Kissinger’s view from the top is unique and important

Henry Kissinger’s “On China” is out. I haven’t read it yet, but the book is awaiting my upcoming flight to the US.

The book is a must read because … well … he is Kissinger and the book is about China. A more appropriate title may have been “China From the Top” because that is Kissinger’s vantage point. About 10 years ago, John Holden and I organized a lunch for Kissinger with a dozen young Chinese entrepreneurs. After the lunch, he told us that this was the first time he had engaged in significant conversations with Chinese people below the level of senior Party officials or his government handlers.

The official cocoon that surrounds Kissinger on his China journeys has limited his access to real life here. That was apparent during the lunch when he looked around the table at the successful entrepreneurs and said: “Now that China has made such incredible economic progress, it seems that the next step will be the development of democracy.” The entrepreneurs let out a collective gasp. Several piped up to tell him that without a strong hand at the top for many, many more years they believed that China would not be able to maintain the stability necessary for a strong economy and the accumulation of wealth. Kissinger took it on board but looked a bit concerned. Many successful Chinese entrepreneurs like those Kissinger talked to, however, are today arranging foreign passports and moving money offshore because they worry about the stability of the Chinese system and being accused of “economic crimes” if they get on the wrong side of somebody powerful or a government campaign.

Kissinger’s view of China is very valuable because no Westerner has spent so much time and had so many candid conversations with Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong to Zhou Enlai to Zhu Rongji to Jiang Zeming to Hu Jintao and the dozens of other leaders surrounding them.  Books on China are published by the hour these days. But nobody else has Kissinger’s history, access and vantage point. And it is likely that no foreigner in the future will again have such access to China at the top.

From an excerpt in the WSJ, and the comments of reviewers, it looks like the book offers deeper explanations of the worries that Kissinger has been expressing in speeches in recent years. His concern is that the lack of strategic trust between the US and China – and the very different DNA of the political systems – could lead to a future US China conflict if statesman in both countries don’t rise above the fray and seek common understanding and continuous compromise on issues that help glue the self interest of both countries together.

Kissinger is still sharp at age 88. But he and the other statesmen who have been able to hold together the US-China relationship through tough times are either very old or have passed away. The building US-China tensions that Kissinger describes in the book, and such warnings from history as the rise of Germany over England leading to two wars, will require wise leaders on both sides keeping things from getting out of control.

Neither the US nor China know how to treat others as equals. The Middle Kingdom Mentality predates American Exceptionalism by a few thousand years. A key to future global stability will be for the US and China to treat each other as equals and strive to build strategic trust, bit by bit. That is something that leaders on both sides may want to ponder as they read through what is likely to be Kissinger’s final word on China.

There is no reason for the modern US-China relationship that Kissinger initiated with his secret trip some 40 years ago to descend into conflict. Statesman on each side are needed to help their countries marginalize the vested interests, ideological tensions and petty domestic politics that take people’s eyes off the big picture and what is important.

Excerpt from WSJ’s Saturday Essay by Henry Kissinger:

In recent years, China’s encounter with the modern, Western-designed international system has evoked in the Chinese elites a special tendency in which they debate—with exceptional thoroughness and analytical ability—their national destiny and overarching strategy for achieving it…

The previous stages of the national-destiny debate asked whether China should reach outward for knowledge to rectify its weakness or turn inward, away from an impure if technologically stronger world. The current stage of the debate is based on the recognition that the great project of self-strengthening has succeeded and China is catching up with the West. It seeks to define the terms on which China should interact with a world that—in the view of even many of China’s contemporary liberal internationalists—gravely wronged China and from whose depredations China is now recovering…

China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy. The U.S. would try to organize China’s many neighbors into a counterweight to Chinese dominance. Both sides would emphasize their ideological differences. The interaction would be even more complicated because the notions of deterrence and preemption are not symmetrical between these two sides. The U.S. is more focused on overwhelming military power, China on decisive psychological impact. Sooner or later, one side or the other would miscalculate.

The question ultimately comes down to what the U.S. and China can realistically ask of each other. An explicit American project to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade is unlikely to succeed—in part because China is an indispensable trading partner for most of its neighbors. By the same token, a Chinese attempt to exclude America from Asian economic and security affairs will similarly meet serious resistance from almost all other Asian states, which fear the consequences of a region dominated by a single power.

Link to WSJ piece by Henry Kissinger, “The China Challenge”:

Excerpt from NY Times’s book review:

…Mr. Kissinger’s own take on Tiananmen and the Chinese government has a determinedly “on the one hand, on the other hand” feel: “Like most Americans, I was shocked by the way the Tiananmen protest was ended. But unlike most Americans, I had had the opportunity to observe the Herculean task Deng had undertaken for a decade and a half to remold his country: moving Communists toward acceptance of decentralization and reform; traditional Chinese insularity toward modernity and a globalized world — a prospect China had often rejected. And I had witnessed his steady efforts to improve Sino-American ties.”

Mr. Kissinger is even more chillingly cavalier about the tens of millions of people who lost their lives during Mao’s years in power and the devastating fallout of his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Mr. Kissinger writes about what he describes as a “poignant” scene in which “Nixon complimented Mao on having transformed an ancient civilization, to which Mao replied: ‘I haven’t been able to change it. I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.’ ”

Mr. Kissinger then, startlingly, adds: “After a lifetime of titanic struggle to uproot Chinese society, there was not a little pathos in Mao’s resigned recognition of the pervasiveness of Chinese culture and the Chinese people.”

Buying into many of the myths Mao promoted about himself, Mr. Kissinger describes him as “the philosopher king.”

“Mao enunciated the doctrine of ‘continuous revolution,’ but when the Chinese national interest required it, he could be patient and take the long view,” he writes. “The manipulation of ‘contradictions’ was his proclaimed strategy, yet it was in the service of an ultimate goal drawn from the Confucian concept of da tong, or the Great Harmony.”

For some people, Mr. Kissinger acknowledges, “the tremendous suffering Mao inflicted on his people will dwarf his achievements.” But he also delivers this coldblooded rationalization: “If China remains united and emerges as a 21st-century superpower,” many Chinese may come to regard him as they do the early emperor Qin Shihuang, “whose excesses were later acknowledged by some as a necessary evil.”

Link to NY Time’s book review:

Excerpt from The Guardian:

The final part of the book has a distinctly elegiac feel, as if Kissinger is worried that the rise of a new assertive nationalism in China along with “yellow peril” populist rhetoric in the US may undo the work that came from that secret visit to Beijing in 1971. His prescription – that the west should hold to its own values on questions of human rights while seeking to understand the historical context in which China has come to prominence – is sensible. But policymakers in Washington and Beijing seem less enthusiastic about nuance than their predecessors. The hints and aphorisms batted between Zhou and Kissinger have given way to a more zero-sum rhetoric.

Link to The Guardian’s review of Kissinger’s book:


About James McGregor
James McGregor is an American author, journalist and businessman who has lived in China for more than 25 years. Currently, he is chairman of APCO Worldwide, Greater China. A professional speaker and commentator who specializes in China’s business, politics and society, he regularly appears in the media to discuss China-related topics. McGregor is the author of the books "No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: The Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism" (2012) and "One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China" (2005). He also wrote the 2010 report "China’s Drive for ‘Indigenous Innovation’ – A Web of Industrial Policies." From 1987 to 1990 McGregor served as The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Taiwan, and from 1990 to 1994 as the paper’s bureau chief in Mainland China. From 1994 to 2000, he was chief executive of Dow Jones & Company in China. After leaving Dow Jones, he was China managing partner for GIV Venture Partners, a $140 million venture capital fund specializing in the Chinese Internet and technology outsourcing. In 1996, McGregor was elected as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. He also served for a decade as a governor of that organization. He is a member of the Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, National Committee on US-China Relations and International Council of the Asia Society. He serves on a variety of China-related advisory boards.

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