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Book Review: On China by Henry Kissinger


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The mandarin emeritus sees China's future in its very ancient past. Christopher Buckley reviews

On China

By Henry Kissinger

Penguin Press; 608pp; $36

Oh, warm and fuzzy China: torturing and jailing dissidents, hacking into Gmail, cozying up to the worst regimes on earth, refusing to float the renminbi, spewing fluorocarbons into the ozone, building up its navy, and stealing military secrets—all while enabling America's fiscal incontinence by buying all those T-bills. The $1.1 trillion question at the start of what's been called "The Chinese Century" is simple: Friend or enemy? Frenemy?

While Henry Kissinger doesn't quote Mario Puzo, Don Corleone's maxim, "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer," echoes throughout his grand, sweeping tutorial, On China. Kissinger has been the go-to China wise man since his first secret meeting there in 1971. And in the intervening decades, he's made 50-odd trips back, often carrying critical messages between leaders, defusing crises, or pleading with each side to understand the other's position. His perennial ambassadorship-at-large puts readers right in the room with Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Hu Jintao.

It also overflows with a lifetime of privileged observations. Here's a great one: Why did China invade Vietnam in 1979? To "teach it a lesson," Kissinger writes, for its border clashes with the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. But when the Soviet Union failed to come to Vietnam's aid, China concluded it had "touched the Tiger's buttocks" with impunity, he writes. "In retrospect," Kissinger explains, "Moscow's relative passivity ... can be seen as the first symptom of the decline of the Soviet Union. One wonders whether the Soviets' decision a year later to intervene in Afghanistan was prompted in part by an attempt to compensate for their ineffectuality in supporting Vietnam against the Chinese." As such, Kissinger asserts, the 1979 clash "can be considered a turning point of the Cold War, though it was not fully understood as such at the time." Of course! Just the proverbial game of dominoes—with the pieces very widely separated. As for the psychology behind China's extraordinary death toll in Vietnam, more on that in a minute.

While Kissinger can appear to be an apologist for—or explainer-away of—Chinese un-fuzzy behavior, he demonstrates a profound understanding of the impulses behind that behavior. And those impulses, he believes, go back many thousands of years. During a meeting in the 1990s, then-President Jiang Zemin wryly remarked to Kissinger that 78 generations had elapsed since Confucius died in 449 BC. By my count, there have been eight since the Declaration of Independence. Sort of puts things in perspective.

According to Kissinger there are four key elements to understanding the Chinese mind: Confucianism ("a single, universal, generally applicable truth as the standard of individual conduct and social cohesion"); Sun Tzu (outsmarting: good; direct conflict: bad); an ancient board game called wei qi (which stresses "the protracted campaign"); and China's "century of humiliation" in the 1800s (karma's a you-know-what, Imperialists!). Actually, make that five: Wei Yuan—a 19th century midranking Confucian mandarin—developed the Chinese concept of "barbarian management," which was at the core of Mao's diplomacy with the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Now if only China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs would consider changing its name to the Office of Barbarian Management.

No, sorry, make that six elements: overwhelming fear of internal disorder or chaos. The resulting gestalt is absolute imperviousness to foreign pressure. Kissinger recounts a chilly moment when, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Deng tells him that overreaction by the U.S. "could even lead to war." More chilling were Mao's repeated, almost gleeful musings about the prospect of nuclear war. "If the imperialists unleash war on us," Kissinger recalls him saying, "we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass, and we'll get to work producing more babies than ever before." While those grim and sincere words sound as though they came from the last scene of Dr. Strangelove, Kissinger reminds us that, during the first Taiwan Strait confrontation in 1955, it was the U.S. that threatened to use nukes.

Several other episodes since have combined—rightly or wrongly, as Kissinger might put it—to turn Chinese popular opinion against America: Tiananmen Square; the accidental 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade; and the Hainan incident in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane and precipitated George W. Bush's first foreign policy crisis. Then there are more recent, obvious events. The collapse of the American and European financial markets, in 2007 and 2008, which stripped much of the luster off our image as the global economic leaders. And that latter year in Beijing, when the world's Olympic athletes gathered in a proxy celebration of China's arrival as Washington coped with a distressed Wall Street, two quagmire wars, and three ailing auto companies.

Is Kissinger optimistic about future relations between the U.S. and China? In a word, yes and no. No, because of a disturbing, emergent "martial spirit" that envisions conflict with the U.S. as an inevitable consequence of China's rise—much as the Kaiser's naval buildup led to World War I. In this Chinese view, the U.S. is not so much Mao's famous "paper tiger" but, Kissinger writes, "an old cucumber painted green." In retrospect, I think I prefer being a paper tiger.

On a more upbeat note, Kissinger explains that despite its unprecedented economic ascendance, China has one or two problems of its own. Its economy must grow annually by 7 percent—a goal that would leave any Western industrialized nation gasping—or face the much-dreaded internal unrest. Corruption, meanwhile, is deeply embedded in the economic culture. "It is one of history's ironies," he writes, "that Communism, advertised as bringing a classless society, tended to breed a privileged class of feudal proportions." Then there is China's rapidly aging population, which may dwarf our own impending Social Security crisis.

Yet the Chinese may be better equipped, psychologically and philosophically, to withstand the coming shocks than the rest of us. A country that has endured 4,000 years of uncounted wars and upheavals, through the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s (tens of millions killed), and man-made calamities such as Mao's Great Leap Forward (an additional 20 million) and the Cultural Revolution, is nothing if not resilient. Sun Tzu coined a term shi, which roughly translates to "the art of understanding matters in flux." Writes Kissinger: "A turbulent history has taught Chinese leaders that not every problem has a solution." In other words, shi happens.

It's hard to imagine a U.S. President holding such a view, much less expressing it out loud. But by the time one reaches the far shore of this essential book, there's little doubt that Henry Kissinger, historian and maker of history, Nixon consigliere, and Secretary of Barbarian Management, also takes the long view. Perhaps, from the heights on which he perches, it may be, for better or worse, the only view.


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