Henry Kissinger is the famous American diplomat. His new book, On China, is a fine history of the “Central State” focusing on the late Qing and early Communist periods. On China is destined to be assigned reading in graduate schools for years, because of its fine application of “realist” thinking to the survival of a strong country facing a multitude of high-tech strategic rivals. On China is clearly aimed at the informed political class: professional analysts, thoughtful policy professionals, and opinion makers. The narrative of On China appears to be distorted, either because of Kissinger’s focus on his own time period, his keen insight on what to clarify on what to clarify and what to obfuscate, or both. This is most notable in his incorrect depiction of Deng Xiaoping‘s political standing, as well as the near- complete absence of discussion of the KMT or the contemporary Communist Party.
On China is a good book for anyone interested in how the most radical and dangerous of Communist states managed to position itself in the winning anti-Soviet coalition with a minimum of leadership turnover or domestic discontent. Aside from hints as to Kissinger’s own thinking, however, it contains little new as far as history goes. Kissinger’s purpose is not to write a history. It is to write an introduction to Reality.
The Decline of China and Lessons for the United States
The reaction that many foreign policy teachers will have when reading On China book is, “I hope my students are familiar with the arguments in this book!”The two most striking are Kissinger’s view of the late Qing dynasty’s foreign policy, as well as China’s participation in the Third Vietnam War. Most scholars view both late Qing Diplomacy and the Third Vietnam Wars as failures, where China paid a grievous price for a worsening of relations with its neighbors. Kissinger argues that both of these were calculated triumphs: the late Qing, faced with being surrounded by enemies each of whom was stronger that China, nonetheless maintained regime survival and territorial integrity (more or less) for as long as possible. In other words, the Qing accepted defeat after defeat in vertical, short-term scenarios and were playing to survive in a long-term, horizontal scenario.
As Kissinger writes, “[The Qing] judged that it befell the court’s ministers to repeat what the Middle Kingdom’s elites had done so often before: through a combination of delay, circumlocution, and carefully apportioned favors, they would sooth and tame the barbarians while buying time for China to outlast their assault.”
Kissinger also views the the war between China and Vietnam as a success. He repeatedly uses the Chinese phrase “touching the buttocks of the tiger” to demonstrate how China discredited the Soviet Union’s security guarantee. Kissinger also repeatedly uses the phrase “Indochinese Federation” to refer to Vietnam and its satellite states (Laos and Cambodia), and argues that China’s attack in Vietnam may have prevented Thailand from being the next country to be conquered.
In all time periods China’s strategic situation was basically the same: the country faced high-tech and potentially hostile powers whose interests were a combination of geostrategic expansion and trade. Whether the high-tech enemies were Mongol light-cavalry, Russian gunpowder brigades, or British gunboats, China cleverly used diplomacy to maneuver around its enemies. Indeed, the historic strategic situation of China appears identical to that of Byzantium, as described by Lars Brownsworth in his popular work.
Kissinger’s purpose is clear: the historical position of the Middle Kingdom will soon be shared by that other “central state,” the indispensable nation — the United States of America. The Qing example demonstrates how a superpower can maintain its own national and cultural continuity as long as suicidal decisions do not occur in close order, as they finally did under the disastrous Dowager Empress. Likewise, China’s policy against Vietnam aggression shows how a superpower can use calculated attacks on the client of a rival to maintain the peace.
Kissinger relays some now-famous advise from Deng Xiaoping, which is often considered to be Deng’s version of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” line:
Observe carefully, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.
Kissinger continues with Deng’s secret explanation of his advise — advise which Kissinger clearly wants U.S. leaders to understand and appreciate:
Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.
The Nature of Chinese Communism
Like the Chinese news agency (or any good editor, for that matter), Kissinger argues his point not so much by stating an opinion but limiting what facts he shares. This is most obvious on the time period that he focuses on. Later in the book, however, Kissinger’s power of selecting facts appears to fail him, and he makes statements that are simply untrue.
I think this is intentional.
The greatest hope for peace in our day is probably a United Front between the Chinese KMT on Taiwan and the Chinese Communists on the mainland. That both the Chinese mainland and “Chinese Taipei” are governed by pro-business, pro-trade, patriotic, and mildly corrupt regimes which share a common history is amazing. Yet the KMT regime is nearly absent in the book, which serves as a problem for anyone wanting to understanding China’s “near abroad.” This is especially frustrating in places where Kissinger seems to almost bring it up, like in this transcripts:
MAO: Our common old friend, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, doesn’t approve of this. He calls us Communist bandits. He recently issued a speech. Have you seen it?
NIXON: Chiang Kai-shek calls the Chairman a bandit. What does the Chairman call Chiang Kai-shek?
ZHOU: Generally speaking we call them Chiang Kai-shek’s clique. In the newspapers sometimes we call him a bandit; we are also called bandits in turn. Anyway, we abuse each other.
MAO: Actually, the history of our friendship with him is much longer than the history of your friendship with him.
Misstatement replaces silence later on, however. For instance, consider this:
Deng’s Reform and Opening Up was designed to overcome this built-in stagnation. He and his associates embarked on market economics, decentralized decision making, and opening to the outside world — all unprecedented changes.
Kissinger is probably right about the first and last element in the list, but definitely not the second. Indeed, the disasters that Mao is most associated with — the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutions — were examples of distributed decision making in extremis. Indeed, Mao often appears to be used the term “Left” to mean distributed and “Right” to mean bureaucratic, which leads to the obvious conclusion that, at least as far as decentralized decision making went, Deng did not so much replace statistics” with sensible goals and measures. At the same time, Mao’s Leftward tilts toward distributed decision making were unsuccessful, and so in between revolutions Mao relied on “Rightist” governments led by Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, and Deng Xiaoping.
Mao was willing to sacrifice the lives of 100 million Chinese to build a Leftist future of distributed decision making for China. He was willing to experiment and try new things, at an unfathomable cost in death and destruction, to do so. But in between attempts, when disorder threatened to do away with his power, Mao used Rightist bureaucrats to recharge — to set up the next stage.
Just as Kissinger teases us by raising the issue of the KMT, but not relating it to the Communists, Kissinger also teases the reader here, too. Kissinger writes:
[Mao] stressed his personal goodwill to Nixon, both personally and because he said he preferred dealing with right-wing governments on the grounds that they were more reliable. Mao, the author of the Great Leap Forward and the Anti-Rightest Campaign, made the astonishing remark that he had “voted for” Nixon, and that he was “comparatively happy when these people on the right come to power” (in the West, at least).
The Right are reliable bureaucrats. Mao’s statements is no more shocking that the view of the Soviet Union presented by Tom Clancy: menacing, dangerous, rational, and painfully boring.
(To tie this in with a recent book I read, Lord of the World, under Mao’s use of the terms, the British Communist Party would have been a Right-wing government, while the order established by Pope Sylvester would have been a left-wing movement.)
The effect Kissinger’s silence is compounded by the very next thing he offers, a transcript between Nixon and Mao, in which Kissinger allows the reader to think the line about DeGaulle is a laugh-line, instead of an elaboration of Mao’s view of the Right and the Left:
NIXON: When the Chairman says he voted for me, he voted for the lesser of two evils.
MAO: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right.
NIXON: And General DeGaulle.
MAO: DeGaulle is a different question. They also say that the Christian Democratic party of West Germany is also to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.
DeGaulle was a “different question” not because the French were quirky, but DeGaulle was unpredictable, and (liked Mao) viewed his government as a dangerous tool and was willing to sacrifice entire provinces toÂ preserve the national essence. The Republicans, the Tories, the CDP, and even the Soviet Communists, however, were lifeless, bureaucratic automatons.
Kissinger tantalizes the reader with parallels left unstated. For instance, Kissinger traces the use of the phrase “peaceful evolution” as first described by John Foster Dulles as a method of ending the Communist threat, then to Deng Xiaoping as identifying a threat to regime survival, then to Warren Christopher as a goal of the United States. But Kissinger writes:
The heir of Mao’s China was advocating market principles, risk taking, private initiative, and the important of productivity and entrepreneurship… Deng’s advise was that China should “be bolder,” that it should redouble its efforts and “dare to experiment”: “We must not act like women with bound feet. Once we are sure that something should be done, we should dare to experiment and break a new path… Who dares claim that he is 100 percent sure of success that he is taking no risks.”
But Deng’s statement is almost word-for-word a copy of Mao’s rhetoric at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. Indeed, both Mao in the late 1950s and Deng in the early 1980s were attempting to weaken the power of central bureaucrats in the economy. Indeed, it was Mao who first recognized the enormous economic potential of experimenting peasants: “As is clear to everyone, the spontaneous forces of capitalism have been steadily growing in the countryside in recent years, with new rich peasants springing up everywhere and many well-to-do middle class peasants striving to become rich peasants.”
A Love to Learn
On China‘s a good book. Kissinger, deservedly, has a very high reputation. So I truly wonder if the problems and omissions in On China are by accident or design. For instance, in the epilogue Kissinger writes:
In all of China’s extravagant history, there was no precedent for how to participate in a global order, whether in concert with — or in opposition to — another superpower.
But this is simply wrong! China and Russia are both successor states to the Mongol Horde. Russia was the first state that China recognized as “sovereign.” Russia had a de facto embassy in Beijing for centuries before any other westerners were even allowed to live in the city. Kissinger even explicitly refers to the history of the three-way continental politics between Russia, Turkestan, and China in in a footnote:
The story of Qing expansion in “inner Asia” under a series of exceptionally able Emperors is related in rich detail in Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005).
So what’s going on?
The answer is that On China is not really a memoir, or a history book, or a country guide. It is a tool to teach foreign policy. Kissinger is following his advise. Quoting a Qing official:
In your association with foreigners, your manner and deportment should not be too lofty, and you should have a vague, casual appearance. Let their insults, deceitfulness, and contempt for everything appear to be understood by you and yet seem not understood, for you should look somewhat stupid.
and quoting Confucius:
Love of kindness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by foolishness. Love of knowledge, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by loose speculation. Love of honesty, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by harmful candour. Love of straightforwardness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by misdirected judgment. Love of daring, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by insubordination. And love for strength of character, without a love to learn, find itself obscured by intractability.
So it is pointless to go on — to challenge Kissinger’s statement that Mao followed Confucius, or Kissinger’s lowballing of the death figure in the Great Leap Forward, or Kissinger’s statement that Deng Xiaoping lost control of the press in the early 1990s, or any of the weird statements that Kissinger makes.
The purpose of On China is learning. While the audience is people who want to learn about China, the intention is to teach Americans international relations.
Kissinger uses the term “reality” 27 times. The 27 instances 27 quotes by Kissinger, which contrast “Reality” with idealism, misapprehension, chaos, hope, friendship, disappointment, expectation, and so on. The purpose of On China is to focus the reader on Reality, and not on the fluffery which so often get in the way.
On China‘s a brilliant book, and succeeds at its goals.