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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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To turn to more contemporary issues, Kissinger is not even clear about the administrative status of Taiwan within the Chinese system, despite what must amount to hundreds of hours discussing the island and its future. He explains, in connection with a meeting held in the Fujian Room of the Great Hall of the People, that the island “belonged” to Fujian province—which it did from its conquest by the Qing, in 1683, until 1895—but does not mention that it then became a province according to the dynasty. Perhaps Kissinger phrases things this way because the United States takes no position on the international status of Taiwan. But assuming that degree of knowledge, how could the Americans have missed the significance of the choice of venue, as he says they did? (Taiwan is described as a province in the constitution of the People’s Republic, while many Taiwanese consider it an independent state.)

Kissinger is fascinated by what he sees as the subtlety and indirection of Chinese diplomacy, and he is, to some extent, correct about this. Unlike their American counterparts, Chinese diplomats are usually fluent in their counterpart’s language and thoroughly on top of their brief. They may use allusions to Western literature to convey messages. In one case, a Chinese reference to Dickens—“Barkis is willin’ ” from David Copperfield—was nearly missed because of ignorance on the American side. No one who has experienced Chinese hospitality (and who has experienced more than Henry Kissinger?) can fail to be impressed by it, and its ability to win over those to whom it is applied. We should not forget, however, that subtlety and indirection are simply one side of the hand: The other is the use of force. Thus, Kissinger mentions “one of the subtle gestures at which [the Chinese] are so adept.” The following two pages then chronicle the missile firings into waters near Taiwan during 1995-96, the second of which, when the Chinese bracketed the island by hitting very near its two most important ports, led to the dispatch of two U.S. aircraft carriers. How subtle were these gestures? Or for that matter, how subtle were the various incidents already catalogued here?

Kissinger effectively skips over the sensitive period of the Republic of China (1911-1949, thereafter an exile government in Taiwan), not even using the words in the text, in keeping with the Communist idea that the first few decades of the 20th century were not really a republic or a state at all but, rather, a period of chaos that the true republic, the People’s Republic (1949-), brought to an end. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. From its birth in 1911 until the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, the Republic of China was a dynamic and creative society, far freer in every respect than its successor. Initially, the Republic had an elected parliament—its building, the last time I looked, could still be seen in the precincts of the New China News Agency in Beijing—though military rule soon suppressed it. But even when the military was in power, it (like the Communists today) paid tribute to the Chinese aspiration for free and democratic rule by writing such structures into their constitutions, only to ignore them.

It was in Republican times that the great universities of China were founded, when the arts flourished, when writers such as Lu Xun and Mao Dun produced their greatest work, when modern medicine was introduced, and the still-leading Xiehe Hospital in the capital built. This was a time when political parties could be formed, when the press was relatively free and full of criticism. It was the time when the great issues of China’s future, still relevant, were spelled out and openly debated. This period also saw dramatic economic growth and was the time when Shanghai became the greatest city of Asia. Most important for Kissinger’s purposes, this was the seedtime of modern Chinese diplomacy. He spends some time, near the beginning of the book, discussing the concepts of Sun Zi and the game of Chinese chess; but if he really wants to understand how China interacts with the world today, he would do better to study the diplomacy of the Washington Conference (1921-22) and, in particular, the career of V. K. Wellington Koo, the brilliant, Columbia-educated foreign minister for several regimes, whose strategies of negotiation and international law are the foundation of nearly all Chinese practice, whether in Beijing or Taipei.

The one place where Kissinger’s interpretation of Chinese history departs slightly from today’s Chinese narrative—and, perhaps, dips into the way things were taught at Harvard in the 1960s—is his persistent interpretation of the state as a continuous Confucian bureaucratic structure, which the Communists have now taken over and imbued with Communist, rather than Confucian, values. He tells us that he discussed this interpretation with Zhou Enlai, who vigorously dissented: “Zhou exploded, the only time I saw him lose his temper. Confucianism, he said, was a doctrine of class oppression, while Communism represented a philosophy of liberation.” In vindication of his interpretation, Kissinger tells us twice that China has recently marked Confucius’ rehabilitation by the installation, on January 11, of a statue of The Sage, massive and in bronze, in Tiananmen Square, “within sight of Mao’s mausoleum—the only other personality so honored.” Unfortunately, Kissinger’s manuscript seems to have gone to press in time for him to know that the statue had been installed, but before it was removed in April and consigned to the courtyard of a museum.

Yet the appearance and disappearance of the statue suggest the beginning of an answer to the question that has impelled Kissinger to write his book. For what the saga tells us is that, initially, there were in the leadership enough powerful people to push through a decision to commission the statue, cast it, and place it in the square. (If it was destined for the museum, it could have gone there directly.) It is hard to see how even the top leader, Hu Jintao, could not have been aware of this decision, which is a remarkable one, given that the entire history of Communist thought could, with only slight oversimplification, be summed up as an attack on Confucius and his legacy. So the disappearance of the statue tells us that, just as there was a group powerful enough to cause its initial installation, by the same token, once it was installed, a group formed that was powerful enough to force its removal. The Chinese leadership, in other words, is deeply divided about what it wants the future China to be. Is it to be a red Confucian dynasty, as Kissinger suggests? Or is it somehow to keep faith with its originally proclaimed values of egalitarianism, freedom, and revolution?

A struggle for the future is underway. We know this, moreover, not simply by the example of the statue (which Kissinger may use because it implies official approval) but also because of the tension and turmoil in Chinese society today. If peace in the world depends, to a considerable extent, on order in China—as Kissinger maintains Deng Xiaoping believed—then future peace will depend on how the current struggle for the soul of China comes out. If, somehow, stability is maintained even as political reforms are carried out, then we can hope for a relatively tranquil relationship. But make no mistake: These reforms will mean transforming China into a modern, law-abiding, and democratic state, like India or Japan, featuring individual rights, fair laws and equal justice, elections, and the like. This is a tall order. But just as some in Beijing favored erecting the statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square, some even in authority privately understand the imperative.

This is not to mention the powerful dissatisfaction of large portions of the Chinese population with things as they are. Confrontations with the police and attacks on officials are now commonplace, as is written dissent and ridicule of the regime. Kissinger does not mention any of this, nor does he note that Beijing now spends more on internal security than on its military establishment. The name of the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo does not appear in the index—not to mention other dissenters, such as the Falun Gong, or Christians, or human rights activists. These do not figure in the official narrative and, I fear for this reason, they are missing from Kissinger’s as well.

Toward the end, Kissinger fishes for some sort of means to ensure that America and China continue to share goals strongly enough to avoid conflict. Since he does not permit himself to talk about the real key, which is the future of the Chinese regime, he comes up with the somewhat doubtful concept of a “Pacific Community” as the answer. One can only imagine the scorn that the realpolitiker Kissinger would have poured on this idea had someone else proposed it.

For make no mistake: If 40 years ago it was the alignment of great powers that determined the future of Chinese-American relations, today it is the state of power within the People’s Republic that will determine the future. With a free and reformed China, the possibilities for cooperation are limitless; after all, U.S.-China relations were cordial from the turn of the last century until the advent of the Communists. But if the Chinese government continues with its current policies, under which the preservation of dictatorial one-party rule is the supreme goal, and if that is enforced violently at home, with perhaps a little stoking of nationalism by foreign adventures, the future is potentially as bleak as Kissinger understands it may be.

Arthur Waldron, Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of the forthcoming The Chinese (Wiley-Blackwell).

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