Review of "On China"

As President Nixon’s National Security Advisor and interlocutor in the process that helped China transition from inward-directed autarky to export-oriented international player on the world stage, it is of no surprise that Henry Kissinger’s On China presents a compelling account of the country’s history that is both fond and insightful. Some reviewers of the book have called it excessively idiosyncratic, but considering the wealth of history lived by the author and the credentials of the presented by the team that helped him research it I don’t find this to be an issue. Kissinger frames their history prior to his dealings with Chinese diplomats not so much to give a total history of China, but to saliently frame the political issues that relate to the initiation and maintenance of positive diplomatic relations.

Kissinger views both the US and China as countries with national perspectives defined by their exceptionalism, though in drastically different ways. Whereas America imagines that it’s set of democratic values are eternal, judges other countries according to it’s particular moralistic standards of the moment and in a missionary sense seeks to replicate it’s values in other places, China doesn’t hold that it’s values are applicable anyplace else. The actual geo-political results of such a belief system backed by their economic dominance are substantial. Prior to the European’s development of heavy naval warfare, the Chinese were the dominant world power that were so self-content and uneasier to impose themselves on others that they deconstructed their naval fleet following a Mediterranean tour where they gave out wealth to the ports they stopped at as they were under the impression that there was nothing outside of the Middle Kingdom that was not already there. This is not to say that they weren’t afflicted by barbarian, semi-nomadic hordes, but that prior to their feeling the effects of industrial revolution age weaponry, there was nothing that particularly interested them and foreigners were to only be admitted to the country at certain sites at certain times of the year.

The Chinese long sense of history of provided a framework for patience and endurance of many terrible circumstances while their particular geographic position helped imbue specific conceptual insights that is perhaps best seen in the game of Go, a game that makes Chess seem positively sophomoric. On this latter point Kissinger points out similar insights as Deleuze & Guattari, but also includes throughout this diplomatic and political history of China with great effect. On the former issue we also see throughout how it is that the economic and political maneuverings of the CCP were in part informed by the wealth of their cultural and Confucian past. For instance Kissinger explains that within the Confucian principles that have guided China’s course for thousands of years, until the century of humiliation and their anti-imperialist struggles, the nation’s “spiritual fulfillment was a task not so much of revelation or liberation but patient recovery of forgotten principles of self-restraint. The goal was rectification, not progress” (14). The writings of Confucius emerged from a period in which China was again being reunified following a breakup of it’s historical land mass – a similar set of circumstance prior to Mao’s unification of the majority of China. Additionally, Kissinger tell of several instances wherein classical Chinese literature is used to inform political policy and states that “Mao owed more to Sun Tzu than to Lenin” (102). One such example tells how several disgraced General’s justified their position on whether or not to attempt to open to America due to the Chinese fear of China by referencing classic books then banned due to the Cultural Revolution. Amusingly enough, having based their sense of geopolitics on balance of forces model of the Westphalian system, it was these types of decision-making processes that made it so difficult for Russia and the United States to understand their strategic maneuvers.

The descriptions of the various summits designed to normalize relations between the country as fascinating.The manner in which Kissinger describes how a “communist” country was able to reconcile with a “capitalist” one, the shifting alignments amongst countries in South East Asia, Stalin’s masterful strategies for influencing Asia and how it is that the Chinese were able to use small acts to obtain large benefits are just several aspects of the modern period worth highlighting. Furthermore, in this period the 2011 J.P. Morgan Summer Reading List sticker on the font cover of my book began to make more sense to me (I bought the book used from Amazon). How to deal with the management of various crises as well as strategies for continuing fruitful, productive relationships despite temporary and essential set-backs is something that Kissinger can go into at moments without appearing didactic but simply helpful. Additionally, the section on Deng Xiaoping’s assumption of power can be seen as a compelling call to the benefits of reform for the purpose of unleashing creative energies and destroying the old, limiting prohibitions that left the country in poverty for the sake of ideological purity.

One of the surprising aspects of the text for me was the respect and deference towards which Kissinger displays towards the Chinese communists, especially Zhou Enlai and Mao Tse-Tung. Mao, like Stalin, is still a bogeyman in many a political circle but, unlike Stalin, does not receive the Kissinger’s approbation. One could say that this could be explained away by Kissinger’s concerns towards maintaining positive diplomatic relations following his having spent a significant portion of his career on creating and sustaining meaningful dialogue – however I do not think this to be the case. I claim this as Kissinger does highlight what he sees as some of Mao’s negative qualities, such as his circuitous and philosophic manner of speech, yet simultaneously claims that it was his fearlessness towards nuclear weapons that kept other countries from invading, that the high death toll during the three difficult years was not the fault of the CCP nor even exceptional in the history of the region and that to an extent the conflicts of the Cultural Revolution were impossible to avoid unless China wanted to risk another civil war of greater intensity than before. Scene such as Mao’s entreating of Khrushchev to discuss the return of portion of China taken by Russia with him in a swimming pool rather than a meeting room are evokes moments that are humanizing and humorous, as Khrushchev, who could not swim, was forced to wear water wings.

Two final notes partially related to On China. Firstly, this is the second book of Kissinger’s I’ve read and I must admit that like Diplomacy, Kissinger again shows here that he is an excellent stylist as Churchill was. Kissinger’s pre-revolutionary history of the China is, despite it’s brevity, a paean to Chinese culture that unlike few other books made me feel ashamed for knowing so little about the oldest human civilization. I knew various aspects about it, such as it being the first institutional meritocracy, their non-expansionist politics, etc. but admit that after reading this I yearn to learn more. While I’ve no intentions in becoming a Sinologist, and will likely read Red Star Over China, which currently sits on my shelf, prior to anything else due to my desire to now learn more about their re-independence I must admit what little bit I learned here about Mandarin culture makes me want learn more, be it by reading the classical Chinese novel such as Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West, A Dream of Red Mansions, and Three Kingdoms or some other text that I’ve yet to pinpoint.