far more slower with all the US, West European and East Asian markets closed to cheap Chinese products. Had it not been for that Nixon embrace, China’s technological progress would have been far slower in the absence of West’s technology transfers. Had it not been for that Nixon embrace, China’s military progress would have been far slower in the absence of huge forex reserves that China accumulated from the massive exports of cheap Chinese products and China used those forex reserves to acquire latest military technology.

    Now China has US by the tail – US businesses are hooked to huge profits that cheap Chinese products generate for them as a walk through any Walmart, Home Depot, Sears and Macy’s filled with Chinese goods prove and US government is hooked to huge investments that China makes in US treasuries from the sales of cheap Chinese products to US businesses.

    Little could Mao or Deng have imagined that by wearing a capitalist mask, their followers will beat capitalists at their own game. Lenin used to say that ’capitalists will sell us the ropes with which we will hang them’. With West selling such proverbial ropes in the form of technology transfers, Chinese Communists have proven that Lenin saying quite prophetic.

    It behooves China to erect the statue of anti-Communist Nixon right next to die-hard Communist Mao in Beijing for speeding up China’s rise to super power status.

    The second cold war has already started, this time between US and China. And if US had upper hand against Soviet Union in first cold war, then creditor China has upper hand against debtor US in this second cold war.

    China’s rise to super power status to challenge US is a fitting monument to the much-celebrated far-sightedness of Nixon-Kissinger to embrace China to counter Soviet Union in 1972 just as 9/11 attacks is a fitting monument to Reagan embrace of Islamic fundamentalists to counter Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan.

  • Posted by Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours

    I too would have liked a note regarding Kissinger’s foray into the business world but as you say, it is a small nitpick.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the book for what it was. Thanks for taking the time to read and review it!

  • Posted by Rodney Faraon

    The criticism of Mr. Kissinger’s perspective on China — that it is too focused on its senior leadership and not on the broader trends that China comprises — is fair.

    But it is precisely this perspective that has made him such a successful interlocutor for those same leaders. He understands how they view the world and how they view themselves, and thus, how they govern China. Undoubtedly, this ability to empathize has benefited him in his official and private sector roles in life.

  • Posted by Myles Kesten

    I too enjoyed reading Dr. Kissinger’s latest book but not without reservation. The focus on Vietnam’s 3 wars was a great reminder that while the US incursion was not successful, they weren’t the only ones who screwed up. I also found Dr. Kissinger’s portrait of Mao hard to stomach and veer toward those who see Mao’s policies as being more self-serving. He also portrays Republican presidents as more all-seeing than Democrat presidents. This is particularly noticeable to an outsider, as I am Canadian. I haven’t found the reviews of the work particularly insightful, and I was particularly disappointed with the Spence review mentioned above. It seems as though nobody is willing to take the gloves off with Kissinger. A useful coda to the book would be the recent Munk Debate in Toronto which has Kissinger going toe-to-toe with Niall Ferguson on the question “Does the 21st Century belong to China?” A condensed version of the debate can be found as a podcast CBC’s Ideas program.

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