TLC Book Tour Review of “On China” by Henry Kissinger

Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours by my husband Jim.

Chinese written history goes back more than 2500 years. Its earliest myths speak of a Yellow Emperor, who does not establish or found the civilization, but rather restores order to an already ancient kingdom. Throughout their long history, the Chinese thought of themselves as the center of the world, the “Middle Kingdom.” The Chinese believe their empire grew not from conquest, but rather by absorption of surrounding barbarian peoples who fervently wished to become Chinese. The Chinese persisted in perceiving themselves as innately superior to other ethnicities throughout their long history until much of their country was colonized by Europeans and the Japanese in the 19th century.

Henry Kissinger’s On China begins with a synopsis of that long history because he believes it is necessary in order to understand the path of Chinese diplomacy in the modern world. His account details Chinese diplomacy from the 19th century through the present day, with an emphasis on the period after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1948. He credits modern Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong through Deng Xiaoping through Jiang Zemin with having great patience and an extraordinarily long-term view of world history. Zhou Enlai, Kissinger’s counterpart under Mao, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, replied that “it was too early to tell.”

Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai in 1971

An organizing theme in Kissinger’s analysis of relations between China and the West is the contrast between the board games of wei qi and chess. [Wei qi is the game known as “Go” in English.] The Chinese approach, like good strategy in wei qi, requires the avoidance of encirclement. The Western powers historically have sought head-on clashes with clear winners and losers, more like chess. Kissinger uses this analogy to describe Chinese behavior in the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950’s, and China’s 1962 war with India.

Wei Qi, or Go game board

Not renowned for his humility, Kissinger might have subtitled this book “How I personally Saved Western Civilization.” Nevertheless, he is an appropriate chronicler of recent Chinese history since he (along with Richard Nixon, Mao, and Zhou) may have had as much to do with China’s “opening up” to the West as any other human being. The implicit evaluations in his account are somewhat influenced by his personal interactions with the other dramatis personae. For example, Kissinger seems to admire Mao, crediting him with great wisdom despite the fact that his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution resulted in starvation or political persecution for millions of Chinese, in addition to stultifying China’s economy for at least a decade.

Kissinger argues that China, unlike the Soviet Union, has not attempted to expand communism beyond its historical territorial limits. China’s principal strategic problem since the founding of the Peoples’ Republic has been that it is surrounded by unfriendly neighbor states that claim some of the territory historically ruled by China. For example, the Soviet Union sought to control Outer Mongolia despite its ostensible communal bonds of communist ideology. In addition, India and China have long disputed their boundary in the Himalayas, and even fought a short nasty war over its location in 1962. In Kissinger’s view, China’s intervention in the Korean War was not motivated so much by a desire to protect a fraternal communist state as it was a straight forward defense of its own frontier.

Nixon and Kissinger were relatively indifferent to Chinese internal politics, and were able to reach an accommodation with Mao over many international issues because of their mutual distrust of Soviet expansionism. China did not intervene in America’s Vietnam War in any meaningful way because it valued its growing relationship with the United States. In fact, China and Vietnam are historical rivals and even fought a brief war with each other once the United States abandoned the area.

The most difficult issue between the United States and China has been the status of Taiwan, which China views as its own breakaway province. Kissinger and Nixon had to contend with a powerful “China lobby” in the U.S. Congress that favored recognizing the Nationalist government in Taipei over Mao’s government. Nevertheless, Kissinger was able to reach an accommodation with the communists because of their patience and long-term approach to international relations. The temporary “solution” was embodied in the so-called Shanghai Communiqué, whereby the United States recognized that there was only one China, which included both the mainland and Taiwan. For their part, the Chinese communist government was willing to wait (Mao said for “a hundred years”) to settle who was to rule that entire single country. Mao did not renounce the potential use of force to unite the country and tested Western resolve with several probes by artillery shelling two offshore islands controlled by the Nationalists. However, communist forbearance from escalating the violence has made it possible to live in relative peace.

Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping in 1985

Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, pretty much abandoned the centrally controlled communist economic ideology in favor of a more market-driven model. As a result, China’s economy has made great strides. Deng and his successors, however, have maintained tight control over the political process. China remains a one-party state, with all political power residing in the “Party,” even if it remains communist in name only.

Kissinger muses on the tension between the “realist” and “idealist” schools of American foreign policy. Complicating the current relationship between the U.S. and China has been the idealistic movement in U.S. policy to push for the recognition of “human rights” in foreign countries, something that probably never occurred to Kissinger when he was in power. Ever pragmatic, Kissinger recognizes that a realistic approach to policy must be aware of the power of idealistic concepts to influence behavior. The Chinese, on the other hand, highly resent any effort by foreigners to influence the internal affairs of China.

Mutual distrust of the Soviet Union thrust the U.S. and China together. One might expect that the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. would provide the occasion to cease cooperation. In fact, one of the tensest periods in U.S.-China relations occurred in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Chinese brutally suppressed their own people in the Tiananmen Square riots. Careful diplomacy by George H. W. Bush’s government assured the Chinese that the U.S. would not interfere with China’s internal politics, although it had to make some disparaging remarks to assuage American domestic opinion. Thus, despite the significant differences in perceptions and approaches, the U.S. and China have avoided armed conflict with one another since 1954 and have become highly integrated with each other’s economy.

On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops and tanks attacked pro-democracy protesters who had occupied Beijing's central Tiananmen Square for more than six weeks.

In the final chapter, Kissinger discusses the difficulty in maintaining peaceful relations with China stemming from the inevitable tension caused by overlapping of national interests of the two nations in East Asia and the Western Pacific. Major challenges to dealing with China in the future will be how much the U.S. attempts to prod the Chinese toward establishing democratic institutions and how aggressively China asserts its new found economic and military power in that area. Kissinger remains cautiously optimistic that competent diplomacy on both sides can avoid serious conflict.

Evaluation: Although one can make fun of Kissinger’s enormous self-confidence, he really knows his stuff. This book is articulate, accurate, probing, and comprehensive. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Penguin Press, 2011

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16 Responses to TLC Book Tour Review of “On China” by Henry Kissinger

  1. Sandy says:

    Nice job! Yes, Kissinger is pompous, but I’ve always admired the man, and am fascinated by everything he has done in his life. I love these kinds of books, provided they aren’t too dry.

  2. Amanda says:

    This is completely off-subject, I know, but Henry Kissinger has become a running gag in our family. Nothing to do with politics or anything like that. Just that around Christmas-time, when the boys ask about people at all, Jason’s default answer is “Henry Kissinger.” For instance, Morrigan asks, “Whose house are we going to tonight?” Jason: “Henry Kissinger’s.” Ambrose: “Who are we going to see in the parade today?” Jason: “Henry Kissinger.” Announcer at a school Christmas program: “We have a very special guest coming in for the kids!” Jason: “Ooh, it’s Henry Kissinger!”

    One year, when Morrigan was 5 or 6 years old, Jason told him that Henry Kissinger was the person that came at the end of the Macy’s Parade, and Morrigan, after seeing Santa and the parade ended on TV, burst into tears because “I didn’t get to see Henry Kissinger!” Jason had only meant Santa, but of course Morrigan was too young to understand.

    So anyway, the point is that I always think about Christmas when I hear about Henry Kissinger, because Jason randomly just does this at that time of year. 😀

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I know Kissinger is very intelligent, but I just don’t think I could read a book like this. I have a feeling it’s WAY too academic for me.

  4. Darlene says:

    I could never read a book like this. I don’t think my attention span is good enough but I really enjoy reading reviews. Your hubby pens a great review!

  5. Barbara says:

    Jim’s alternate title for this book matches my opinion of Kissinger, but there is no denying his intelligence and ability. He is pragmatic, but unfortunately to the point of being able to ignore inconvenient loss of lives and human rights. He isn’t easy to read but I think he’s worth the effort.

  6. Vasilly says:

    This sounds like a great read! I think I’m going to add it to my tbr list. Your husband’s review was so informative and interesting.

  7. zibilee says:

    I have always wanted to get a good grip on Chinese history and find out how the west opened up the region, so this sounds like an incredibly juicy read for me. Thanks for hitting it on all angles, and providing a great review! It was much appreciated!

  8. ds says:

    Whatever one thinks of Henry Kissinger, he definitely knows his stuff. I’m going to recommend this one to the CS as it is right up her alley. Thanks for the excellent review!

  9. Julie P. says:

    You know…. not exactly my type of book but I bet Booking Pap Pap would love it!

  10. Margot says:

    There’s no doubt that Kissinger is a genius with some personality issues. My hunch is, however, that after his death he will receive a great deal of respect. Perhaps this book will serve as a sort of textbook for future diplomats. Very interesting review, Jim. Very well done.

  11. Thanks for the review Jim. I’ve always had a thing for Kissinger and his enormous ego so this should be interesting. I have to add that final picture from Tiananmen Square never fails to move me. What a powerful statement of one man standing up for what he believes.

  12. Alyce says:

    I’m glad that you enjoyed this one but I don’t think it’s one that will be rising to the top of my list (I really have to be in the right mood for this kind of nonfiction).

  13. I kind of like your subtitle suggestion. 🙂

    This sounds like a fascinating look at China. Kissinger is a force to be reckoned with, like him or hate him, and I’m certain that his insights on China and the US are worth taking into consideration.

    Thanks for being a part of the book tour!

  14. Hello Jim,
    For some reason, your email address came up with an error. Can you let me know if you got this?
    I ran across your impressive review and site in the process of doing a wei qi-oriented review of ‘On China.’ It will appear as Appendix VI of my e-article ‘Speculations on the Origins of Go’ in the e-library of the American Go association. It’s at http://www.usgo,org/bobhighlibrary. Scroll down and you’ll see my name.
    I thought you might be interested in reviewing my first book, ‘Go! More Than a Game,’ because 1/3 is devoted to condensing what is on that site (and more), besides being a teaching book. It was recently updated but I’ve been waiting for Amazon to publish the new ToC that adds the update chapter before making announcements.
    I can have Tuttle send you a copy if you are interested and I can also help you in the review if you have questions, etc.
    Peter Shotwell

    • Peter,

      I don’t anything about Go, but I would try to review your book if you like. I can serve as the ostensibly “intelligent layman,” to see if you communicate well with the non-cognoscenti.


  15. Pingback: Henry Kissinger, author of On China, on tour May 2011 | TLC Book Tours

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