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BOOKS | BOOKS OF THE TIMES
An Insider Views China, Past and Future
By MICHIKO KAKUTANIMAY 9, 2011
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It’s been four decades since President Richard M. Nixon sent Henry A. Kissinger to Beijing to re-establish contact with China, an ancient civilization with which the United States, at that point, had had no high-level diplomatic contact for more than two decades. Since then the cold war has ended; the Soviet Union (a threat to both China and the United States and a spur to Sino-American cooperation) has come unwound; and economic reform in China has transformed a poverty-ridden, poorly educated nation into a great power that is playing an increasingly pivotal role in the globalized world.
Mr. Kissinger’s fascinating, shrewd and sometimes perverse new book, “On China,” not only addresses the central role he played in Nixon’s opening to China but also tries to show how the history of China, both ancient and more recent, has shaped its foreign policy and attitudes toward the West. While this volume is indebted to the pioneering scholarship of historians like Jonathan D. Spence, its portrait of China is informed by Mr. Kissinger’s intimate firsthand knowledge of several generations of Chinese leaders.
The book deftly traces the rhythms and patterns in Chinese history (its cycles of turning inward in isolationist defensiveness and outward to the broader world), even as it explicates the philosophical differences that separate it from the United States. Each country has a sense of manifest destiny, but “American exceptionalism is missionary,” Mr. Kissinger says. “It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world.”
China’s exceptionalism, in contrast, he says, is cultural: China does not proselytize or claim that its institutions “are relevant outside China,” yet it tends to grade “all other states as various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms.”
Lurking beneath Mr. Kissinger’s musings on Chinese history is a not-so-subtle subtext. This volume, much like his 1994 book, “Diplomacy,” is also a sly attempt by a controversial figure to burnish his legacy as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. It is a book that promotes Mr. Kissinger’s own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Mao’s ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of more recent American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese.
Some of the more revealing exchanges between Mr. Kissinger and Mao have already appeared in the 1999 book “The Kissinger Transcripts,” taken from the nongovernmental National Security Archive. Those documents show that Mr. Kissinger employed a good deal more flattery in his wrangling with foreign leaders than his personal accounts might suggest. A lot of the backstage maneuvering in the Nixon White House’s dealings with China will similarly be familiar in outline to readers of Margaret MacMillan’s“Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World” and William Bundy’s “Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency.”
When it comes to talking about Chinese leaders he has met, Mr. Kissinger, the hardheaded apostle of realpolitik, can sound almost starry-eyed. His sympathy for these leaders is not that surprising, given his descriptions of them as practitioners of the same sort of unsentimental power politics he is famous for himself. This approach, he says, enabled China, “despite its insistent Communist propaganda, to conduct itself as essentially a geopolitical ‘free agent’ of the cold war,” making a tactical partnership with the United States in order to contain its fellow Communist country, the Soviet Union.
Zhou Enlai, left, and Henry Kissinger in Beijing in 1971. CreditHenry Kissinger Archives/Library of Congress
This sort of pragmatic self-interest on China’s part, Mr. Kissinger says, has continued. After 9/11, he writes: “China remained an agnostic bystander to the American projection of power across the Muslim world and above all to the Bush administration’s proclamation of ambitious goals of democratic transformation. Beijing retained its characteristic willingness to adjust to changes in alignments of power and in the composition of foreign governments without passing a moral judgment.”
Regarding the brutal crackdown on dissidents by the government of Deng Xiaoping at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Mr. Kissinger says that the American reaction left the Chinese puzzled: “They could not understand why the United States took umbrage at an event that had injured no American material interests and for which China claimed no validity outside its own territory.”
For that matter, Mr. Kissinger’s own take on Tiananmen and the Chinese government has a determinedly “on the one hand, on the other hand” feel: “Like most Americans, I was shocked by the way the Tiananmen protest was ended. But unlike most Americans, I had had the opportunity to observe the Herculean task Deng had undertaken for a decade and a half to remold his country: moving Communists toward acceptance of decentralization and reform; traditional Chinese insularity toward modernity and a globalized world — a prospect China had often rejected. And I had witnessed his steady efforts to improve Sino-American ties.”
Mr. Kissinger is even more chillingly cavalier about the tens of millions of people who lost their lives during Mao’s years in power and the devastating fallout of his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Mr. Kissinger writes about what he describes as a “poignant” scene in which “Nixon complimented Mao on having transformed an ancient civilization, to which Mao replied: ‘I haven’t been able to change it. I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.’ ”
Mr. Kissinger then, startlingly, adds: “After a lifetime of titanic struggle to uproot Chinese society, there was not a little pathos in Mao’s resigned recognition of the pervasiveness of Chinese culture and the Chinese people.”
Buying into many of the myths Mao promoted about himself, Mr. Kissinger describes him as “the philosopher king.”
“Mao enunciated the doctrine of ‘continuous revolution,’ but when the Chinese national interest required it, he could be patient and take the long view,” he writes. “The manipulation of ‘contradictions’ was his proclaimed strategy, yet it was in the service of an ultimate goal drawn from the Confucian concept of da tong, or the Great Harmony.”
For some people, Mr. Kissinger acknowledges, “the tremendous suffering Mao inflicted on his people will dwarf his achievements.” But he also delivers this coldblooded rationalization: “If China remains united and emerges as a 21st-century superpower,” many Chinese may come to regard him as they do the early emperor Qin Shihuang, “whose excesses were later acknowledged by some as a necessary evil.”
The portraits Mr. Kissinger draws of Mao’s successors project an appreciative intimacy. He remembers Zhou Enlai as conducting “conversations with the effortless grace and superior intelligence of the Confucian sage.” He adds that the elegant Zhou — who would be “criticized for having concentrated on softening some of Mao’s practices rather than resisting them” — faced the classic quandary of the “adviser to the prince,” who must balance “the benefits of the ability to alter events against the possibility of exclusion, should he bring his objections to any one policy to a head.”
Of Deng Xiaoping, a “doughty little man with the melancholy eyes,” Mr. Kissinger reminds us that Deng and his family suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution — he was exiled to perform manual labor, and his son, Mr. Kissinger writes, was “tormented by Red Guards and pushed off the top of a building at Beijing University” and denied admission to a hospital for his broken back. Upon his return to government, Deng worked to replace the Revolution’s emphasis on ideological purity with the values of “order, professionalism and efficiency,” and Mr. Kissinger credits him with fashioning the modernizations that would transform “Mao’s drab China of agricultural communes” into a bustling economic giant.
There are few new insights into Nixon here. Mr. Kissinger obliquely acknowledges what critics like the historian Robert Dallek have argued: that Nixon tried to use his initiatives with China and the Soviet Union to distract attention from his failures in Vietnam. Among the reasons Nixon’s trip to China occurred in the first place, Mr. Kissinger writes, were Mao’s desire to make “a move that might force the Soviets to hesitate before taking on China militarily” and Nixon’s eagerness “to raise American sights beyond Vietnam.”
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June 14, 2011
I like that he is justifying his actions of the past about China, I hope he takes some respoinsibility of make China larger than what it...
June 11, 2011
I believe that history will remember the silence of Western leaders and news outlets. Through their policies of free trade with Communist...
May 19, 2011
Mr.Kissinger long time ago should have been shipped to the Haig where he should have been tried as a war criminal. He and Mr. Nixon in 1968...
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Mr. Kissinger also says that the secrecy surrounding negotiations with China (“Nixon had decided that the channel to Beijing should be confined to the White House”) “nearly derailed the enterprise,” when an out-of-the-loop State Department dismissed an invitation Mao had made to Nixon in an interview as not serious, and described Chinese foreign policy as “expansionist” and “rather paranoiac.”
Although Mr. Kissinger does not delve into recent debates over the enormous amount of United States debt that China holds, or how an increasingly ascendant China could affect the rest of the world (the subject of books like Martin Jacques’s “When China Rules the World” and James Kynge’s “China Shakes the World”), he observes that President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao “presided over a country that no longer felt constrained by the sense of apprenticeship to Western technology and institutions,” and that the 2008 economic meltdown “seriously undermined the mystique of Western economic prowess” among the Chinese.
These developments, in turn, Mr. Kissinger argues, have prompted a “new tide of opinion in China — among the vocal younger generation of students and Internet users and quite possibly in portions of the political and military leadership — to the effect that a fundamental shift in the structure of the international system was taking place.”
Arguing that a cooperative United States-China relationship is “essential to global stability and peace,” Mr. Kissinger warns that were a cold war to develop between the countries, it “would arrest progress for a generation on both sides of the Pacific” and “spread disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when global issues such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy security and climate change impose global cooperation.” Mr. Kissinger, it should be noted, is chairman of Kissinger Associates Inc., an international consulting firm that does work with companies that have business interests in China.
“Relations between China and the United States,” he writes, “need not — and should not — become a zero-sum game.”
By Henry Kissinger
Illustrated. 586 pages. Penguin Press. $36.
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