Thursday, May 12, 2011

Henry Kissinger On China

No American has influenced the US-China relationship more than Henry Kissinger since the countries restarted diplomatic relations forty years ago. Aside from kicking off the partnership in the first place, he's also played a key role in maintaining it. It is therefore unsurprising that Kissinger's soon-to-be released book, Henry Kissinger On China, is an instant classic.

Kissinger explains the purpose of his book in the prologue:
"This book is an effort, based in part on conversations with Chinese leaders, to explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order, and its relationship to the more pragmatic, case-by-case American approach."
Kissinger begins his study by laying a framework that he uses throughout the rest of the book. He goes into great depth explaining the basics of Chinese strategic theory using Sun Tzu's The Art of War and the board game weiqi (or, in English, "Go") as his main examples. Kissinger argues that Sun Tzu's work, which is about "the means of building a dominant political and psychological position," and weiqi, which is focused on "strategic encirclement," are and have been the guiding principles of China's thinking and action for centuries.

Although more modern history is the main focus, this foundational section - the first fifty pages or so - may be my favorite part of this 500+ page book. It really crystallizes the Chinese ethos and its leaders' decision-making processes.

By page 100 or so, the reader has entered the 20th century. I'm going to highlight a few of the most memorable sections from the heart of the book:
- Kissinger's analysis of the relationship between Mao and Stalin is fascinating. The dance between two of the most ruthless and conniving rulers of the twentieth century is, as you'd expect, something to behold. Reading Kissinger's inside baseball analysis of the two leaders' maneuvering and manipulation of each other makes for great drama.

- The lengthiest section and the climax of the book is the preparation and execution of Kissinger and Nixon's opening up of China to the United States and the rest of the world.

From Mao changing his tone towards the US in the 1960s to Kissinger feigning sickness on a diplomatic trip to Pakistan so he could sneak away for his first visit to Beijing to Zhou Enlai and Kissinger hammering out the technicalities of Nixon's invitation to visit China, the reader takes in history from the man who created it.

I'm going to highlight a particularly nice passage from this section - the moment that Kissinger and Nixon first were introduced to Mao at his residence. From page 257:
Mao's residence was approached through a wide gate on the east-west axis carved from where the ancient city walls stood before the Communist revolution. Inside the Imperial City, the road hugged a lake, on the other side of which stood a series of residences for high officials. All had been built in the days of Sino-Soviet friendship and reflected the heavy Stalinist style of the period similar to the State Guesthouses.

Mao's residence appeared no different, through it stood slightly apart from the others. There were no visible guards or other appurtenances of power. A small anteroom was almost completely dominated by a ping-pong table. It did not matter because we were taken directly to Mao's study, a room of modest size with bookshelves lining three walls filed with manuscripts in a state of considerable disarray. Books covered the tables and were piled up on the floor. A simple wooden bed stood in a corner. The all-powerful ruler of the world's most populous nation wished to be perceived as a philosopher-king who had no need to buttress his authority with traditional symbols of majesty.

- Although Kissinger had officially been out-of-office for years by 1989, he played a critical role in mending US-China relations in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He describes being invited to Beijing in November of that year to try to help out with the very rocky situation.

It is during this section of the book that Kissinger's ideas on the policy of realpolitik are discussed in great depth. I'd love to share several pages of heady prose from this chapter here on my blog - they are some of the best blueprints for US/China relations I've ever seen - but I'll just recommend reading the book instead.
As you can tell from this gushing review, I really enjoyed On China. The only criticism I can give is that the pacing felt off at times. Hundreds of pages were given to certain time periods and other eras felt skimmed over. I suppose that is to be expected, though, given the amount of information covered and Kissinger's own experiences.

Henry Kissinger On China is a must-read for anybody interested in better understanding China, its people, or the relationship between the China and the United States. I can't recommend it highly enough. It goes on sale May 17th.

This review is part of a TLC "Virtual Book Tour." Below is a schedule for upcoming reviews of On China. I want to thank TLC Book Tours for including Mark's China Blog on this tour.To read more of my China book reviews, click here.

Henry’s Tour Stops
Wednes­day, May 11th: Man of La Book
Thurs­day, May 12th: Mark’s China Blog
Mon­day, May 16th: Hid­den Har­monies China Blog
Tues­day, May 17th: Inside-Out China
Wednes­day, May 18th: Lisa Graas
Mon­day, May 23rd: Divided We Stand United We Fall
Tues­day, May 24th: Bookworm’s Din­ner
Wednes­day, May 25th: Pacific Rim Shots
Thurs­day, May 26th: Asia Unbound
Tues­day, May 31st: Word­smitho­nia
Wednes­day, June 1st: Lit and Life
Thurs­day, June 2nd: Chi­naGeeks
Tues­day, June 7th: booker ris­ing
Wednes­day, June 8th: Power and Con­trol
Thurs­day, June 9th: Marathon Pun­dit
Fri­day, June 10th: Rund­pinne
Date TBD: Rhap­sody In Books


Unknown said...

Excellent review. I really enjoyed the book as well (I'm on the tour also) but not as much as you did.

It is a fantastic book, I can't wait to see what others on the tour think about it.

Mark said...

All Blogspot blogs crashed on Thursday after I posted this.

Man of la Book, the first person to review this book on the tour, left a comment that ended up being deleted by the system. I'll repost it now:

Excellent review. I really enjoyed the book as well (I'm on the tour also) but not as much as you did.

It is a fantastic book, I can't wait to see what others on the tour think about it.

Kissinger's book is one of the best I've read over the past year. It's right up there with McGregor's The Party and Schell's The Mandate of Heaven as some of the most ridiculously informative books on China. I, too, am looking forward to hearing what others have to say about it.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed seeing your take on this. Kissinger himself is a very interesting man, and I'm sure that his perspective on China is very worth reading.

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Allen said...

Good review Mark. Henry may appear cold at times (on both sides of the ocean), but sometimes cold logic directed at long-term peace is better than hot passion - however well meaning - reflected by leadership personalities.

Have a great time in China. Look forward to you sharing your experiences there!