Books China History

Review of “On China,” by Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger is the famous American diplomat. His new book, On China, is a fine history of the “Central State” focusing on the late Qing and early Communist periods. On China is destined to be assigned reading in graduate schools for years, because of its fine application of “realist” thinking to the survival of a strong country facing a multitude of high-tech strategic rivals. On China is clearly aimed at the informed political class: professional analysts, thoughtful policy professionals, and opinion makers. The narrative of On China appears to be distorted, either because of Kissinger’s focus on his own time period, his keen insight on what to clarify on what to clarify and what to obfuscate, or both. This is most notable in his incorrect depiction of Deng Xiaoping‘s political standing, as well as the near- complete absence of discussion of the KMT or the contemporary Communist Party.

On China is a good book for anyone interested in how the most radical and dangerous of Communist states managed to position itself in the winning anti-Soviet coalition with a minimum of leadership turnover or domestic discontent. Aside from hints as to Kissinger’s own thinking, however, it contains little new as far as history goes. Kissinger’s purpose is not to write a history. It is to write an introduction to Reality.

The Decline of China and Lessons for the United States

The reaction that many foreign policy teachers will have when reading On China book is, “I hope my students are familiar with the arguments in this book!”The two most striking are Kissinger’s view of the late Qing dynasty’s foreign policy, as well as China’s participation in the Third Vietnam War. Most scholars view both late Qing Diplomacy and the Third Vietnam Wars as failures, where China paid a grievous price for a worsening of relations with its neighbors. Kissinger argues that both of these were calculated triumphs: the late Qing, faced with being surrounded by enemies each of whom was stronger that China, nonetheless maintained regime survival and territorial integrity (more or less) for as long as possible. In other words, the Qing accepted defeat after defeat in vertical, short-term scenarios and were playing to survive in a long-term, horizontal scenario.

As Kissinger writes, “[The Qing] judged that it befell the court’s ministers to repeat what the Middle Kingdom’s elites had done so often before: through a combination of delay, circumlocution, and carefully apportioned favors, they would sooth and tame the barbarians while buying time for China to outlast their assault.”

The Empire of the Great Qing


Kissinger also views the the war between China and Vietnam as a success. He repeatedly uses the Chinese phrase “touching the buttocks of the tiger” to demonstrate how China discredited the Soviet Union’s security guarantee. Kissinger also repeatedly uses the phrase “Indochinese Federation” to refer to Vietnam and its satellite states (Laos and Cambodia), and argues that China’s attack in Vietnam may have prevented Thailand from being the next country to be conquered.

In all time periods China’s strategic situation was basically the same: the country faced high-tech and potentially hostile powers whose interests were a combination of geostrategic expansion and trade. Whether the high-tech enemies were Mongol light-cavalry, Russian gunpowder brigades, or British gunboats, China cleverly used diplomacy to maneuver around its enemies. Indeed, the historic strategic situation of China appears identical to that of Byzantium, as described by Lars Brownsworth in his popular work.

Kissinger’s purpose is clear: the historical position of the Middle Kingdom will soon be shared by that other “central state,” the indispensable nation — the United States of America. The Qing example demonstrates how a superpower can maintain its own national and cultural continuity as long as suicidal decisions do not occur in close order, as they finally did under the disastrous Dowager Empress. Likewise, China’s policy against Vietnam aggression shows how a superpower can use calculated attacks on the client of a rival to maintain the peace.

Kissinger relays some now-famous advise from Deng Xiaoping, which is often considered to be Deng’s version of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” line:

Observe carefully, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.

Kissinger continues with Deng’s secret explanation of his advise — advise which Kissinger clearly wants U.S. leaders to understand and appreciate:

Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.

The Nature of Chinese Communism

Like the Chinese news agency (or any good editor, for that matter), Kissinger argues his point not so much by stating an opinion but limiting what facts he shares. This is most obvious on the time period that he focuses on. Later in the book, however, Kissinger’s power of selecting facts appears to fail him, and he makes statements that are simply untrue.

I think this is intentional.

The greatest hope for peace in our day is probably a United Front between the Chinese KMT on Taiwan and the Chinese Communists on the mainland. That both the Chinese mainland and “Chinese Taipei” are governed by pro-business, pro-trade, patriotic, and mildly corrupt regimes which share a common history is amazing. Yet the KMT regime is nearly absent in the book, which serves as a problem for anyone wanting to understanding China’s “near abroad.” This is especially frustrating in places where Kissinger seems to almost bring it up, like in this transcripts:

MAO: Our common old friend, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, doesn’t approve of this. He calls us Communist bandits. He recently issued a speech. Have you seen it?

NIXON: Chiang Kai-shek calls the Chairman a bandit. What does the Chairman call Chiang Kai-shek?

ZHOU: Generally speaking we call them Chiang Kai-shek’s clique. In the newspapers sometimes we call him a bandit; we are also called bandits in turn. Anyway, we abuse each other.

MAO: Actually, the history of our friendship with him is much longer than the history of your friendship with him.

Misstatement replaces silence later on, however. For instance, consider this:

Deng’s Reform and Opening Up was designed to overcome this built-in stagnation. He and his associates embarked on market economics, decentralized decision making, and opening to the outside world — all unprecedented changes.

Kissinger is probably right about the first and last element in the list, but definitely not the second. Indeed, the disasters that Mao is most associated with — the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutions — were examples of distributed decision making in extremis. Indeed, Mao often appears to be used the term “Left” to mean distributed and “Right” to mean bureaucratic, which leads to the obvious conclusion that, at least as far as decentralized decision making went, Deng did not so much replace statistics” with sensible goals and measures. At the same time, Mao’s Leftward tilts toward distributed decision making were unsuccessful, and so in between revolutions Mao relied on “Rightist” governments led by Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, and Deng Xiaoping.

Mao was willing to sacrifice the lives of 100 million Chinese to build a Leftist future of distributed decision making for China. He was willing to experiment and try new things, at an unfathomable cost in death and destruction, to do so. But in between attempts, when disorder threatened to do away with his power, Mao used Rightist bureaucrats to recharge — to set up the next stage.

Just as Kissinger teases us by raising the issue of the KMT, but not relating it to the Communists, Kissinger also teases the reader here, too. Kissinger writes:

[Mao] stressed his personal goodwill to Nixon, both personally and because he said he preferred dealing with right-wing governments on the grounds that they were more reliable. Mao, the author of the Great Leap Forward and the Anti-Rightest Campaign, made the astonishing remark that he had “voted for” Nixon, and that he was “comparatively happy when these people on the right come to power” (in the West, at least).

The Right are reliable bureaucrats. Mao’s statements is no more shocking that the view of the Soviet Union presented by Tom Clancy: menacing, dangerous, rational, and painfully boring.

(To tie this in with a recent book I read, Lord of the World, under Mao’s use of the terms, the British Communist Party would have been a Right-wing government, while the order established by Pope Sylvester would have been a left-wing movement.)

The effect Kissinger’s silence is compounded by the very next thing he offers, a transcript between Nixon and Mao, in which Kissinger allows the reader to think the line about DeGaulle is a laugh-line, instead of an elaboration of Mao’s view of the Right and the Left:

NIXON: When the Chairman says he voted for me, he voted for the lesser of two evils.

MAO: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right.

NIXON: And General DeGaulle.

MAO: DeGaulle is a different question. They also say that the Christian Democratic party of West Germany is also to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.

DeGaulle was a “different question” not because the French were quirky, but DeGaulle was unpredictable, and (liked Mao) viewed his government as a dangerous tool and was willing to sacrifice entire provinces to preserve the national essence. The Republicans, the Tories, the CDP, and even the Soviet Communists, however, were lifeless, bureaucratic automatons.

Kissinger tantalizes the reader with parallels left unstated. For instance, Kissinger traces the use of the phrase “peaceful evolution” as first described by John Foster Dulles as a method of ending the Communist threat, then to Deng Xiaoping as identifying a threat to regime survival, then to Warren Christopher as a goal of the United States. But Kissinger writes:

The heir of Mao’s China was advocating market principles, risk taking, private initiative, and the important of productivity and entrepreneurship… Deng’s advise was that China should “be bolder,” that it should redouble its efforts and “dare to experiment”: “We must not act like women with bound feet. Once we are sure that something should be done, we should dare to experiment and break a new path… Who dares claim that he is 100 percent sure of success that he is taking no risks.”

But Deng’s statement is almost word-for-word a copy of Mao’s rhetoric at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. Indeed, both Mao in the late 1950s and Deng in the early 1980s were attempting to weaken the power of central bureaucrats in the economy. Indeed, it was Mao who first recognized the enormous economic potential of experimenting peasants: “As is clear to everyone, the spontaneous forces of capitalism have been steadily growing in the countryside in recent years, with new rich peasants springing up everywhere and many well-to-do middle class peasants striving to become rich peasants.”

A Love to Learn

On China‘s a good book. Kissinger, deservedly, has a very high reputation. So I truly wonder if the problems and omissions in On China are by accident or design. For instance, in the epilogue Kissinger writes:

In all of China’s extravagant history, there was no precedent for how to participate in a global order, whether in concert with — or in opposition to — another superpower.

But this is simply wrong! China and Russia are both successor states to the Mongol Horde. Russia was the first state that China recognized as “sovereign.” Russia had a de facto embassy in Beijing for centuries before any other westerners were even allowed to live in the city. Kissinger even explicitly refers to the history of the three-way continental politics between Russia, Turkestan, and China in in a footnote:

The story of Qing expansion in “inner Asia” under a series of exceptionally able Emperors is related in rich detail in Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005).

So what’s going on?

The answer is that On China is not really a memoir, or a history book, or a country guide. It is a tool to teach foreign policy. Kissinger is following his advise. Quoting a Qing official:

In your association with foreigners, your manner and deportment should not be too lofty, and you should have a vague, casual appearance. Let their insults, deceitfulness, and contempt for everything appear to be understood by you and yet seem not understood, for you should look somewhat stupid.

and quoting Confucius:

Love of kindness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by foolishness. Love of knowledge, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by loose speculation. Love of honesty, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by harmful candour. Love of straightforwardness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by misdirected judgment. Love of daring, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by insubordination. And love for strength of character, without a love to learn, find itself obscured by intractability.

So it is pointless to go on — to challenge Kissinger’s statement that Mao followed Confucius, or Kissinger’s lowballing of the death figure in the Great Leap Forward, or Kissinger’s statement that Deng Xiaoping lost control of the press in the early 1990s, or any of the weird statements that Kissinger makes.

The purpose of On China is learning. While the audience is people who want to learn about China, the intention is to teach Americans international relations.

Kissinger uses the term “reality” 27 times. The 27 instances 27 quotes by Kissinger, which contrast “Reality” with idealism, misapprehension, chaos, hope, friendship, disappointment, expectation, and so on. The purpose of On China is to focus the reader on Reality, and not on the fluffery which so often get in the way.

On China‘s a brilliant book, and succeeds at its goals.

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2 thoughts on “Review of “On China,” by Henry Kissinger
  1. Capital review Dan!

    If one compares your review with those found in much of the mainstream media, it would appear that they approached this book by preaching to the choir (audience), instead of reading the meaning behind the words. I think that your familiarity with Chinese culture and history, adds much to finding the clarity and value of this book as a tool to teach diplomacy and how to get along with other nations.

  2. To
    The Editor

    Sub:- China is not as powerful and secure as Kissinger thinks

    Ref:- (i)- Democratic uprising in NAME countries has invalidated Kissinger’s premises in his book ‘On China’

    (ii)- China is the main looser of ‘Cold War’.

    (iii)- Confrontation between President and Congress over ‘War Power Act’ about Libya etc. bound to influence US policy on ‘democratization of the world’.

    (iv)- Stalemate in ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and in Iraq too, will also constrain USA to change its global policies.

    (v)- On-going economical hardship for Americans, will also decide the future course of US global policies.

    (vi)- All these and concern for permanent security of Israel, will constrain USA to go for ‘League of Democracies’ with replacement of optional protocol (OP1) with mandatory protocol (MP1) of ICCPR of UN.

    (vii)- This ‘League of Democracies’ bound to come in conflict with China especially over exploitation of natural resources including oil, if not so much on the issue of human rights & freedom.

    (viii)- With present large economy due to globalization, China does not have option, to isolate itself, as it had up to 1980.

    (ix)- In addition to history of unease in Tibet and Xingjian, economical studies of China by western world may cause resentment in other parts of China too.

    (x)- Despite likely further economical rise of China for some more time, the lead in military affairs and economy will be ultimately decided by advance in Science & Technology.

    (xi) There is no other human group on earth which can surpass USA & its western allies in the advance of Science & Technology.

    (xii)- With the history of huge support to Taiwan by Americans & their Congress, the US Government will not hesitate in disowning ‘three communiqués’ which support ‘One China’

    (xiii)- Taiwan may exploit these developments to aspire for ‘two China’ with claim on lower half of China.

    (xiv)- With Dalai Lama & Tibetans in India and humiliating defeat in 1962 war, India may be crucial factor to be exploited by US lead ‘League of Democracies’ in the emergence of ‘Two China’.

    (xv)- Veterans of ‘World War’ & also ‘Cold War’ (Russia and Japan) are not going to remain passive and dormant for ever, in China & Pacific matters.

    (xvi)- China should ensure that minimum damage happens to China in the emerging scenario

    Dear Sir

    Though Dr. Henry Kissinger dealt with events up to January 2011 in his otherwise brilliantly written book “On China”, and turbulent events in North Africa & Middle East (NAME) countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain etc for democracy mainly took place after this period, therefore Kissinger has not taken these gigantic and far reaching developments in his reckoning while overestimating China. But there is no reason why a person of such an enviable background as Kissinger should have underestimated the compelling and road-rolling power of ‘free market democracy’, in promoting false complacency in China by speculating about the rosy future and fate of ‘People’s Republic of China’ in the form of ‘co-evolution of Pacific community’ or highly important role for China in coming world affairs.

    Rather on the contrary China faces uncertain future and should marshal its all the energy and capabilities, in ensuring that minimum damage happens to China in the emerging scenario, as given below:-

    (1)- Kissinger is unnecessarily over-awed by the ancientness of civilization of China. The soft power of ancientness of civilizations across the world is no match for the soft power of ‘free market democracy’. It is surprising that Kissinger could not understand that China is the biggest looser of ‘cold war’. Because after ‘cold war’ mainly China is left to carry the burden of defunct and inefficient socialism / communism while USA & Allies has rescued their European Christian brother Russia from the dead weight of socialism / communism. Politics always has precedence over economy therefore democracy will always have precedence over free market. Therefore some opening of china to free market forces will not help China unless it adopts democracy.

    (2)- Free market democracies (USA & its western allies) have already taken care of rough spots of capitalism and presently USA practices ‘Joint Capitalism’ by imbibing in capitalism the humane aspect of socialism / communism. In USA 90 % of the economy is run by ‘private capital’ but welfare programs for removing unemployment, health care and education etc is taken care of by ‘State capital’ with the result presently USA has public debt (born out of fiscal deficit) of above $ 14 trillion.

    (3)- Though due to inertia, USA is (i)- not giving free health care to its majority of economically humble citizens by involving social organization through State (despite collecting adequate 8 % GDP of about $ 1.12 Trillion from citizens in taxes) (ii)- not removing huge unemployment / underemployment by granting right to work and employment guarantee program (iii)- not practicing federalism with the result facing myriad problems at national and international level (iv)- not observing monetary discipline by ensuring equal asset (under physical or constructive possession of money issuing authority) back up to currency (v)- not checking fiscal indiscipline and continues to treat fiscal deficit as % age of GDP instead of % age of consolidated fund of governments (vi)- not converting income tax into consumption tax with the result government here in the State of Minnesota is already shut down and many more may follow in USA due to unnecessary so called ‘class warfare’ and (vii)- not stopping harm to corporate culture being caused by double taxation on it through corporate tax and also dividend tax –

    But there is nothing to be done or added at ideological level to its ‘free market democracy’ ideology. Any day when USA decides to shed its inertia, USA will transform itself smoothly in a way which will be role model worthy for emulation by other democratic countries, including developing countries too.

    (4)- With this ideological readiness USA & its western allies have been in a position to democratize entire world after victory in cold war. But USA out of its isolationism (due to its prosperity in mostly water locked huge territory) and inertia does not move unless its interests are immediately threatened. USA & its western allies are under no illusion that democracy will bring world peace, as Kissinger has also observed in this book that world wars were fought mainly by European democracies only, with harrowing immense loss of life and properties. But USA & its western allies certainly believe that democracy is a better tool against terrorism – which they still dread most, especially after 9/11 etc.

    (5)- USA & its western allies also know that that in developing countries especially in Muslim countries fundamentalism always gain ascendancy (as is evident from the case of democratic Pakistan too where Laden was found living for years in Abbottabad in the vicinity of military establishment and in national capital region). Therefore USA is worried about rise of fundamentalism in NAME countries (with unprecedented threat to Israel) once democracy is ultimately installed over there and also in Afghanistan and Iraq once USA & Allies completely comes out of these countries within next 3 years. USA is also aware of the fact (as being openly being alleged by ex – CIA officers etc in US media) that USA has lost the ‘war on terror’ to fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    (6)- The on-going confrontation between White House and Congress over ‘War Power Act’ on Libya etc. is bound to influence US policy in such a profound way that USA & allies will see to it that democracy comes not only to all the NAME countries but also the ‘democratization of the world’ is taken up in earnest and inexorably.

    (7)- Because of importance of NAME region due to petroleum oil which is needed by entire world (i)- USA & Allies will not stop before installing a permanent mechanism for military and other intervention in NAME countries in case fundamentalism or serious threat to human rights emerges over there during democracy and (ii)- Democratic NAME countries will never allow such intervention through UN unless they also have justifiable & effective say in such mechanism.

    (8)- This is bound to lead USA to launch a forum (some thing like ‘League of Democracies’ as has been suggested by Senator McCain also) preferably within UN and may be even out of UN if veto of some nations comes in its way. This with replacement of optional protocol (OP1) with mandatory protocol (MP1) of ICCPR of UN, with voting rights (for military, para – military, civil intervention in trouble countries) to member countries on the basis of formulae based on contribution (of armed forces, ammunitions, war equipments & machineries, finances etc) in the first phase (launching of ‘International Political Parties’ may be in subsequent phase).

    (9)- With ‘League of Democracies’ in place with preferential treatment to member countries in the distribution of natural resources of ‘wealth of democracies’, the ease with which China so far has been able to get natural resources including petroleum oil from entire world would be put in serious jeopardy. What to talk of developing countries even presently economically battered developed country like USA has started discussing in media that in Afghanistan under protective umbrella of democratic USA & Allies the communist China is gaining billions of dollars by exploiting natural resources of Afghanistan whereas USA alone is spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan. Moreover with present large economy due to globalization, China does not have option, to isolate itself and withdraw in the shell of ‘middle kingdom’, as it had up to 1980. This predicament about natural resources is bound to bring China in serious dispute and confrontation with ‘League of Democracies’ lead by USA & it’s Western Allies, if not so much on the issue of human rights & freedom.

    (10)- Regarding two powers (economic and men power) on which China is supposed to bank as per Kissinger:-

    (i)- Despite likely further economical rise of China for some more time, the lead in military affairs and economy will be ultimately decided by advance in Science & Technology. Moreover there is no other human group on earth which can surpass USA & its western allies in the advance of Science & Technology.

    (ii)- So far USA has been assailing China’s monetary and economic policy in terms of its adverse effect on the economy of USA (foreign trade imbalance etc) and of its allies and on world economy. But in addition to history of unease in Tibet and Xingjian, economical studies of China by western world will cause resentment in other parts of China too as it is bound to show the disparities among and economic stagnation of Chinese also.

    With China in said serious dispute and confrontation with ‘League of Democracies’ and with the history of huge support to Taiwan by Americans & their Congress, the US Government will not hesitate in disowning ‘three communiqués’ which support ‘One China’. Also Taiwan may exploit these developments to aspire for ‘two China’ with claim on lower half of China.

    (11)- With Dalai Lama & Tibetans in India and humiliating defeat in 1962 war, India may be crucial factor to be exploited by US lead ‘League of Democracies’ in the emergence of ‘Two China’.

    (12)- India did not intervene militarily to retrieve its territory of ‘Pakistan Administered Kashmir’ during 1980s when USSR was fighting with USA in Afghanistan, though it could have changed to some extent the out come of cold war in favor of USSR (to which India owes its victory in 1971 war with Pakistan in liberating Bangladesh). This Indian intervention could also have avoided the problem of terrorism (which has claimed thousands of life) in Kashmir after end of war in Afghanistan by fundamentalist returning from Afghanistan. But regarding Kashmir India has been defensive and apologetic from the beginning due to democratic reasons especially after towering Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah started criticizing India. But with China, matter is different.

    (13)- Any body who thinks that Hindu majority India will forget the humiliating defeat and loss of territory during 1962 Indo – China war then he is big zero in understanding the way of life of Hindus. Nothing will be more gratifying to Indians than to see another arch enemy China breaking up in two Chinas after India successfully broke Pakistan in two (Pakistan and Bangladesh) in 1971. The people who talk about non-aggressive and non-militant nature of Hindus have to keep in mind only the liberation of Goa from Portugal by India in 1961.

    (14)- Of-course no one can expect Russia and Japan (the old war lords of Word Wars and Cold War) to remain passive spectators during said turbulences in their vicinity, having extremely important effect on their vital interests. Especially given the fact of historical territorial adjustments & incursions of China’s present territory by these veteran war lords.

    Yours truly

    Hem Raj Jain

    Author of “Betrayal of Americanism”

    Mankato, MN – 56001, USA

    Ph: 612-202-4053

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