Henry Kissinger's On China: Why is he so reverential and nostalgic about China?

Reading between the lines.
May 30 2011 8:01 AM

Chinese Dreams

Why is Kissinger so reverential and nostalgic about China?

Henry Kissinger in China. Click to expand image.
Henry Kissinger in China

We are now fast approaching the 40th anniversary of Kissinger's groundbreaking trip to Beijing, which began on July 9, 1971. He was the first U.S. official to set foot in China in more than two decades, and his trip marked a turning point in the Cold War. It opened the way for America and China to team up, forcing the Soviet Union to confront both of them at the same time. In the four decades since, China has emerged as the core of Kissinger's legacy. Other aspects of his diplomacy no longer seem so important as they did at the time. The Vietnam peace agreement, for which he won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, fell apart two years later. Détente with the Soviet Union didn't last. By contrast, China takes on ever-greater importance for U.S. foreign policy.

Kissinger was not only present at the creation of America's relationship with the People's Republic of China; he sees the ties as his creation and has held a proprietary interest ever since. When he has not been at the center of Sino-American diplomacy, he has wanted to be there, and in his new book, On China, the now 88-year-old diplomat does his best to command as big an audience as possible. As he looks back one last time at America's opening to China, Kissinger is not just talking to Americans. He has written this book with an eye toward an audience on the Chinese mainland as well.           

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The result is a nostalgic and curiously reverential account. As an author, Kissinger has many admirable qualities. He remains, by virtue of his earlier work, easily the best memoirist of any American secretary of state or president in the modern era. No matter whether one agrees with him or not, his three volumes on his eight years in the Nixon and Ford administrations stand out for their anecdotes, insights, and distinctive prose style. These same qualities are still occasionally on display in his new book. But what stands out in On China, rather than the skeptical detachment that is the Kissingerian trademark in writing about world affairs, is how little nuance the passage of years seems to have lent his views.

In this tour through Chinese history, Kissinger seems to flounder until his own entry into the drama. The opening section, which covers ancient times to 1949, has the flat tone of a unit in a college-level survey course—with what almost seems like a chapter torn out. He jumps from the end of the 19th century to Mao's revolution, passing over in a few sentences the era when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party ruled China. Kissinger argues that the Nationalist regime didn't sufficiently control the country, because it was preoccupied with fighting off both the Chinese Communists and the Japanese. Or is it that he's also in a hurry to get past what is still a sensitive subject for the Chinese Communist Party, which fought the Nationalists in the bitter civil war and sees Taiwan's current Nationalist government as a continuation of that civil war?

When Kissinger begins to revisit the era when he ran American China policy, it's striking how much his views and assumptions about Chinese leaders still seem bathed in the sense of awe that he acquired in his early trips to Beijing. Mao, Zhou Enlai, and successors like Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin are regularly depicted as wise and far-sighted. In Kissinger's version, they make few if any mistakes. Where others have argued that China erred during the Korean War or in China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam—in which the Chinese suffered astonishingly heavy casualties—or in the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, Kissinger demurs. He maintains the Vietnam incursion was still a strategic victory for China because it "succeeded in exposing the limits of the Soviet defense commitment to Hanoi." Kissinger can't bring himself to say he approved of what he called the Tiananmen "tragedy" of 1989, but he nevertheless urges understanding, as he did at the time, for Deng Xiaoping's decision to launch the violent crackdown. After all, Kissinger says, even peaceful protests can be a tactic aimed at weakening a government and demonstrating its impotence.

In the last chapters, retracing the years since he left office, Kissinger still tries to plant himself center-stage—and still pays tribute to Chinese leaders whom he portrays operating on a lofty plane well above the mundane concerns of ordinary politicians. As he compares visits to China today with those of four decades ago, he emphasizes the subtlety of the government's diplomacy, even though some of its recent actions concerning the South China Sea and even Norway (which gave Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize) seem more heavy-handed than subtle. "What has not changed significantly," he marvels, "is the meticulous preparation, the complexity of the argumentation, the capacity for long-range planning, and the subtle sense of the intangible."

Meanwhile, the Chinese people are determinedly civic-minded and public-spirited in Kissinger's portrait: "Among the many extraordinary aspects of the Chinese people," he writes, "is the manner in which many of them have retained a commitment to their society regardless of how much agony and injustice it may have inflicted on them." This is a romantic stereotype that dates back to the 1970s, when China was first opening up, and visitors would report that if they left a used razor blade in a hotel room, a hall attendant would rush down the hall to return it to them. It is out of touch with today's China, where private interests often overwhelm wider social loyalties. Not a few Chinese people fear for the safety of their food, health, or pensions precisely because of the society-be-damned greed of others who pollute, dilute, or cheat.

Kissinger's account will have no trouble passing muster with any Chinese vetters, and thanks to an increasingly affluent middle-class readership in China, that spells a potential for lots of book sales. But there is another, more charitable interpretation of Kissinger's interest in a Chinese readership. He seems increasingly anxious about where the United States and China are headed and is eager to prevent any future confrontation. In his epilogue, he recounts how the rise of Germany in the 19th century led to World War I and examines the possibility that this history may repeat itself with the rise of China. He warns about nationalistic Chinese "triumphalists" who believe the United States is in decline. And he frets about Americans who want to build up military power for what they believe to be an inevitable conflict with China.

Kissinger has been trying to convey his views to American audiences for nearly a half-century. He has generally succeeded in persuading other American presidents and secretaries of state not to stray too far from the path he set in the 1970s. This time, it appears, he seeks to reach a mass Chinese audience as well with a plea for continued cooperation with the United States. Although Kissinger admits to a degree of pessimism about the chances for success, he still offers hope: "Every great achievement was a vision before it became a reality," he writes. His own view of China, however, is now four decades old, and these days new the leaders of a more assertive China seem to be taking the country further and further away from his vision. Kissinger long ago created a new reality, but now his edifice is crumbling. Perhaps it's no wonder he's nostalgic.

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