The Chinese vice-premier, Wang Qishan (王岐山), raised eyebrows on his visit to Washington earlier this month when he announced that Americans were a very “simple people.” He may well have had US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in his sights, after a prominent interview in which she criticized China for its recent crackdown on dissidents. One Chinese commentator came up with a tortured explanation as to why this Sino-US spat was actually a good thing: when nations know each other better, he suggested, they feel less need to be polite and can say what they really think.
Well, perhaps. But if there is one narrative that marks the global society of the early 21st century, then it is the increasing unwillingness of Washington and Beijing to understand each other’s viewpoints. Although millions of Westerners visit China each year, the history and motivations of the regime in Beijing and the 1.3 billion people that it rules remain a source of deep mystery to the West in a way that is not true for India, the other Asian giant. Best-selling books tend to fuel the disorientation rather than reduce it, whether they are airport-style business manuals on how not to lose your shirt or analyses that predict either imminent global takeover by the Middle Kingdom or its sudden implosion.
This makes former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s On China an unusual and valuable book. Of all the Westerners who shaped the post-World War II world — and there is little doubt that he did — he is one of the very few who made the American relationship with China the key axis for his world view. This is all the more remarkable since Kissinger’s realpolitik also profoundly shaped American relations with Europe, the Middle East, and southeast Asia. Yet at four decades’ distance, it is the approach to China in 1971 and 1972 that stands out as the historically crucial moment.
By Henry Kissinger
Historians would now argue that the Nixon visit to China in 1972 did not come out of the blue. During the 1960s, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations discussed a warming of relations with China, but were frustrated by Chinese hostility, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, when it was hard to find anyone to pick up the phone in Beijing. Yet the decision of a Republican administration to reach out to an ideologically radical and xenophobic communist regime in the midst of a vicious land war in Asia still seems a bold one and, unlike many policy decisions of the Cold War, one that has stood the test of time.
The book is really two distinct narratives built into one. The first is a long-range sweep through Chinese history, from the very earliest days to the present. For the most part, this is elite history, where statesmen do deals with other statesmen. Yet there are human touches that reveal something of the writer. One of the commonest comparisons to Kissinger is the 19th-century statesman Metternich, the pin-up for pragmatic diplomacy. Here, Kissinger implies an interesting alternative comparison with his pen-portrait of Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), the Chinese foreign minister of the late 19th century. Li had to make various compromises on Chinese sovereignty, including cession of railway rights to Russia, which led to his being reviled by his contemporaries. A century later, Li’s reputation is still controversial in China, but he is widely regarded as an original thinker who played a difficult hand with skill. The parallel does not need to be labored. And one imagines it gave Kissinger some pleasure to cite a figure few have heard of in the West, but who is known to every educated Chinese person.