Kissinger has written a sweeping new history of China, titled simply On China, that first acquaints the reader with the thousands of years of Chinese history which informed Mao’s revolution and then leads us through the details of the past 40 years of Sino-U.S. diplomacy.
“There are two slightly different purposes in writing the book,” Kissinger told me in a wide-ranging interview yesterday (transcript here.)
“One is to explain how Chinese think about international affairs to non-Chinese,” he continued. “Not to explain the Chinese point of view so much as to explain the way of thinking, the different concepts of time, and the different concepts of deterrence and defense that the Chinese have.”
The second purpose is aimed at the Chinese.
“Now as far as the Chinese are concerned, what my book might do is show them how their actions are interpreted by other countries, and therefore, to the extent that they care about what other countries think, to enable them to conduct a policy that leads to cooperation rather than confrontation, if that is the decision they have made.”
Whether this second purpose is accomplished only Chinese officials can tell us, but Kissinger’s first mission is fully achieved and the result is alarming.
Patiently and carefully arguing from history and the original documents of the last four decades, the former Secretary of State details the growth of a superpower from the rubble and the ruins of the Cultural Revolution. There is an ambiguity about the Culutrual Revolution in the book, one which Kissinger was quick to point out to my audience was not his personal view but which is emerging as a point of view in China, which holds that while devastating, the Cultural Revolution in fact allowed the modern economic behemoth to emerge.
Indeed the pivotal figure of Deng Xiaoping reveals that extraordinary survivor as very much a product of the hardship and suffering of the chaos that Mao unleashed, and Kissinger’s admiring portrait of Deng is among the most compelling in a book full of giants. The details about Zhou Enlai, Jiang Zemin and China’s current senior leadership should make the book mandatory reading for the foreign policy elite, but the masterful review of how Chinese think generally about the outside world should also push the book on to the reading list of every executive doing business in China and every student hoping to do so someday.
The most troubling aspect of the book is its brisk review of the emerging “triumphalist party” inside the PRC. Proponents of this view argue that an epic duel is now underway between the U.S. and China, and that the West’s weakness is revealed by the financial crisis of 2008. This aggressive nationalism could mutate into something like the Japanese militarism of the early 20th century with, Kissinger told me, the same sort of results as that unhappy chapter.
But it need not happen that way. Kissinger’s book comes close to fatalism about the future, but Kissinger himself rejects it. Those interested in preventing the collision of the superpowers which began their modern relationship 40 years ago tomorrow ought to read this book by a man who has, quite literally, seen it all from a vantage point no other American and indeed no other Chinese has occupied.