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Kissinger and China

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AP Images
Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, Beijing, November 1973

With the fourth of the variations, “The Road to Reconciliation,” On China makes a major shift in mood and content, becoming in part a first-person narrative, as Kissinger himself enters the story as President Nixon’s national security adviser during the bold and ultimately successful quest to arrange a meeting between Mao and Nixon in Beijing, with an accompanying account of diplomatic exploration of the science of the possible. Readers seeking to find chapters on the Vietnam War as detailed as those on the Korean War will be disappointed—Kissinger remains muted on many aspects of the Vietnam war as it was viewed in the United States, and links the war to his earlier patterns of historical thinking, claiming:

When the US buildup in Vietnam began, Beijing interpreted it in wei qi terms: as another example of American bases surrounding China from Korea, to the Taiwan Strait and now to Indochina…. Hanoi’s leaders were familiar with Sun Tzu’s Art of War and employed its principles to significant effect against both France and the United States. Even before the end of the long Vietnam wars, first with the French seeking to reclaim their colony after World War II, and then with the United States from 1963 to 1975, both Beijing and Hanoi began to realize that the next contest would be between themselves for dominance in Indochina and Southeast Asia.

Although much of the Nixon visit to China has been covered by the principals themselves in their published memoirs, the bibliography and notes to On China give helpful leads to many other sources. They enable Kissinger to recall the work of his advance team—and then the President’s February 1972 visit to Mao—in a sustained narrative that neatly blends the personal with the national sides of the story. Kissinger obviously derived immense pleasure from negotiating this China trip and from all his other visits at the highest levels—fifty or more, according to his own calculation—that came afterward.

Even if Mao was a somewhat tarnished colossus by this time, there is also Zhou Enlai to continue the tale, and then later Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and other ministerial-level Chinese officials. Cumulatively these transcribed minutes help us to see the gradual changes in policy when both sides were willing to risk rebuff. Reprising his first variation, Kissinger reflects on how, from 1972 onward, “what we encountered was a diplomatic style closer to traditional Chinese diplomacy than to the pedantic formulations to which we had become accustomed during our negotiations with other Communist states.” Here, to his obvious delight, “was a diplomacy well suited to China’s traditional security challenge,” preserving a “civilization surrounded by peoples who, if they combined, wielded potentially superior military capacity.” China, Kissinger observes, prevailed by “fostering a calibrated combination of rewards and punishments and majestic cultural performance. In this context, hospitality becomes an aspect of strategy.”

As an added plus, there was the chance to get to know Zhou Enlai, a consummate courtier, politician, and diplomat, who “dominated by exceptional intelligence and capacity to intuit the intangibles of the psychology of his opposite number.” In a nicely constructed summary of the two main Chinese leaders, Kissinger writes of their special attributes:

Mao dominated any gathering; Zhou suffused it. Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm opposition; Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating. Mao thought of himself as a philosopher; Zhou saw his role as an administrator or a negotiator. Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents.

The subsequent leader-to-leader meetings in Beijing went well and it may very well be true, as Kissinger writes, that the Nixon trip was “one of the few occasions where a state visit brought about a seminal change in international affairs.”

How swiftly, nevertheless, things could change: the Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Nixon on August 8, 1974, led, in Kissinger’s words, “to a collapse of congressional support for an activist foreign policy in the subsequent congressional elections in November 1974.” This was accompanied by an “enfeebling [of] the American capacity to manage the geopolitical challenge,” which in this situation meant above all a policy by which the US would weaken the Soviet build-up on China’s borders.

Kissinger tells us that “the destruction of the President who had conceived the opening to China was incomprehensible in Beijing,” though one might question whether Mao and Zhou were genuinely so astonished. Watergate was surely no more harmful and unanticipated than the sudden destruction of Mao’s selected successor, the minister of defense and army marshal Lin Biao. Lin was accused of trying to kill Mao in a 1971 coup, and subsequently was himself killed when the plane in which he was trying to escape to the Soviet Union, along with several of his family members, crashed in Mongolia. Even after this long passage of time, Kissinger carefully refers to the drama as being “reportedly an abortive coup.”

Mao himself jocularly noted in an aside to Nixon that

in our country also there is a reactionary group which is opposed to our contact with you. The result was that they got on an airplane and fled abroad…. As for the Soviet Union, they finally went to dig out the corpses, but they didn’t say anything about it.

Each side could (and did) exaggerate the subtlety of the other. Mao felt no hindrance to “defying laws both human and divine” or—as Kissinger glosses Mao’s use of the familiar Chinese idiom—“trampling law underfoot without batting an eyelid.”

Equally hard to predict were the astonishing changes brought to China after Mao’s death in 1976, and the return to power of the thrice-purged Party veteran Deng Xiaoping, which provides the setting for the fifth variation. In his 1979 visit to the United States, which Kissinger labels “a kind of shadow play,” Deng made a dramatically favorable impression. Like the earlier Chinese strategists admired by Kissinger, Deng could pursue contrasting policies at once: thus in early 1979, for instance, while he was charming his hosts in the United States, he not only also ordered Chinese troops into Vietnam, to counter Soviet influence there, but also arrested and ordered harsh prison sentences for many of the Chinese artists and writers who had been participating in the short-lived flourishing of demands for more freedom of expression known as “Democracy Wall.”

It now seems inevitable—though it was not—that Deng’s ten years of close to absolute power after 1979 must have led inexorably to the immense demonstrations and subsequent massacres of 1989 in Tiananmen Square. We can note the caution of Kissinger’s language, as he writes that the events of spring 1989 were not due to a single cause, but that “it was the unprecedented confluence of disparate resentments that escalated into upheaval.” More simply put, “events escalated in a manner neither observers nor participants thought conceivable at the beginning of the month.”

Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East may help to underline Kissinger’s sardonic reflection that “the occupation of the main square of a country’s capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.” As to the “harsh suppression of the protest,” writes Kissinger, that was “all seen on television.” In fact, I believe it is still accepted by most analysts in the West that the television lights were turned out on the square, and much of the killing took place in darkness—hence the great disparity in reports of what happened where, and when, and of how many fatalities there really were. Such figures are needed if one is to separate random from deliberate use of lethal power.

So was Deng Xiaoping a tyrant or a reformer, or an intricate mixture of the two? Some of the most absorbing pages of Kissinger’s book deal with the uses of diplomacy shortly after the Tiananmen crackdown, and the differences in response that were in play. He discusses how President George H.W. Bush sent a personal letter to Deng on June 21, 1989, in which he spelled out the issues concerning sanctions and other steps as he saw them, while at the same time he referred to Deng as a “friend,” despite what had so recently occurred. In the same letter, Bush talked of the United States as a “young country,” especially when contrasted to the “history, culture and tradition” of China.

To reinforce some of the themes in the letter concerning the best methods for damage control in the circumstances, on July 1 the President sent Brent Scowcroft (his national security adviser), together with Lawrence Eagleburger (deputy secretary of state), in a military transport plane to meet with Deng and the Chinese premier, Li Peng. In the ensuing discussion seeking some balance between violent suppression and the threat to order, Kissinger observes, “the difficulty was that both sides were right.” The letter and the talks do seem, however, to have led to a reopened dialogue, and in November 1989 Kissinger was invited to Beijing in a private capacity to continue the Bush/Scowcroft overtures.

The most intriguing materials in Kissinger’s depiction of his own personal meetings with Deng Xiaoping concern the various alternatives for solving the impasse over the treatment of the celebrated Chinese astrophysicist and writer on democracy Fang Lizhi. Witty and acerbic, sharp and funny in debate, Fang, the ousted vice-president of the prestigious Chinese University of Science and Technology, had for several years been openly advocating free speech and assembly.2 During the crackdown (and manhunt) that followed Tiananmen he had been sheltered in the American embassy, and faced severe punishment if the Chinese authorities got hold of him. Kissinger reports that after he told Deng that “your best friends in America would be relieved if some way could be found to get him [Fang] out of the Embassy and let him leave the country,” Deng then personally unscrewed the microphones between his and Kissinger’s chairs, to ensure that confidentiality was maintained. Asked by Deng what solution he could see to the problem of Fang, Kissinger tells us that he told the Chinese leader:

My suggestion would be that you expel him from China and we agree that as a government we will make no political use of him whatsoever. Perhaps we would encourage him to go to some country like Sweden where he would be far away from the US Congress and our press. An arrangement like this could make a deep impression on the American public….

True to his training in politics during the Mao years, Deng “wanted more specific assurances” and asked Kissinger: “What would you think if we were to expel him after he has written a paper confessing to his crimes?” Kissinger doubted that Fang would agree to write such a confession, and told Deng:

  1. 2

    For example, his essay ” China’s Despair and China’s Hope ” was published in The New York Review in February 1989, and was circulated in China in the months before Tiananmen. 

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