Fateful embrace

On China, by Henry Kissinger, Allen Lane, RRP£30, Penguin Press, RRP$36, 608 pages

No one can lay claim to so much influence on the shaping of foreign policy over the past 50 years as Henry Kissinger. In and out of office, he has been intelligently ubiquitous. Almost two decades have passed since the publication of Diplomacy, a masterly study of the subject that will long endure as a bible for all who believe that nation states remain the principal building blocks in international politics, whatever the human aspirations towards international co-operation.

Now, with On China, Kissinger has turned his mind to a subject on which he has a unique vantage point. Publishers must have drooled at the prospect of this guru from the last century writing about the rising global power of the present one, especially given his own role in helping to open it up to the world.

The heart of this book is the 1972 visit to Beijing of President Richard Nixon and Kissinger, then US national security adviser, and the secret preparations that the author made. After a quick canter through Chinese history, Kissinger analyses the characters of the leaders he encountered and recounts in some detail his meetings with them. He summarises the progress made by China in recent years, offers some general reflections on the relationship between democratic values (or just plain values) and the conduct of foreign policy, and concludes with some unexceptional aspirations for the future of co-operation with the world’s most populous country.

On China is in many respects an apologia for some of the central preoccupations of Kissinger’s life. While he notes America’s almost missionary attachment to pluralism, democracy and human rights, he argues that these proper concerns should not get in the way of the pursuit of the national interest, which for 40 years has been to bring China in from the cold. Moreover, in the early stages of this courtship an additional bonus from the increasingly friendly relationship – and indeed a reason for it – was the isolation of the Soviet Union. China has frequently been helpful to the US as it has gone about its global business, proving recently for example to be “less confrontational” than some of his country’s pesky European allies in the run-up to the Iraq war.

“Statesmen are judged,” writes Kissinger, “by their ability to sustain their concepts over time.” Certainly, the early recognition that a prosperous and outward-looking China was good for the world is strongly in the author’s favour. Conceivably, his belief that serious diplomacy should not be distracted by excessive concern about human rights may turn out to be correct, though recent events in the Middle East lean rather in the other direction. There was after all no “Arab exception” when it came to democracy, and perhaps there is no “China exception” either, a point that appears to be conceded by the recent behaviour of China’s security apparatus.

My main criticism of Kissinger is not that his commitment to partnership with China is too strong, or his praise for China’s achievements too effusive. But I wonder whether the tone of his diplomacy is good for China and the rest of us, and whether the way he writes about China betrays a wholly unnecessary tendency, if not to kowtow, then at least to engage in a pre-emptive deferential bob.

The Nixon visit did indeed prove to be, as the president said, “the week that changed the world”. It was a bold and improbable venture and Kissinger does not seek to take away the credit for it that Nixon himself deserves. Whether the author regarded the idea initially as “a flight of fantasy”, as he allegedly told his deputy Alexander Haig, is not clear, but whatever doubts he may have secretly held he threw himself into making a success of the notion.

In her excellent book Nixon and Mao, published three years ago, Margaret MacMillan questioned whether the US gave away too much to secure a successful outcome. An ailing Mao Zedong was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution; he was frightened of being overwhelmed by the Soviet Union, which three years before had made a devastating strike against Chinese forces on the Ussuri river. As Yale’s Jonathan Spence has written: “Mao needed the US, but fortunately for him, Nixon wanted China more.” So the American relationship with China was based from the start on Washington as supplicant. Not unreasonably, in analysing the preparations for the visit, MacMillan asked: “Did Dr Kissinger have to be quite so deferential, even, at times, obsequious?”

I might have regarded that as an excessively harsh judgment before reading this book. While the author is not uncritical of Mao, the criticism takes second place by a country mile to the portrait of an alleged geopolitical genius. True, Mao kept China united after the Communist party’s civil war victory; yet China’s successes since Deng’s reforms remind us how disastrous the Mao years were. Kissinger writes of Stalin: “His leadership was ... marked by a ruthless cynical Machiavellianism based on his brutal interpretation of Russian national history.” The same could be said of Mao, who eulogised Emperor Qin Shihuang, notorious for burning books and burying 460 Confucian scholars alive.

Kissinger chooses to ascribe huge insight to virtually everything Mao says. He is praised for going back to history to enunciate strategy, for example in the 1962 border war with India. No one else would do this, apparently. Surely it is done with great regularity, at no time more wisely than when Field Marshal Montgomery laid down the first law of warfare: never march on Moscow. Nor do I understand why Mao’s strategic judgments at other times, for example over Korea when he was out-manoeuvred by Stalin and Kim Il-sung, merit such glittering praise.

But it is on two domestic issues that Kissinger gives Mao his fastest passage through the courtroom of history. First, there is the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine that it precipitated. “For once,” Kissinger writes, “Mao had set a challenge so far outside the realm of objective reality that even the Chinese people fell short of its achievement.” As the historian Frank Dikötter puts it in his outstanding Mao’s Great Famine, there is a tendency to write about these events as though the deaths that occurred were “the unintended consequences of half-baked and poorly executed economic programmes”. Through his meticulous sifting of party reports, Dikötter is able to show that millions died as a result of coercion and systematic violence.

The brief account of the Great Leap Forward in On China concludes with the observation that more than 20m died as a result of famine. The comment is sourced with a footnote referring to two books, one by Jasper Becker and the other by Frederick Teiwes. In fact Becker thinks that 30m or more died, Teiwes between 30m and 45m. A Chinese journalist, Yang Jisheng, whose book Tombstone is banned in China, reckons the figure is 30m; Dikötter puts it at 45m. As Kissinger says, “over 20m”; indeed, quite a few more than 20m.

The catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward begat the Cultural Revolution, when Mao destroyed those who had questioned his calamitous policies. Kissinger concedes that these years of hell produced “human and institutional carnage”.

He goes on to suggest that with the passage of time we can perhaps recognise that for all the “colossal wrongs committed during the Cultural Revolution ... perhaps Mao raised an important question even if his answer to it proved disastrous”. Picking myself up off the floor, I scoured the page to discover the nature of this question. It is apparently the importance of recognising the “challenge of the modern period” of breaking through the carapace of bureaucracy to connect governors with those they govern. Without sounding too soppy in this manly world of foreign policy, I guess that this is why many of us are rather in favour of democracy. It seems preferable to chaos and violence.

Mao’s deputy through all these events was Zhou Enlai, the handsome and seemingly urbane mandarin whom Kissinger regarded with considerable admiration. The author noted how his career exemplified the difficulties of being second man in an autocracy. He explains that a previous “Number Two”, Liu Shaoqi, was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, Liu was tortured, denied medicines for his diabetes and died in prison, denounced by the saintly Zhou among others.

A recent biography of Zhou, by Gao Wenqian, formerly a party historian who fled to America with his smuggled notes, offers a far more nuanced portrait of Zhou than the conventional one offered by Kissinger. His career reflected the old dilemma of how far an able man should be prepared to go in serving a tyrant. For many he was Mao’s enabler; in the words of the China scholar Andrew Nathan, “unique in his capacity to endure abasement”.

With the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, we can with some relief turn the page on the horror stories and focus on happier recent times. When Deng first began his reforms, insisting that China needed to rejoin the global economy, the country was exporting in a year what it now exports in a day. For all the remaining restrictions on liberties – from the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square to the recent imprisonment of dissidents Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei – most Chinese now enjoy a far more comfortable way of life. Deng should take much of the credit for this, and we should not overlook the pretty benign rule of Jiang Zemin, an underestimated leader and a wily political operator.

What happens next? Kissinger is right to argue for a co-operative relationship with China; “co-evolution” he calls it, though I am not sure that he has many insights into how we cope with the global imbalances created by China’s pursuit of an economic model based on politicised credit, low-cost exporting and high savings at a time of high personal and government spending and flagging productivity growth in much of the developed world.

We should not expect China to make all the running in tackling the trans-boundary problems that affect us all. China, for example, may be the world’s biggest carbon emitter, but America, Australia, Canada and even Europe emit far more per head. So simply hectoring China is not a smart option. But nor does it make any sense to leave our values at the door when we talk to China’s leaders, nor to go into every discussion on one knee. This does not encourage China to do what is often in its own best interest.

I am not sure whether Kissinger would agree with me that political change in China is inevitable (though Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, seems to share this opinion). As the party gives up control over the economy, sooner or later it is bound to lose control of the state. But what we would both argue is that it is in all our interests for China in due course to handle political change with the same dexterity it has shown in handling economic change. We are all best served if China does well rather than badly. The pity is that it lost so many years under Mao.

Lord Patten, now chairman of the BBC Trust and chancellor of the University of Oxford, was the last governor of Hong Kong

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