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October 2011

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China and the Current Barbarians
Reviewed by John Sylvester

Henry Kissinger, On China, The Penguin Press: N.Y., 2011, ISBN 13: 978-1594202711, 608 pp., $36.00 (hardback)

Americans have long been obsessed by China. This has ranged from the Canton clipper trade, to Pearl Buck and Chiang Kai-shek, to Mao Zedong and the Korean War, to Tiananmen and the new “China threat.” Kissinger has labored On China, and is now identified with that country.

I was in the American Embassy in Saigon when he and his entourage came though on their way to Pakistan, and then secretly on to China. Right after seeing him in Saigon I went on leave to Hong Kong where I talked with a China specialist colleague. He noted the changes in Beijing’s attitude towards the U.S., but doubted any dramatic change would soon come. Right after that the news broke of Kissinger in Beijing, to the surprise of the world. It was evidence of the truth of the maxim that nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

In his new book, Kissinger writes, as always, perceptively and well, if also to the protection of his own reputation.

The written characters for China in their language mean the central kingdom, central country. The Chinese regarded the outside peoples as barbarians, to be respected to the extent they adopted Chinese customs or paid tribute to the Emperor. Kissinger’s first major theme is the durability of China’s traditional practices towards the barbarians, Kissinger and Nixon being recent examples. The Chinese treated the foreigners with courtesy and gifts, but expected obeisance. They find it hard to deal with them as equals, but have learned how to exercise wily and stubborn tactics in their modern diplomacy.

The second main theme concerns Mao’s turn away from hostility towards our country, policy since the Communist victory in 1949 as they allied with the Soviet Union. Mao, however, found Stalin suspicious of a Communist potential rival, and Mao resented Russian pretensions to dominance. The Korean War cemented bad relations with the U.S. for years. By the time of Brezhnev, Moscow had become publicly critical of Mao’s destructive internal campaigns, and worried about Chinese moves against neighboring Siberia, areas the Czars had taken from China. They placed large army units close to the border. Soon clashes broke out on disputed river islands.

Kissinger notes, but does not dwell on, the human cost of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Mao causing casualties on the order of the other great killers of our time, Hitler and Stalin. Kissinger includes fragments of his conversations with Mao that indicate his overwhelming self-confidence and sardonic, intellectual style. Kissinger is clearly fascinated with this man who was the traditionally brutal first emperor of a new Communist dynasty in China. He describes the tension in Mao between his impulse for permanent revolution in China and for the practical needs of security and development.

Mao had concluded he needed to open a quasi alliance with the enemy of his next-door enemy, the Soviet Union. Towards this purpose, he was willing to overlook basic disagreements with us over Taiwan and other issues. They were papered over with adroit diplomatic fuzziness and Mao’s statements that the problems could be solved by time. Kissinger and Nixon ironically found that Mao wanted us to be more severe against the Soviets than even we wanted to be. The book’s account of the negotiations is fascinating.

In Beijing, just as in Moscow, it was dangerous to be close to the leader. Mao purged his designated successors, Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, and all others who might oppose him or his plans. Even his loyal lieutenant, the urbane and competent Chou Enlai, was in the course of being purged as he died of cancer. In my first trip to China as an adult in January 1976 I saw tattered memorial posters to Chou still on the walls. Mao had been discomfited when people in Beijing had spontaneously rallied in the first Tiananmen Square incident in salute to Chou. Mao also soon died, however, shortly after a devastating earthquake in the coal-mining city of Tanshan, interpreted by Chinese as a loss of Heaven’s favor.

The third major theme of the book thus is the rise of Deng Xiaoping and of China’s aspirations to be a superpower. Deng had been purged twice and brought back twice since his skills were necessary even for Mao. After Mao’s death, the leftist radicals were purged, and Deng eased out Mao’s last designated successor, the affable Hua Guofeng. Deng, even more than Mao, pressed the quasi alliance with the U.S., and also pragmatic policies of development that unleashed Chinese mercantile talent. Kissinger has high respect for this Communist veteran who was blunt and rough but who knew what was necessary for a strong China.

With the collapse of the USSR and China’s growing power it was a new world balance, and China has not needed the U.S. for its security. It has heavily needed us as a market, however. Relations soured over American harsh criticism of the second Tiananmen incident. Deng and his colleagues were impelled by traditional fears of disorder and their own memories of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Kissinger describes how behind the scenes both governments tried to ease the damage to our ties.

Deng slowly retired from the scene, appointing as the new leaders the flamboyant and able Jiang Zemin to be Party Secretary and then President, and Zhu Rongji to be Premier. Jiang would have been a successful politician in any society, and Zhu an excellent president for IBM. As our administrations changed, successive problems arose over Republican triumphalism on the collapse of Communism in Europe, Democratic stress on human rights in China, and Republican insistence on spreading freedom, as well as over such incidents as our bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The Chinese leadership bridled over our demands, Jiang saying to Kissinger in 1991: “ We never submit to pressure,” adding in English “This is very important.” We have eased our complaints, and the Chinese, including under Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao, have kept on quietly working with us on many of the issues.


John Sylvester is a former Foreign Service officer who served long in Japan and Vietnam. He lived in China as a child, was in the Infantry in the Korean War, and, after retirement, continued to work on Japan and teach on East Asia.

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