On China by Henry Kissinger
August 4, 2011 by Bob Livingston
But no matter what you may think about Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Adviser for Richard Nixon and as Secretary of State for the Nixon and Ford Administrations, his latest book, On China, is a valuable read for anyone wishing to better understand how China has emerged as a hugely influential political power.
The first half of Kissinger’s book offers a brief, clearly explained summary of China’s history as a titanic, dominant force in Asia. It makes clear that the Chinese have long seen themselves as the center of world culture and have traditionally proved uninterested in colonizing, conquering or even visiting other countries. For most of their history, the Chinese have considered their own society as the pinnacle of human accomplishment. In that context, they saw no point in interactions with other, “barbarian” countries or letting foreigners have free access to Chinese knowledge or civilization.
In the early 1400s, before Columbus had even played with toy boats in a bathtub, Chinese Admiral Zhen He had sailed to Java, India, the Horn of Africa and the Strait of Hormuz. As Kissinger notes, “China’s fleet possessed what would have seemed an unbridgeable technological advantage…” over European ships. So what did the Chinese do with this advantage? They called off the voyages and, for some inscrutable reason, the Chinese Emperor ordered the fleet dismantled and tried to destroy all written records of the naval explorations.
Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century when Mao Zedong has taken over mainland China and practically destroyed the country with his warped philosophy and practice of constant revolution. Mao, a fierce communist, was, in theory, allied with the Soviet Union in a worldwide effort to defeat capitalist imperialist countries like the United States. However, a closer look at Chinese history shows that this analysis of China’s situation was way too simplistic. For instance, Russia and China were anything but natural allies. Instead, their political systems and territorial desires made them rivals, each expressing conflicting claims for territory in places like Manchuria.
At the same time, Mao’s periodic purges of the Chinese Communist Party, elimination of many of his military commanders and misguided economic plans had killed off 40 million to 50 million of his people by the late 1960s. It is against this backdrop that Kissinger discusses the historic meetings staged between Mao and President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Kissinger maintains that these events gave birth to a beneficial reordering of international relations between Asia and the United States.
Certainly, you can’t question that these meetings changed the way China and the U.S. interact. Before Nixon met with Mao, the relationship between the two countries was distant and frosty.
Still, even though Kissinger considers himself a canny strategist, some have questioned the wisdom of letting Nixon go visit Mao. Certainly, Nixon himself seemed to get great domestic advantage from the visit. It distracted from our ongoing failure in Vietnam. It slowed the momentum of some of Nixon’s political opponents. Kissinger got great advantage from them, too, maneuvering these meetings into decades of employment as the chief U.S. expert on Chinese affairs. Since leaving government service, he has enjoyed a lucrative career as a consultant for North American companies doing business with China.
But what did the U.S. get out of defrosting Sino-U.S. dealings? Experts generally agree that in 1972 the Soviets were probably about to go to war with China when Nixon’s making nice with Mao persuaded them to back off. If we had let that war take place, the conflict would obviously have increased our advantage over both of these communist countries. It would have hampered China’s ability to aid North Vietnam. The great drain on Soviet manpower and resources might have sped the downfall of the Soviet Union.
However, Kissinger never really addresses these issues. Instead, we are treated to an inside look at his secret meetings with Chinese leaders. And you have to wonder at the madness transpiring at the top of the Chinese ruling hierarchy. At times, the aging Mao sounds a bit like a deranged fortune cookie. During one meeting, he instructs his functionaries to tell the Americans that “although all under the heaven(s) is in great chaos, the situation is wonderful.”
Most startling of all, Mao tells Kissinger “… people like me sound a lot of big cannons. That is, things like ‘the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries and establish socialism.’”
In the book, Kissinger reminds us that this phrase, calling for the world to defeat “imperialism, revisions and reactionaries,” was the key slogan used by Mao and Chinese communists for decades, appearing on posters throughout the country. So when Mao laughs and informs Kissinger and Nixon that they shouldn’t take this sloganeering seriously, he reveals an evil cynicism behind the murderous insanity that has destroyed millions of Chinese lives.
And while Kissinger acknowledges how he was startled at Mao’s attitude behind closed doors, he never probes the full implications of what the crazed, tyrannical Mao has told him. You get the feeling that even today, at age 88, long after Mao has passed away, Kissinger is still treating this monstrous Chinese leader with deference even though he was a disgusting monster.