The peril of writing a book about China is how quickly things can change, rendering even observations about very recent trends defunct. Henry Kissinger’s personal contribution to the genre – On China, published last month – gives an example in describing the resurgence of Confucius.
Mao, writes Kissinger, tried to eradicate the memory of Confucius – and with it his ancient philosophy – but the recent appearance of a statue of the ancient sage alongside Mao’s in Tiananmen Square was a sign that he had failed.
“His successors again described China as Confucian,” comments Kissinger.
But just as the American diplomat’s words were rolling off the printing presses, decisionmakers in Beijing had other ideas.
In early May the 31 foot statue of Confucius was moved – in the middle of the night no less – to a secluded courtyard in the National Museum of China, an indication that controversy about Confucius remains alive and well – in contradiction of Kissinger’s theory.
It was not the first time his theories about Confucius got Kissinger into trouble. He recounts that the only time he saw Zhou Enlai lose his temper was at a banquet, when Kissinger had remarked that China remained essentially “Confucian”.
The Chinese Premier angrily replied that Confucianism was a form of “class oppression”. Zhou’s rant was understandable, given the context: it was the final stage of the Cultural Revolution when to be associated with Confucius led to being purged. Kissinger writes: “I cannot recall what possessed me to make this statement, which, however accurate, surely did not take into account Mao’s attacks on Confucians who were alleged to be impeding his policies.”
He then acknowledges that any agreement from Zhou would have been a tacit criticism of Mao. Both were aware that their translator was Nancy Tang, who was close to Mao’s wife.
The references to Confucius do, however, convey the enormous historical sweep of On China, as well as Kissinger’s belief that a grasp of the complexity of China’s history is crucial to understanding how its leaders govern even in the present day.
He opens the book with an anecdote in which Mao is talking to his generals about an invasion of India in 1962. Mao refers to the fact that China and India had fought “one and a half wars”: the first during the Tang Dynasty, and the second at the time of Timurlane’s (Mao reasoned this as a ‘half’ as Mongolia and China were then part of the same political entity). He used the latter as a reference point, advocating a similar hammerblow attack on the Indian frontier. But unlike Timurlane, Chinese forces would this time be restrained, withdrawing immediately once they had made their point (i.e. that they could invade at will).
Comments Kissinger: “In no other country is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event – nor that he could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions. Yet China is singular. No other country can claim so long a continuous civilisation or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.”
The opening chapters of the book offer a good analysis of Chinese history – in large part to explain China’s attitude to foreign countries. Kissinger notes that over the millennia the Han absorbed those who attacked from its borders, by Sinicising them. Those living further away were regarded with little interest.
Kissinger theorises that was why China abandoned any interest in its formidable navy in the mid-15th century.
“There was no glory to be found in venturing across the seas to convert ‘heathens’ to Chinese ways,” he writes. “There was no New World to populate, no redemption awaiting mankind on distant shores. The promised land was China, and the Chinese were already there.”
This worldview began to be challenged when European gunships arrived in the nineteenth century. Kissinger points out that their arrival created an enormous difficulty for the Chinese: they’d never dealt with another country as an equal (as Britain was then demanding), treating other countries as tribute states rather than sovereign ones.
Only in 1861 did China establish something analogous to a foreign ministry. “It was considered a temporary necessity, to be abolished once the immediate crisis subsided. The new ministry was deliberately located in an old and undistinguished building previously used by the Department of Iron Coins, to convey, in the words of leading Qing Dynasty statesman, Prince Gong, ‘the hidden meaning that it cannot have a standing equal to that of other traditional government offices, thus preserving the distinction between China and foreign countries.’”
The early part of On China is a good primer for anyone trying to better understand the country. But WiC imagines many readers will skip to the section when Kissinger himself appears as a protagonist, offering a firsthand account of how he and President Nixon ‘opened’ China to a curious world.
Again ancient history is never far from the narrative. The Chinese general Ye Jianying advised Mao that dialogue with America made sense, citing the Three Kingdoms era and Zhuge Liang’s aphorism ‘Ally with Wu in the east to oppose Wei in the north’ i.e. talk to the US, to frustrate the Russians.
Nixon was also interested, sensing it could reshape the balance of power with the Soviet Union.
The problem, says Kissinger, was getting the process going. “The deadlock was broken when we ordered Walter Stoessel, the US ambassador to Warsaw to approach Chinese diplomats at the next social function and express the desire for dialogue. The setting for this encounter was a Yugoslav fashion show in the Polish capital. The Chinese diplomats in attendance, who were without instructions, fled the scene.” Kissinger then describes a sequence of events in which the Chinese – seeing the Americans pointing in their direction – scampered out of the room. They were then chased by American diplomats, who shouted in Polish: “We are from the American embassy. We want to meet your ambassador… President Nixon said he wanted to resume his talks with the Chinese.”
From such Keystone Cops diplomacy eventually grew Kissinger’s secret trip to China, and Nixon’s inaugural visit to Beijing in 1972.
In the pages that follow, Kissinger recounts dialogue from his variousmeetings with Mao and Zhou. One sees Mao waves his hand and say he doesn’t desire Taiwan. “It’s better for it to be in your hands. And if you were to send it back to me now, I would not want it, because it’s not wantable.” He then declares no action need be taken on Taiwan (i.e. no invasion) for 100 years (indeed, in a later meeting with President Jiang Zemin, Kissinger asks if the same timeframe still holds, to which Jiang says Mao made the remark 23 years earlier, so nothing need happen for another 77 years.)
Kissinger also paints portraits of the great Chinese leaders, built up first hand.
For example, he says of Zhou Enlai: “In some sixty years of public life, I have encountered no more compelling figure. Short, elegant, with an expressive face framing luminous eyes, he dominated by exceptional intelligence and capacity to intuit the intangibles of the psychology of his opposite number.”
He tries to be even-handed in his assessment of Mao, which will likely not find favour with all of his readers. However, WiC was especially struck by one Kissinger insight (on Mao) which again invokes ancient history.
Mao had developed a public posture of being willing to accept hundreds of millions of casualties from a nuclear strike, Kissinger recalls. This, he adds, was “treated as a sign of derangement by some Western obervers”. But Kissinger thinks it is better understood in the context of Zhuge Liang’s Empty City Strategem (from the Three Kingdoms era around 1800 years ago). In it, a commander notices an approaching army far superior to its own. Since resistance guarantees destruction, and surrender would bring about loss of control over the future, a new stratagem is required. So the commander opens the gates of his city, places himself in a posture of repose and behind him shows normal life without any sign of panic or concern.
The general of the invading army interprets this sangfroid as evidence of hidden military reserves, and withdraws.
Not having a nuclear deterrent at the time, reckons Kissinger, “Mao’s avowed indifference to the threat of nuclear war surely owed something to that tradition”.
That is to say, he was bluffing on a giant scale.
The remainder of the book brings us through to the present day – and China’s current meteoric rise, in which it has started to rival America.
The great diplomatist then makes some long range predictions – asking whether China and the US are set to face the same pressures to go to war as Britain and Germany did a century ago.
Suffice to say, Kissinger hedges his bets.
On China has received mixed reviews from magazines like TIME and The Economist. The former thinks it too bloated; the latter derides an overuse of the metaphor of wei qi (the game of go) to describe how Chinese strategists seek to avoid being encircled.
WiC’s main quibble: we’re surprised that the handover of Hong Kong barely merits mention.
The 1997 handover was a milestone in China’s resurgence, but you wouldn’t get that impression from Kissinger. In fact, it earns just seven words in a 500-page book, as part of a lengthy sentence on Jiang Zemin’s achievements. For a book on Chinese foreign policy that’s a striking omission.
One interesting outcome of Kissinger’s book, however, is a clarification of one of Zhou Enlai’s most quoted statements.
The Financial Times this week reported that former foreign service officer Chas Freeman used a seminar honouring On China’s publication to reveal that Zhou’s famed remark about the impact of the French Revolution (“It’s too early to say”) was not translated properly.
The comment is often mentioned in illustration of the long-term outlook of the Chinese leadership. But Freeman says it was all a misunderstanding. Zhou was talking about the 1968 student riots in Paris, not the events of 1789.
“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” says the retired US official.
A spokesperson for Kissinger was contacted by Richard McGregor of the FT and commented: “Dr Kissinger has no precise recollection but the Freeman version seems much more plausible”.
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