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.
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.”
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).