Thursday, June 09, 2011

Review: Henry Kissinger's "On China"

It was with great delight that I agreed to review Henry Kissinger's new book, On China. I like to think of myself well-informed--not all of my readers will agree with that statement--but I am a bitty foggy on China. Which is something I need to remedy. China is well-beyond being an emerging nation--it is a major economic and military power. China is back. In 18 of the last 20 centuries, Kissinger notes, China had the world's largest gross domestic product and as late as 1830, it produced 30 percent of the world GDP, larger than that of Europe and the United States combined.

The birth of China is an unrecorded event. "A special feature of China," the former secretary of state writes, "is that it has no beginning." China has survived wars, civil wars, reunifications, invasions, secessions, more reunifications, invasions, more secessions. But it comes back together, which is why the Chinese view Taiwan's quasi-independent status as a temporary aberration.

But China endured--its invaders were Sino-cized. The superior culture that the Chinese viewed themselves as possessing, the "Middle Kingdom," the center of the world, prevailed. American political scientist Lucian Pye, who was born in China to missionary parents, commented that China remains "a civilization pretending to be a nation-state."
Chicago Marathon, Oct 10, 2010

But things went terribly awry in the first half of the 19th century, beginning with the defeat of China at the hands of the British Empire in the First Opium War. The downward spiral for China lasted until the victory of Mao Zedong's communists in 1949. Or one could easily argue the free-fall continued until Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

It was during the Cultural Revolution when Kissinger becomes part of the story, secretly meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1971, which paved the way for Richard M. Nixon's historic visit a year later.

Of Zhou, Kissinger writes, "In some sixty years of public life, I have encountered no more compelling figure than Zhou Enlai." Kissinger adds, "He dominated by exceptional intelligence and capacity to intuit the intangibles of the psychology of the opposite member."

Mao Zedong, for all his efforts to erase China's imperial past, acted like an emperor when Nixon, accompanied by Kissinger, made the fabled trip to the communist Middle Kingdom:

'Inviting' is not the precise word for how meetings with Mao occurred. Appointments were never scheduled, they came about as if events of nature. There were echoes of emperors granting audiences.
But Chinese emperors never organized the brutality and insanity of Mao's Cultural Revolution, nor starved millions with a Great Leap Forward, nor dismissed the deaths of hundreds of millions of Chinese in a hypothetical nuclear war. That bold position horrified the Czechoslovakian leader at the time, Antonín Novotný, who led a nation of 12 million. "We'll get to work producing more babies than ever before," Mao mused. As for tiny Czechoslovakia, Novotný countered, "There wouldn't be anyone left to start over again,"

After Mao's death China became less communist--and more Chinese. Confucius, who was a victim of what Kissinger calls "the Maoist war on Chinese tradition," was rehabilitated. As Kissinger was completing his book, Confucius was honored with a statue in Tiananmen Square--within sight of Mao's mausoleum--no one else is so honored. Yes, China is less communist, but it is still brutal--the morst horrific post-Mao barbarity is of course the slaughter in Tiananmen Square of hundreds, possibly thousands of protesters on June 4, 1989. Kissinger writes of the Chinese leaders of that time, "I heard no emotional justification of the events of June 4, they were treated like an unfortunate accident that had descended as if from nowhere."

China continues to advance economically under it present president, Hu Jintao and its premier, Wen Jiabo. The 2008 Summer Olympics announced its return to the club of leading nations, but it is not the leading nation.


Kissinger speculates on how the world, particular America, will adapt to an undaunted China, making comparisons with the emergence of a unified Germany in the late 19th Century. Two world wars followed. Kissinger is more hopeful about China's rise. Which is good news--as Kissinger was a practitioner of realpolitik.

On China is a book I'll be referencing often in my work. Luckily my copy is a hardcover.

It's available at bookstores and on Amazon.

Technorati tags:

1 comment:

heathertlc said...

I feel like my knowledge of China is lacking as well, and I think Kissinger might be the exact right person to fill that gap - he certainly has a wealth of experiences and firsthand knowledge to share.

Thanks for being a part of the book tour.