Henry Kissinger on China

Diplomacy’s wheeler-dealer on the country’s emergence and his own role in it

An old warrior, a new world order

Christopher Wahl

Henry Kissinger, the extraordinary German-born Jew who bestrode most of 20th-century postwar American foreign policy, has written—at the age of 88—an important book on China, called just that: On China. Who better? At the most basic level, it’s important simply because of who Kissinger is and was: national security adviser and then secretary of state for two presidents (Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford), the realpolitik author of détente with the Soviet Union, which ultimately led to its dissolution; the high and mighty sherpa who cajoled the United States into recognizing “Red China” after decades of dangerous adversarial pyrotechnics; and the man who negotiated the end of the war in Vietnam, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, he presides over Kissinger Associates Inc., the mother of all international consulting firms, representing everyone from Coca Cola and Fiat and Volvo to (once upon a time) Hollinger Inc., whose former proprietor, Lord Black of Crossharbour (late of Coleman Correctional Center) was a close colleague. It may be fanciful, but I wouldn’t be surprised one day to learn Kissinger was on retainer to the politburo of the People’s Republic of China. As a locally famous consultant at Navigator Inc. of Toronto once said when criticized for taking a consulting fee from a dubious client: “Everyone deserves representation.”

The presiding premise of On China is to provide a detailed strategy on how best Sino-American relations should be conducted in the emerging era, which is a good enough reason to pay attention to such an experienced practitioner. Yet for all his valiant efforts to put a new glaze on well-known views, the inimitable wheeler-dealer of international diplomacy is still pretty easy to find. Although it takes 148 pages to get to it, it wasn’t a surprise to see the fulsome reference to Kissinger’s hero in the first paragraph of chapter six, entitled “China confronts both superpowers”: “Otto von Bismark, probably the greatest diplomat of the second half of the 19th century, once said that in a world order of five states, it is always desirable to be part of a group of three. Applied to the interplay of three countries, one would therefore think that it is always desirable to be in a group of two.”

This is classic Kissinger on two levels: first, it shows how he began pondering the opening to China by dangling before the jaded eyes of chairman Mao Zedong the possibility of outfoxing the Soviet Union through a rearrangement of global “understandings.” Secondly, and possibly more important, it answers the question by implication as to who is “the greatest diplomat” of the second half of the 20th century. As a pertinent addendum to this, it is also unsurprising to learn, from an ancient issue of Games and Puzzles magazine (1973), that the dastardly board game Diplomacy is his favourite, with its dark-sided tendency to encourage duplicity and the betrayal of alliances.

As for the dark side of the Kissinger legacy, it is still a source of lively and often toxic debates, and will be for some time to come. In Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (1979), author William Shawcross argued forcefully that America’s mismanaged attempt to contain the spread of Communism in Asia actually ended up creating, among other things, that lethal killing machine, the Khmer Rouge. A quarter of a century later, in 2002, the English author and provocateur Christopher Hitchens expanded the negative agenda in The Trial of Henry Kissinger by accusing him of being complicit in a conspiracy to commit murder, torture and kidnapping to further America’s global agenda, not just in Southeast Asia, but also in Chile and the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, even at 88, Henry Kissinger would like to counter this sort of thing and assert his own version of history before he dies. On China, therefore, is a major building block in this ambition. Although much of what he writes has already been covered in his other books—three volumes of memoirs and over a dozen on public policy—this one stands out particularly because of the extraordinary economic advances China has staged over the past two decades. How quickly we have adapted to the reality of this “poor and backward” country becoming a superpower.

This is Kissinger’s big story: the emergence of China and his own role in it. He never forgets his first obligation, “first” at least after positioning himself into the midst of the tale, which is to assert the supremacy of United States policy. Along the way, there are useful insights. The book begins with a brisk romp through a few millennia of Chinese history, all of it gleaned from secondary sources, but at least he has the wit to crib from titans in the field like John King Fairbank, Merle Goldman and Jonathan Spence (occasionally erring into what, pace Lenin, we could label “useful idiots” like the Australian sinologist Ross Terrill and the French fantasist Alain Peyrefitte).

The journey through the longest continuous cultural seam in world history allows Kissinger to highlight the essential, ever-present challenge facing Sino-American relations: the United States remains convinced that its “exceptionalism” is missionary, bringing the American Dream to the world, while the Chinese exceptionalism continues to internalize its cultural and historic superiority behind a metaphysical Great Wall. China does not seek to convert, argues Kissinger, but to control.

When senior Chinese officials bristle at American complaints of human rights abuses and insist that it is “an internal matter for the Chinese people to resolve,” it is not just a dodge, it is a cultural statement. When Americans wonder why the Communist government of China overreacts so brutally and clumsily to tiny little democracy movements or self-help groups like Falun Gong, it is because they do not understand—as all stalwart Chinese Communist officials most certainly do—that a small group of committed, idealistic young people can eventually hold an entire nation to ransom and even take the country over. Just like Mao did.

That said, Kissinger is irritating in the brisk manner with which he can dismiss the enduring dark side of Communist rule. No surviving Chinese leader has yet come fully to terms with the grotesque and murderous brutality of the Maoist regime, and Kissinger’s delight in wheeling and dealing with Mao and Chou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping seems to override any pesky side issues like the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. (In fairness, a whole chapter is devoted to Tiananmen, but it is an exercise to show how local disturbances can unbalance larger issues and are thus “unfortunate.”)

Yet it was Henry Kissinger who kept going back to Beijing and kept the diplomatic game going, and we are surely in a far better place today, with China humming away at capitalist dreams of enrichment, than watching the spectacle of Mao’s attempts to hold onto power through mass campaigns, mass purges and mass murder. In any summation of the man’s career, Henry Kissinger’s positive achievements will surely be seen as crucial. He can stand up in the books beside Bismark and the subject of his doctoral thesis, Prince von Metternich (the Bismark and Kissinger of the first half of the 19th century).

But I can’t leave off here, alas, because I too was in China and Southeast Asia when some of this history was unfolding as a lowly Canadian foreign correspondent. What I saw of American involvement at the time has haunted the rest of my life. I saw the cancer that was allowed to envelop Cambodia, and the havoc of Vietnam under American protection. Yet before I returned to Canada at the end of the 1970s, I saw Communist Vietnam invade Communist Cambodia, and then in short order I saw Communist China invade Communist Vietnam.

This surely was what the slyest foreign policy warrior in U.S. history could only dream of happening, because it so furthered the cause of American ascendancy to have the lot of them at each other’s throats. Even in the wildest game of Diplomacy, this would have seemed improbable. And how did it happen? What was the single crucial factor leading to this wild turn of events? It was the departure of American troops from Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia. Their presence and the “forward” American policy of the day was the only glue holding these vile regimes in their unholy alliance. Everything came unstuck when the Yankees ceased coming. This is not in Henry Kissinger’s engrossing new book.

John Fraser is Master of Massey College in Toronto. From 1977 to 1979, he was the Globe and Mail’s Beijing correspondent, and is the author of The Chinese: Portrait of a People and Stolen China.


Henry Kissinger on China

  1. Interesting article – I was intrigued by your final comments.  I am left wondering if the same analogy can’t be applied to the role the US plays, is playing, in the middle east???

  2. Kissinger in China was for one thing and one thing only: saving the financial system.  Everything else is complete fabrication/spin/lies.  Capital had to be allowed to fly to cheaper locations so that the financier class could continue to issue private money to loot the physical economy.  The deal was that capital investment would be allowed to fly overseas (freeing it from an accumulation of local agreements) if it wouldn’t challenge the preeminent position enjoyed by banking/finance private money issuance (a system that  is logically/practically unsustainable).

    • “Kissinger in China was for one thing and one thing only: saving the financial system”

      I don’t think Kissinger operated that way.  At his core he is an academic who viewed himself as an adjunct to a philosopher king dedicated to preserving the stability and viability of the state.  I think he likened himself to Metternich, the 19th century Hapsburg diplomat who worked furiously to preserve the Old Regime against the turmoils brought on by the disturbances of 1848.   Thus he was more concerned with politics rather than finance or economics.  I certainlly don’t recall representatives of GM or McDonald-Douglas tagging along with him during his many missions to China.   And I think he is much too sophisticated to be a puppet to those dastardly financiers.  

      • You can’t make a competent judgement about the man’s actions w/o seeing his other “diplomatic” actions as a one of a piece.  

        Why anyone would think it a complement to be compared with Metternich, I have no idea.  

        Obviously, GM & Mc-D would not have been invited as, while they are top-tier manufacturers, they are not top tier corporations.  There is a big difference.

        And when I say “the financial system” I mean to prompt the thought “Whose financial system?” There is more than one. They compete. Er, they use to compete.

    • China didn’t receive US favored nation status till the 2000, Mao was no economic reformer (at least not implementing liberal market reforms) and, by today’s standards, Nixon wasn’t a fervent free trader.

      I think it was more of a cold-war chess move by Kissinger and Nixon – Remember, it was mainly the Russians supplying North Vietnam combined with growing animosity between Beijing and Moscow

      • When the USA declare war against Germany, they were not in Berlin the next day.  Strategy takes time to unfold.  Seriously, what the heck do you think they were talking about with Chairman Mao?  It wasn’t about how tasty Peking Duck is. 

        Cash money.  The two of them didn’t give a shake about peasants in SE Asia.  Or the young of their own country, either.  What better place to make war than amongst those you feel are most expendable?

        Why would they want to end the CCCP?  It was the best thing to come along for making money since things started coming along for making money.

        • Nixon was up for re-election and his negotiations with the USSR on SALT 1 were stalled, as well as, their negotiations with the North Vietnamese on ending the Vietnam War.

          Russia, I believe, had withdrawn all technical assistance from China. There was ongoing tension on the China/USSR border, and The USSR was involved and gaining influence in China’s neighbourhood (i.e. Vietnam).

          • Yes, you have listed the grist for the mill, but you have not seen how it was made into bread.

          • Sure, but I think you  are giving Kissinger’s foresight too much respect and you are viewing historic events with a perspective biased by modern events such as the financial crisis and the economic rise of developing countries..

          • So, what does the removal from Bretton Woods and the establishment of the Petrodollar system under the Nixon administration have to do with the opening of the PRC? 
            If all you are focused on is the Chinese angle of the story, these other events are meaningless.  In reality, they are all connected developments to re-establish private dominance of finance.  The first front of the campaign got underway very shortly there after in New York City with the controlled destruction of the economy there. ’74 – ’75.  Where’d the jobs go? Overseas to China? Why China? N & K with Mao.
            Other people connected the dots.  So what.  It was still their plan. 

  3. There are strong argument in favor of  Kissinger being tried for war crimes in Combodia and Vietnam, in stead he received the Nobel prize ….. !

    In the thirty odd years since Kissinger presided over the dark period of American foreign policy and diplomacy, little has changed as the US still continues with its characteristic ways, be it in Iraq or elsewhere.

  4. Nixon and Kissinger in cahoots with Mao are responsible for OPEC??? – now you are building a grand narrative

    You can certainly consider the effect of events/individuals on other events but you don’t have to ‘connect all the dots’

    • This was my reply to Coldstanding (just didn’t put it in the right place)

  5. And now the US is broke, and China is America’s banker…..good one Henry


    • It isn’t as a bad a situation as it may appear. Think about it, US relies on China and China relies upon the US

      • China doesn’t rely on the US though.

        • How’s that?

          • It’s not an even-steven arrangement. China has a couple of trillion in foreign exchange reserves alone. They could bail out the US ….if they wanted to. Or the EU. Plus a huge gold reserve, and vaults full of deeds.

            China exports more to the EU than it does to the US. China has been aware for years….even if Americans weren’t… of the perilous state of the US economy, and they made plans accordingly.

            According to the IMF China’s economy will surpass that of the US in 2016.   5 years.

          • Ok, so foreign exchange reserves in US currency – when they sell off massive amounts of that reserve they lower the value of their reserve and others.

            They do export more to the EU, but the exports to the US are substantial enough, that if interupted, would cause further issues within China.

            Also, the Chinese regime enjoys the status quo – a status quo that ensures sea lanes in Asia and throughout world remain open and secure to transport massive amounts of raw materials to China and exports to the World = US Navy (for now)

            China requires GDP growth in the 5-6% range just to maintain the status quo. If the economy goes into a significant recession in China they don’t just vote the buggers out – they kill the leaders or the leaders kill them = massive destabilization

            There is no argument, China is on the rise, but now, and going forward, it all becomes more interconnected between the EU, China, US, India and elsewhere

          • No, they switched their reserves some time ago…it’s a ‘basket of currencies’ now as they call it. Of course if the US stopped all imports from China it would cause a problem….but it would be a far bigger one for the US than for China. The US doesn’t make much anymore, and often what they do make is done in other countries….like China.

            The Chinese aren’t remotely fond of the US Navy, or the status quo.  China has an excellent growth rate, and haven’t had a revolution since WWII when the country was in dreadful shape after a century of attacks. They don’t ‘kill leaders’

            Yes, globalization has been underway for years now, and made great headway while the US was otherwise occupied in Iraq.  The US is the one in the mess, not China.

          • They haven’t had a revolution since WW2? OK, this conversation ends here

          • Well if you’re out of your depth, it’s good of you to recognize that and say so.

          • Democracy is not an option

          • Democracy is a western value, not a Chinese one.

  6. fils de pute qui a bien berné les palestiniens !!!!!!!!

  7. I enjoyed the author weighing in at the end – it’s rare for a Macleans article. Even rarer for the piece to reveal such a clear criticism of the States. I don’t know the last time I’ve seen this in mainstream Canadian media. Such journalism should be commonplace given the fact that, A) the Yankees have spread so much pain and suffering around the world and, B) we would and do hold any other country to account for far less. So thank you, John Fraser, for not meekly falling in line with Big Brother but instead demonstrating our unique Canadian values – a love of peace, dignity, fairness, collaboration and transparency. 

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