It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a half millennia, and to bring China’s past full circle in order to illuminate the present. In form, the book is highly idiosyncratic, for it is not exactly a memoir, or a monograph, or an autobiography; rather it is part reminiscence, part reflection, part history, and part intuitive exploration.
To borrow a current phrase, it is a “hybrid vehicle,” and a more accurate title, it seems to me, would have been something like Variations on a Theme in China. If we keep that in mind as a working subtitle, then we can see how the book follows six sequential themes: China’s early history, China’s inadequate attempts to modify the imperial system of the later dynasties, the formative years of Maoist consolidation, Kissinger’s own experiences while orchestrating President Nixon’s 1972 China visit, China’s later cycles of “opening up” and repression under Deng Xiaoping, and a surprise final section that ingeniously links pre–World War I British and German expansion to some of the current problems facing the United States and China today.
For Henry Kissinger, ancient China was a subtle place. That in turn led to its special resonance in the present: “In no other country,” he writes, “is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event,” as Mao often did in discussing policy matters. And Mao “could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions.” How could it not be so? For “Chinese language, culture, and political institutions were the hallmarks of civilization, such that even regional rivals and foreign conquerors adopted them to varying degrees as a sign of their own legitimacy.” “Strategic acumen” shaped China’s earliest international policies; and to support its central position it could call on a remarkable series of potential followers and aides.
A good example was the Chinese scholar known in the West as Confucius, who taught by citing examples to a small group of loyal and dedicated students. They reciprocated by drawing on their conversations for practical examples that could create a legacy on his behalf—forming a canon that Kissinger describes as “something akin to China’s Bible and its Constitution combined.” Whereas in the Western world “balance-of-power diplomacy was less a choice than an inevitability,” and “no religion retained sufficient authority to sustain universality,” for China foreign contacts did not form “on the basis of equality.”
Kissinger’s reflections about the Western and Chinese concepts of strategy lead him to posit a stark distinction, one in which “the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage,” while “the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces.” It is a good way for Kissinger to prepare the reader for a dualistic approach to two vast philosophical and military traditions, which he begins by summarizing the key differences between the Chinese players of the board game weiqi (the Japanese go) and those favoring the contrasting game of chess. While chess is about the clash of forces, about “decisive battle” and the goal of “total victory,” all of which depend on the full deployment of all the pieces of the board, weiqi is a game of relative gain, of long-range encirclement, which starts with an empty board and only ends when it “is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength.”
Teachers and practitioners of grand strategy have studied these contrasts between the two for many centuries. The principles of weiqi are echoed in the haunting text known as The Art of War, by a certain Master Sun, writing around the same time as Confucius. Kissinger quotes Sun at some length, drawing especially on his insights into the concepts of “indirect attack” and “psychological combat.” (“One could argue,” says Kissinger, “that the disregard of [Master Sun’s] precepts was importantly responsible for America’s frustration in its recent Asian wars.”) As the talented translator of classical Chinese John Minford renders one of the maxims by Master Sun quoted by Kissinger:
Ultimate excellence lies
Not in winning
But in defeating the enemy
Without ever fighting.
Master Sun succinctly lists his favored tactics for success in order of their priorities and effectiveness: first on the list is an all-out attack on the enemy’s strategy, second comes an attack on his alliances, then comes an attack on his armies, followed by an attack on his cities. “Siege warfare,” says Master Sun, “is a last resort.”
How then did this subtle and complex China collapse as completely as it did, left to flounder, apparently helpless, in the vicious currents of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? In what I would call the second section of his variations, Kissinger gives a partial answer, one that focuses on the various cultural, economic, and political blows that hit China in numbing succession, from the arrival of Lord Macartney’s mission in 1793, seeking expanded trade and residence rights, to the opium wars, the internal rebellions, the Christian sectarians, down to the Boxers of 1900 and the collapse of the imperial regime itself. Somewhat undercutting his previous discussion, Kissinger suggests that “centuries of predominance had warped the Celestial Court’s sense of reality. Pretension of superiority only accentuated the inevitable humiliation.”
At the same time some of those weiqi pieces were still in play: “Chinese statesmen played their weak hand with considerable skill and forestalled what could have been an even worse catastrophe,” defying the basic rules of balance of power politics. Rapidly sketching some of the survival strategies of Chinese political realists in the nineteenth century, Kissinger argues that “the rearguard defense to maintain an independent Chinese government was a remarkable achievement.” In the later nineteenth century, he writes, the Chinese scored some real successes against Western aggression by using those tried and true methods of pitting enemy against enemy, with one central irony being that the fading government expected its most skillful officials to “gain time without a plan for using the time they gained.” He recognizes that resorting to appeasement of major powers like Russia and Japan made sense in a situation where “some degree of conciliation [was] the only prudent course,” given the fact that a rapidly weakening China was no longer in a position “to make its defeat costly beyond the tolerance of the stronger.”
The narrative becomes somewhat blurred here, owing to the remarkable confluence of events in China’s quest for a new order. Rebellions, military modernization, transformative education, assertive foreign powers demanding ever fresh “concessions”—all overlapped, compounded by the swift rise of Japan, which between 1894 and 1905 defeated the fleets and the land armies of both China and Russia. With the coming of the New Culture Movement in 1919, the activities of the Third International (the Comintern), and the 1921 founding of the Chinese Communist Party, Kissinger appears somewhat overwhelmed, and the reader might perhaps be wise to skip to what I see as the third of the main variations, where the chapter title “Mao’s Continuous Revolution” signals to the reader that Kissinger is approaching the areas of his analytical expertise as a China-watcher and professional diplomat.
In describing the early years of the Communist revolution in China, Kissinger tells us plainly where he stands emotionally. As he phrases it, “at the head of the new dynasty that, in 1949, poured out of the countryside to take over the cities stood a colossus: Mao Zedong.” He shifts the image but not the cosmic idea when he tells us that Mao lived “a lifetime of titanic struggle.” Despite these awesome attributes, Kissinger also admits that the main years of Mao’s power proved that it was “impossible to run a country by ideological exaltation.” The attempt to do so ended by making tens of millions of Chinese lives almost unbearable—one might be tempted to say “inconceivable,” while “millions died to implement the Chairman’s quest for egalitarian virtue” in the famine between 1958 and 1962.
Kissinger notes that the famine was “one of the worst” in human history and assesses the deaths at over 20 million (some scholars recently have estimated twice that number as probable1). As to the Cultural Revolution toll between 1966 and 1969, he gives no estimates, but accepts the current judgment that “the result was a spectacular human and institutional carnage,” one primed by “the assaults of teenage ideological shock troops.” Yet it was the Chinese people themselves who gave Mao’s impossible challenges a kind of foundation because of “his faith in [their] resilience, capabilities, and cohesion.” “And in truth,” says Kissinger, “it is impossible to think of another people who could have sustained the relentless turmoil that Mao imposed on his society.”
The remark is close to harsh in its moral judgment of the Chinese population as a whole. Why did the Chinese even try to “sustain” this “turmoil”? Was it out of fear? Or out of the same kind of unwavering faith in transformation that Mao had been preaching since the Teens of the twentieth century? By way of explanation, Kissinger repeats that “only a people as resilient and patient as the Chinese could emerge unified and dynamic after such a roller coaster ride through history.”
Thinking about Mao in power gives Kissinger the chance to circle back to some of the themes with which he opened his variations. “No previous Chinese ruler,” we are told,
combined historical elements with the same mix of authority and ruthlessness and global sweep as Mao: ferocity in the face of challenge and skillful diplomacy when circumstances prevented his preference for drastic overpowering initiatives.
Mao’s flamboyant rhetoric certainly made plenty of noise in the four-year Chinese civil war (1945–1949) that followed the defeat of Japan, but it was not necessarily a match for Stalin’s canniness, as could be seen at the time of the preliminary sparring between Stalin and Mao at the very beginnings of the Korean War: the Russian response to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, both approving an invasion of the south and refusing to provide assistance (“If you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger. You have to ask Mao for all the help”), “was authentically Stalin,” writes Kissinger: “haughty, long-range, manipulative, cautious, and crass.”
Indeed, as Kissinger’s absorbing chapter on the Korean War shows, Mao was by no means always successful when dealing with the master manipulator himself. “The trouble with policy planning,” Kissinger notes, in a passage that suggests both his lifetime of diplomacy and its attendant travails, “is that its analyses cannot foresee the mood of the moment when a decision has to be made.” Or, to put it another way, in Korea “a Chinese offensive was a preemptive strategy against dangers that had not yet materialized and based on judgments about ultimate American purposes toward China that were misapprehended.” The confrontations were compounded by the fact that not one “of the many documents published to date by all sides reveals any serious discussion of a diplomatic option by any of the parties.” Overall, Kissinger concludes, in his detailed coverage of the Korean War, Stalin was the biggest loser, and the PRC achieved “something more than a draw…. [The war] established the newly founded People’s Republic of China as a military power and center of Asian revolution,” and showed that China was “an adversary worthy of fear and respect.”