On China, by Henry Kissinger
Kissinger is convinced that China must be dealt with through compromise.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But the story of Nixon’s opening to China, the meetings with Mao Zedong, and the ensuing ups and downs in US-China relations are now familiar to those who have followed the relationship. One is left wondering if the book could not have been made shorter and better-focused.
Acting as President Nixon’s national security advisor, Kissinger made his first, secret trip to China in late 1971 to set the stage for Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to the country in early 1972. In the 40 years that followed, Kissinger visited China more than 50 times. He had unparalleled access to several Chinese leaders – from Mao to Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin.
"On China" is based largely on the former secretary of state’s transcripts of talks with those leaders and his analysis of Chinese culture and its impact on Chinese foreign policy. He’s convinced that China must be dealt with through compromise, cannot be pressured on human rights, and must be understood in terms of a lasting feeling on the part of the Chinese that they were humiliated by Western powers during the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th.
In Kissinger’s view, China, though it does see itself as exceptional, does not proselytize or claim that its institutions are relevant outside China. American “exceptionalism,” in contrast, is missionary, as Kissinger describes it. Americans believe in internationally recognized universal values, such as freedom and
human rights. He argues that in order to reduce human rights violations in China, the US must engage the Chinese Communist Party and not confront it: “Once enough confidence has been established, changes in civil practice can be advocated in the name of common purpose or at least the preservation of a common interest.”
When it comes to the Chinese army’s bloody Tiananmen crackdown on unarmed protesters in June 1989, however, Kissinger stops short of condemning the action. He explains that for Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader at the time, the Tiananmen protests “stirred the historical Chinese fear of chaos and memories of the Cultural Revolution – whatever the stated goals of the demonstrators.”
Kissinger then goes on to state that “This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has its different perspectives depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis.” The closest he gets to a condemnation of the massacre is to acknowledge that the suppression was “harsh.”
Kissinger also says that given its cultural background, China has historically not sought to impose its values on others. But this is not at all the case today. One need only look at the colonial aspects of China’s repressive actions in Tibet and Xinjiang, where Beijing is imposing its own institutions, controlling monasteries and mosques, and mandating the teaching of the Chinese language to the detriment of the local languages.
Toward the end of the book, Kissinger offers some prescriptions for how the US and China can work together to maintain a stable, peaceful Asia. He suggests that we should elevate crisis discussions with China into a more “comprehensive,” multilateral framework that seeks to eliminate the underlying causes of tension.