On China – Book Review

9.5 “…modern history as told by someone who was actually in the room”


Henry Kissinger is the only household American politician names in China who is not a US president. In this book, he masterfully pieced together a grand jigsaw puzzle from his first account interaction with Chinese leaders and a historical journey into China’s past. It is a revealing account of historical events that shed light into how the complex China-US relationship evolved.

The book started with a cultural and philosophical analysis of the Chinese way of thinking. For the right reason, thanks to China’s unique and continuous history, China is a proud country. China’s Chinese name Zhong Guo means the Middle Kingdom – the center of the universe. The emperor managed Tian Xia, meaning all under heaven. Unlike the western mythology and religion, the Chinese had it all for Chinese people. The gods and the celestial court in heaven were mirrored to the Chinese people and the imperial court. China’s sheer size, thriving economy and military might made it the dominant power in Asia, and for a long time the envy of the western world too. China generally assumed leadership in global order and managed its neighboring countries as satellite states through a ceremonial tribunal system. Its culture spread across the region, along the silk route and eventually to the west. The Chinese empire strongly believe that China was the ultimate form of civilization and everyone else was just on the way to there.

The western world caught up. Particularly the industrial revolution allowed formidable fleet to travel half the globe with powerful canons. The Macartney envoy was looking to impress the emperor and open trade opportunities, but the mechanic and industrial achievement were recognized little more than delicate toys. The emperor was more insistent that the European perform kowtow like all its Asian neighbors to show the total submission to the throne. The last notable envoy only prompted the kingdom to become more hostile to foreigners and limited the communication to barely minimum.

The ensuing were humiliating decades for China. Unlike all the “barbarians” China encountered in the past, the westerners overwhelmingly challenged the China centric doctrine. When western powers demanded diplomatic representation, the very concept of equal recognition was an heinous concept to the imperial court. Through multiple rounds of power miscalculation, the old China was smitten to its core. Without properly assessing the superior western military force, Qing Dynasty sent Lin Zexu to burn the opium and harassed western traders. The western power rebuked and brought the Qing Dynasty to its knee in the first opium war. The Qing Dynasty was losing its grip quickly in the following second opium war, Boxer movement and naval war with Japan. As colonial countries gnawed away its sovereignty, Qing Dynasty had to bring Russian to broker a deal, although at a great territorial price. In a series of “unequal treaties”, bureaucrats like Li HongZhang had to barter precious times for the ailing monarch at great personal and national cost.

When China finally turned the humiliating page at the end of second world war, China was still in a treacherous water. The Soviet threatened from the north, US seemingly was building a strategic encirclement, incessant border disputes with neighbors and the thorny Taiwan strait. By then, Taipei, not Beijing, was the recognized representation of China. Kissinger’s instrumental role to formalize the relationship with China through generations of US administrations allowed him to retell vivid stories along each step. China was at a dangerous spot between two nuclear armed super powers. Despite the numerous strategic vulnerabilities, China had a War with US at North Korea, invaded India and Vietnam, shelled Taiwan strait and alienated Soviet. Kissinger revealed the careful calculations behind the curtails by the Chinese and American leaders in each crisis. He saw how Chinese leaders covertly maneuvered for breathing space. China insistently defied external pressures and held true to its ideology. However cold war brought US and China together to face the Soviet. Kissinger retold his encounter with Chairman Mao in his reading room, witnessed Zhou Enlai sidelined during the cultural revolution, impressed by Deng Xiaoping’s practicality. The disastrous cultural revolution ransacked the country, depriving it from culture, leaders and education. Deng Xiaoping was the first Chinese leader to publicly acknowledge the backwardness of China and its need to learn from the west. Deng brought a creaking halt of the Gang of Four and proposed the “feeling the stone” approach to market economy. Jiang Zeming then used his bureaucratic skill to see Deng’s vision followed through. The opening up worked and brought prosperity to the aspiring Chinese people. The foreign policy between states should be governed by principle of self interest. But often the political system fell hostage to public opinion. The Tiananmen Square Massacre, US Bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Taiwan Straight Crisis, leaders in each country managed its own public opinions and stayed on course for a cooperative relationship.

Throughout each historical event, Mr. Kissinger made acute comparisons between the Western and Chinese thinking. For example, western politicians focused matters at a transaction level whereas Chinese prized more on long term relationship. Thanks to the established equilibrium, neighboring countries in America and Europe resolve disputes through diplomacy and rarely rely on any military threat. However, similar equilibrium was not found in Asia, thus it merits a different diplomatic approach. US insists that human right and democracy are the prerequisites to prosperity and entitles itself to bring that ideology to every country. China holds intact its “Communism with Chinese Characteristics” ideology and insisted non-interference of domestic affairs.

On China is the best analysis on China available to readers. Kissinger provided authentic perspectives from real interactions with Chinese leadership and comprehensive understanding of Chinese culture and history. He made frequent reference to Confucian, Sun Tzu and in many places used the Chinese words directly to help explain the Chinese subtlety. Thanks to his own prominent role in Western political system, he had enough insight to authoritatively dissect each world event.

In the new world order, Soviet is no more. The escalating trade war and hostile rhetoric are self-feeding. China and US frequently resorted to limiting communication to yield pressure on one another. However, deficient communication increased the chance of miscalculation and misinterpreted actions fuel into suspicion. In the past, when a new power rose to challenge to the incumbent, it temporarily distorted the equilibrium and equilibrium was established again only after a war. Ancient Greek and Roman, English and German before the first world war were just two alarming examples. But the author is hopeful that this time can be different. The two country can still co-evolve.  The two countries owed it to themselves and the world to attempt to do so.


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