For more than twenty years after the Communist Revolution in 1949, China and most of the western world had no diplomats in each others’ capitals and no direct way to communicate. Then, in July 1971, Henry Kissinger arrived secretly in Beijing on a mission which quickly led to the reopening of relations between China and the West and changed the course of post-war history.
For the past forty years, Kissinger has maintained close relations with successive generations of Chinese leaders, and has probably been more intimately connected with China at the highest level than any other western figure. This book distils his unique experience and long study of the ‘Middle Kingdom’, examining China’s history from the classical era to the present day, and explaining why it has taken the extraordinary course that it has.
The book concentrates on the decades since 1949, presenting portraits of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders, and reproducing verbatim Kissinger’s conversations with each of them. But Kissinger’s eye rarely leaves the long continuum of Chinese history: he describes the essence of China’s approach to diplomacy, strategy and negotiation, and the ways in which Communist-era statesmen have drawn on methods honed over millennia. At the end of the book, Kissinger reflects on these attitudes for our own era of economic interdependence and an uncertain future.
I had difficulty with Kissinger’s latest ode to China. There is perhaps no better author or statesman to turn to on the subject of the Middle Kingdom. And yet, with On China, we get a book that is ultimately quite disappointing. Yes, Kissinger writes extremely well, and the broad sweep of China’s history is detailed and interesting. Indeed, there may be no more accessible or engaging recent book on Chinese history and its contact with the United States. (I still think that Warren I. Cohen’s America’s Response to China remains the best volume available for US-China history.) However, there are nevertheless a couple of very important problems with the book that cannot go unmentioned. This, therefore, is not strictly speaking a review, but rather a reaction, if you will, to some of what I’ve read in and taken away from reading the book.
Specifically, my issues revolve around the chapter on Tiananmen Square (something I am currently writing a chapter on, myself, so it jumped out at me most). The book claims to be an in-depth look at the broad sweep of Chinese political history and, effectively, political thought – China’s approach to diplomacy, strategy and negotiation in particular, and that Chinese statesmen since 1949 have drawn on “methods honed over millennia”. On China is meant to be a detailed history of China’s foreign policy, and what has informed China’s engagement with the world. And yet, when writing on Tiananmen, Kissinger makes some strange choices, and draws some rather odd impressions. The Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the PRC’s extreme response to them are extremely important – some might say the most post-Cold War event – to any understanding of, among others, the US-China bilateral relationship: it had considerable impact on China’s foreign policy in the aftermath, and continues to inform, at least, America’s approach to China, and also domestic American impressions of the PRC.
And yet, Kissinger writes dismissively of the causes:
“This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has different perceptions depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis. The student unrest started as a demand for remedies to specific grievances. But the occupation of the main square of a country’s capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.” (411)
I have two things to write about this paragraph. First, given the premise of the book, this is exactly the place to examine the agendas and motivations behind the democracy movement in China. To ignore them leaves the whole event adrift and unmoored to reality, and feels like a calculated omission. Secondly, Kissinger has basically said “they brought it on themselves” about the peacefully protesting students and others who were involved. This, frankly, is absurd and callous. I do not for a second believe that the students protested in Tiananmen because they wanted the Communist Party leaders to send in the tanks and potentially kill many of them. Protesting in an open, visible and important area of the capital was intended to make the Chinese leadership take notice, which would likely not have happened anywhere else in the city or perhaps anywhere else in China. The students – whether protesting for democratic reforms or other grievances (according to Communist Party Chief Zhao Ziyang, “there was a lot of dissatisfaction with corruption” at the time in China, following the “incorruptible” regime of the well-liked Hu Yaobang) – had legitimate reasons for concern and disappointment in their government.
“The interpretation of history expresses the memory of a nation. And for this generation of China’s leaders, the traumatic event of China’s history was the collapse of central authority in China in the nineteenth century, which tempted the outside world into invasion, quasi-colonialism, or colonial competition and produced genocidal levels of casualties in civil wars, as in the Taiping Rebellion.” (423)
Here, too, I take issue with Kissinger’s argument. First of all, one of the key elements of Chinese history is that corrupt and aloof governments indifferent to the plight and concerns of its people have uniformly been toppled by popular protest and, at times, civil war. To equate the CCP’s heavy-handed, excessive response to the demonstrators as anything other than leaders worried about losing power is disingenuous – just as American politicians appealing to historic ideals of the Founding Fathers is nothing but attempts to hold on to power, the CCP’s crackdown in Tiananmen was nothing but authoritarian enforcement of control. Kissinger mentions in passing that Zhao Ziyang was “dismissed”, the assumption being that the massacre was the cause for his dismissal. It was not – he opposed sending in the troops, and was in North Korea when the trouble started (something Kissinger does not mention). As documented in his memoir, Prisoner of the State, sending in the PLA was the will of the hard-line conservative faction of the CCP, as opposed to Zhao’s more liberal, relatively open-to-political-developments faction. “If a political party has no check on its power, its officials easily become corrupt,” wrote Zhao. This is, in large part, what the demonstrators were protesting, as well as a general desire for greater democracy in China.
On China is, basically, a love letter to Chinese international realism. As Kissinger is one of the best-known practitioners of realpolitick, it is little wonder that he admires China’s ability to see the world through a lens of national interest – “The Chinese have been shrewd practitioners of Realpolitick and students of a strategic doctrine distinctly different from the strategy and diplomacy that found favor in the West.” (22) Kissinger compares America’s impression of the world – to compartmentalise issues; finding agreement in some areas, while also disagreement in others – to China’s tendency to see the world in all-or-nothing terms (relations are either warm or cold, in their entirety). Kissinger clearly does not approve of America’s liberal, “missionary” foreign policies, and seems to be lamenting, in part, the inability of American leaders to steer the US towards a more Chinese-style foreign policy. In some ways, Kissinger’s conception of China’s foreign policy is close to a purely realist Grand Strategy, while America’s “case-by-case” approach prohibits such a conceptual approach to foreign policy appears impossible. His discussion is almost wistful, seemingly disappointed that his own country cannot follow such a strategy all the time (the United States has undoubtedly followed realist strategies in the past, and there are times when a realist foreign policy is the best option, but international relations are too complex to follow a single strategy or theoretical ideology all the time). To be clear, Kissinger is right to identify the flaws in American foreign policy, but it would have been a lot better if he’d been as critical of China’s foreign policy as well.
On China, as I’ve mentioned, is a very well-written book, and there is invaluable content in the form of Kissinger’s verbatim recollections of talks with Chinese leaders (from extensive notes taken at the time), and the facts included are detailed and well-presented. However, it is the exclusions and analysis that weaken the book.
Well-written, but flawed and unconvincing in the argument that the United States should yield the world stage to China because, essentially, they can draw on a longer history? Kissinger does not include enough analysis of China’s material abilities to actually take on the role that the United States has been called on time and again to perform (and China’s material abilities lag far behind that of the US, despite America’s recent difficulties). Kissinger’s call for a new policy – involving a vague creation, a Pacific Community body (a beefed-up ASEAN, but also inspired by post-World War II plans for an Atlantic Community). This would see the powers in the region club together to work towards “peaceful development”, together – is disappointing as well in its vagueness and lack of recognition of the realities and rivalries inherent among the Asian powers. That a confrontation between the US and China must be avoided at all costs is obvious, but Kissinger doesn’t develop this fact any further than innumerable other writers have already done.
Read for his recollections of the US-China rapprochement and normalisation of relations, which are always good. His treatment of Chinese history is elegant and eloquent, and it is refreshing to read histories like this, where the author is eager to share and enthusiastic about his topic. However, given who Kissinger is, that he whitewashes certain aspects of Chinese recent history is very disappointing. A cynic might suggest that this was written, in part, with the Chinese leadership as an intended audience – Kissinger Associates have a lot of business connections and interests in China. I am only half a cynic...
Also try: Warren I. Cohen, America’s Response to China; George H.W. Bush & Jeffrey A. Engel (ed), The China Diary of George H.W. Bush; Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State; James Mann, The China Fantasy; Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy (forthcoming, 2011)