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Message from Dr. K

Anything new from the old China hand?

Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By ARTHUR WALDRON
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On China

Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, ca. 1972

Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, ca. 1972

KPA / ZUMA Press / Newscom

by Henry Kissinger

Penguin, 608 pp., $36

Properly understood, this is not a book about what Henry Kissinger accomplished in the realm of U.S.-China relations, but rather a book about China herself: an attempt to answer the questions, what sort of civilization and country is China? And what sort of international behavior can we expect from China in the years ahead? Taken as such, it is, to be frank, disappointing.

For 40 years, Kissinger has enjoyed unmatched access to China at the highest level. He has made dozens of trips there. In government he was instrumental in the establishment of relations between Beijing and Washington. Since leaving government, who can doubt that his lobbying firm, Kissinger Associates (not mentioned in the book), has done much business with China, or that the services of a former secretary of state do not come cheap? He has probably conversed—through an interpreter, of course, always—with more members of China’s ruling elite, and at greater length—than any other living American.

Yet as will be seen, his account of China is so flawed that it probably would not pass muster in a good university master’s degree program. It combines the worst of the romanticism and mythmaking about China that have characterized writing on that subject for at least a hundred years with a clear deference to the account of China’s history that is today official in China. It ignores or sidesteps most that is not officially admired, whether the accomplishments of pre-Communist China or the tensions and contradictions of the present, including even the only recent event considered by the Chinese so important that it is designated simply by date—liu si (six four), June 4, 1989: “This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy of Tiananmen Square .  .  .”

But Kissinger does get one big thing right, something that is widely missed or glossed over, both in academic and governmental circles: He understands that today’s U.S.-Chinese relationship lacks a firm foundation in shared interests of the sort that made possible its initiation. When rapprochement began—in the late 1960s and early ’70s—the split between China and her former patron the Soviet Union had escalated to military confrontation. The Chinese initiated fighting on the disputed Zhenbaodao (or Damansky) Island in the Ussuri River, which at that point marks the international boundary, part of a crisis that eventually saw a million Soviet troops deployed to Chinese border regions. Beijing had firmly rebuffed attempts to establish contact by earlier American administrations—that of John F. Kennedy most notably—but with the Soviet bear at the door she realized her security demanded a heavyweight ally, which could only be the United States. This geopolitical fact opened the trail that Richard Nixon and Kissinger followed and that led eventually, in 1979, to the breaking of all diplomatic relations with Taipei, which we had hitherto recognized as representing China, and the exchange of ambassadors with Beijing.

That era, however, and the geopolitical situation that it presented have now vanished. The result is that, as Kissinger recognizes, we currently have a major and multifaceted relationship with China that lacks any fundamental rationale persuasive enough to see it through hard times.

One of the facets of that relationship is a newly articulated ambition for world power on the part of some (not all) in China. Kissinger quotes Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, who has written that “if China in the 21st century cannot become world number one, cannot become the top power, then inevitably it will become a straggler that is cast aside.” In the last decade, China has taken some steps seemingly directed to that goal—able, as Kissinger notes, “to go it alone because the fear of the Soviet Union, which had brought China and the United States together” has receded.

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