The Magazine

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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To the consternation of other states touching it, she has proclaimed her sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, hitherto international waters. She has turned up the heat in her dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands (called, in Chinese, Diaoyutai) to the extent that a recent confrontation saw two Japanese coast guard vessels rammed by a Chinese fishing ship. Her pressure on Arunachal Pradesh in India is unrelenting. Nor have the Americans been spared. In 2001 a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in China after a daredevil Chinese fighter pilot managed to collide with it, crashing his plane and losing his own life. In 2007 the U.S. carrier Kitty Hawk was turned away at the last moment from a long-planned Thanksgiving visit to Hong Kong, for which family members had already arrived. None of these incidents is fully understood. Clearly, enough people in China favor them that they happen; but evidence suggests that others, more aware of the international damage they do, presumably oppose them. For by such militancy, China simply elicits the result she most fears: encirclement by hostile states.

“China has a host of neighbors,” Kissinger sums up, “with significant military and economic capacities of their own. .  .  . China’s relations with almost all of them have deteriorated over the past one to two years.”

As Kissinger notes, if some sort of amity is to be maintained between the United States and China, and the real possibility of armed conflict avoided, some new framework is required to hold them together, some new common interest to replace the “defining shared purpose such as had united Beijing and Washington in resistance to Soviet ‘hegemonism.’ ” The possibility of finding such an interest, in turn, will depend not on geopolitics, as 40 years ago, but on the nature of China and the way her future unfolds. Now the question is what logical fit (if any) exists between the United States and China sufficient to justify major U.S. investment in the relationship. Answering this, in turn, means understanding China: her history, culture, diplomacy, present situation, and prospects—and this is what On China is really about.

Disappointingly, Kissinger’s outline and analysis of Chinese history follows very much what is official and prevailing in China today. It is a story of greatness embodied by the ancient and, as Kissinger puts it, “singular” civilization of China, encountering humiliation at the hands of foreigners, in the form of the British in the Opium Wars of the 1800s, followed by a period of decay, onto which scene, in 1949, breaks Mao Zedong—“a colossus” who reunites China, sets it on course to modernity and new greatness, and rules over it like an emperor. With the advent of communism, “China’s period of weakness and underachievement—one might call it China’s ‘long nineteenth century’—was officially drawn to a close.” Kissinger mentions some of Mao’s excesses—20 million dead in the great famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s (a very low estimate)—but tactfully does not dwell on them.

For Kissinger, as for the official historians of today, China is a single organism. A “special feature of Chinese civilization is that it seems to have no beginning. It appears in history less as a conventional nation-state than a permanent natural phenomenon.” Such is the continuity of Chinese civilization that “Chinese today can understand inscriptions written in the age of Confucius.” It has no foundation myth: The Yellow Emperor appears not when civilization begins but when it has fallen into chaos. Since then, “Chinese history featured many periods of civil war, interregnum, and chaos. After each collapse, the Chinese state reconstituted itself as if by some immutable law of nature.”

This section is difficult to review because it is so burdened with errors. Thus, one could point out that China, in fact, possesses several creation myths; the idea that it lacks one is a long-persisting error. So, too, is the idea that Kissinger later stresses of China’s self-conception as “the Middle Kingdom.” In fact, the characters comprising this term, zhongguo, antedate the creation of the first unified state on the great eastern plain of Eurasia, the Qin in 221 b.c., and are best understood as originally a plural: “the central states” or the “states around the center.”

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