On China by Henry Kissinger

Summary and takeaways from the book.

Henry Kissinger meets Chairman Mao in 1975. In the middle is US President Ford.

Kissinger's meeting with Chairman Mao served to normalize ties between USA and China, and laid the groundwork for globalization and technology revolution we see today.

"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".

ISBN: 978-0143121312
Published: April 24, 2012
Pages: 624
Available on: amazon

"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".

This book is essential reading for any entity looking to engage with China.

An Eternal Civilization

The author highlights the 'eternal' nature of Chinese civilization and history. "A special feature of Chinese civilization is that it seems to have no beginning".

The author quotes the nineteenth-century missionary and traveler, the Abbé Régis-Evariste Huc: "Chinese civilization originates in an antiquity so remote that we vainly endeavor to discover its commencement. There are no traces of the state of infancy among this people. This is a very peculiar fact respecting China".

This is relevant. The author Henry Kissinger shares a conversation he had with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai: "The duration and scale of the Chinese past allow Chinese leaders to use the mantle of an almost limitless history to evoke a certain modesty in their opposite numbers (even if, in the retelling, what is presented as history is occasionally defined by a metaphorical interpretation). The foreign interlocutor can be made to feel that he is standing against the way of nature and that his actions are already destined to be written as a footnoted aberration in the grand sweep of Chinese history".

The author adds: "the Chinese cultural sphere stretched over a continental area much larger than any European state, indeed about the size of continental Europe".

"the Emperor’s political writ, expanded to every known terrain: from the steppelands and pine forests in the north shading into Siberia, to the tropical jungles and terraced rice farms in the south; from the east coast with its canals, ports, and fishing villages, to the stark deserts of Central Asia and the ice-capped peaks of the Himalayan frontier".

"The extent and variety of this territory bolstered the sense that China was a world unto itself. It supported a conception of the Emperor as a figure of universal consequence, presiding over tian xia, or 'All Under Heaven'".

"China was for centuries the world’s most productive economy and most populous trading area.12 But since it was largely self-sufficient, other regions had only peripheral comprehension of its vastness and its wealth.

In fact, China produced a greater share of total world GDP than any Western society in eighteen of the last twenty centuries. As late as 1820, it produced over 30 percent of world GDP—an amount exceeding the GDP of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States combined.

Western observers encountering China in the early modern era were stunned by its vitality and material prosperity

"Not the least exceptional aspect of Chinese culture is that these values were essentially secular in nature. At the time when Buddhism appeared in Indian culture stressing contemplation and inner peace, and monotheism was proclaimed by the Jewish—and, later, Christian and Islamic—prophets with an evocation of a life after death, China produced no religious themes in the Western sense at all. The Chinese never generated a myth of cosmic creation. Their universe was created by the Chinese themselves".

This sense of history, context, and modesty is required when dealing with China, where any interaction by external entities with China is "destined to be written as a footnoted aberration in the grand sweep of Chinese history".

Kingdom under Heaven

Governance and administration was organized differently in China.

"This contrast is reflected in the respective intellectual games favored by each civilization". The popular Chinese game Wei qi "implies a concept of strategic encirclement". "Chess, on the other hand, is about total victory".

"If chess is about the decisive battle, wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage".

"Chess produces single-mindedness; wei qi generates strategic flexibility".

This approach of strategic advantage is reflected in their approach to war as well.

"Reacting to this slaughter(and seeking to emerge victorious from it), Chinese thinkers developed strategic thought that placed a premium on victory through psychological advantage and preached the avoidance of direct conflict. The seminal figure in this tradition is known to history as Sun Tzu (or “Master Sun”), author of the famed treatise The Art of War".

"What distinguishes Sun Tzu from Western writers on strategy is the emphasis on the psychological and political elements over the purely military".

"Sun Tzu merges the two fields. Where Western strategists reflect on the means to assemble superior power at the decisive point, Sun Tzu addresses the means of building a dominant political and psychological position, such that the outcome of a conflict becomes a foregone conclusion. Western strategists test their maxims by victories in battles; Sun Tzu tests by victories where battles have become unnecessary".

"The Chinese have been shrewd practitioners of Realpolitik and students of a strategic doctrine distinctly different from the strategy and diplomacy that found favor in the West. A turbulent history has taught Chinese leaders that not every problem has a solution and that too great an emphasis on total mastery over specific events could upset the harmony of the universe. There were too many potential enemies for the empire ever to live in total security. If China’s fate was relative security, it also implied relative insecurity—the need to learn the grammar of over a dozen neighboring states with significantly different histories and aspirations. Rarely did Chinese statesmen risk the outcome of a conflict on a single all-or-nothing clash; elaborate multiyear maneuvers were closer to their style. Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasizing feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage".

There are no grand monuments to religion, ideology or aristocracy.

"Just as there are no great cathedrals in China, there are no Blenheim Palaces. Aristocratic political grandees like the Duke of Marlborough, who built Blenheim, did not come into being".

"China had for well over one thousand years a fully formed imperial bureaucracy recruited by competitive examination, permeating and regulating all aspects of the economy and society".
"In its imperial role, China offered surrounding foreign peoples impartiality, not equality: it would treat them humanely and compassionately in proportion to their attainment of Chinese culture and their observance of rituals connoting submission to China".

Turmoil under the Heavens

China had enjoyed centuries of glorious isolation. But the world was changing.

"During the summer of 1969, the signals of a possible war between China and the Soviet Union multiplied. Soviet troops along the Chinese border grew to some forty-two divisions—over a million men. Middle-level Soviet officials began to inquire of acquaintances at comparable levels around the world how their governments would react to a Soviet preemptive attack on Chinese nuclear installations".

"Mao had chosen his course for the immediate future. His doctor reported a conversation from 1969: 'Mao presented me with a riddle. ‘Think about this,’ he said to me one day.

‘We have the Soviet Union to the north and the west, India to the south, and Japan to the east. If all our enemies were to unite, attacking us from the north, south, east, and west, what do you think we should do?’”

When Mao’s interlocutor responded with perplexity, the Chairman continued: “Think again... Beyond Japan is the United States. Didn’t our ancestors counsel negotiating with faraway countries while fighting with those that are near?

"Resumption of contact with the United States had become a strategic necessity".

"China opened up to USA because of its 'China’s anxieties'".
"Beijing had entered the relationship looking to Washington as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism".

American necessities

"At a National Security Council meeting in August 1969, Nixon chose an attitude, if not yet a policy. He put forward the then shocking thesis that, in the existing circumstances, the Soviet Union was the more dangerous party and that it would be against American interests if China were “smashed” in a China-Soviet war".

"That China and the United States would find a way to come together was inevitable given the necessities of the time".

"Nixon was eager to raise American sights beyond Vietnam. Mao’s decision had been for a move that might force the Soviets to hesitate before taking on China militarily. Neither side could afford failure. Each side knew the stakes".

Author writes at the start of the Preface: "President Richard Nixon did me the honor of sending me to Beijing to reestablish contact with a country...".

"both sides decided to spend most of the time on trying to explore each other’s perception of the international order. Since the ultimate purpose of the visit was to start the process of determining whether the previously antagonistic foreign policies of the two countries could be aligned, a conceptual discussion—at some points sounding more like a conversation between two professors of international relations than a working diplomatic dialogue—was, in fact, the ultimate form of practical diplomacy".

Differences between Chinese and American approach to Diplomacy

"Chinese diplomacy has learned from millennia of experience that, in international issues, each apparent solution is generally an admission ticket to a new set of related problems. Hence Chinese diplomats consider continuity of relationships an important task and perhaps more important than formal documents".

"American diplomacy tends to segment issues into self-contained units to be dealt with on their own merits".

"In this task, American diplomats also prize good personal relations. The difference is that Chinese leaders relate the “friendship” less to personal qualities and more to long-term cultural, national, or historic ties;".

"Americans stress the individual qualities of their counterparts. Chinese protestations of friendship seek durability for long-term relationships through the cultivation of intangibles;".

"I had emphasized functionality; Zhou stressed context".

Nixon-Zhou meeting

"Seven months after the secret visit, on February 21, 1972, President Nixon arrived in Beijing on a raw winter day. It was a triumphant moment for the President, the inveterate anti-Communist who had seen a geopolitical opportunity and seized it boldly".

The author praises Nixon: "Among the ten American Presidents I have known, he had a unique grasp of long-term international trends. He used the fifteen hours of meetings with Zhou to put before him a vision of U.S.-China relations and their impact on world affairs".

How many global leaders in any country today have that grasp or can discuss for 15 hours their vision for the world?

Beyond ideology

It is strategic geopolitical needs of both USA and China that led to normalizing relations between them at a time when USA and China did not even have an embassy in their capitals Beijing and Washington.

"What Nixon sought throughout the Cold War was a stable international order for a world filled with nuclear weapons".

"Nixon in Beijing insisted that geopolitical imperatives transcended ideology—his very presence in Beijing testified to that".

"...Ideology would drive the two sides toward confrontation..."

Equally for China, "With one million Soviet troops on China’s northern border, Beijing would no longer be able to base its foreign policy on slogans about the need to strike down “American imperialism”".

Economic problems

"In a centrally planned economy, goods and services are allocated by bureaucratic decision. Over a period of time, prices established by administrative fiat lose their relationship to costs. The pricing system becomes a means of extorting resources from the population and establishing political priorities".

"In the absence of markets that balanced preferences, the planner was obliged to impose more or less arbitrary judgments. As a result, the goods that were wanted were not produced, and the goods that were produced were not wanted".

Economic reforms

China's response to stagnation and failing economy was "Enterprises will make full use of market forces and the State will guide the economy through macroeconomic policies".

Deng Xiaoping, "The heir of Mao’s China was advocating market principles, risk taking, private initiative, and the importance of productivity and entrepreneurship".

"The Chinese leadership would not let ideology constrain their reforms; they would instead redefine “socialism with Chinese characteristics” so that “Chinese characteristics” were whatever brought greater prosperity to China".

"To facilitate the process, China welcomed foreign investment, in part through Special Economic Zones on the coast, where enterprises were given wider latitude and investors were granted special conditions. Given China’s previous negative experience with “foreign investors” on its coast in the nineteenth century—and the prominent role this experience played in the Chinese nationalist narrative—this was an act of considerable boldness. It also showed a willingness—to some degree unprecedented—to abandon the centuries-old vision of Chinese economic self-sufficiency by joining an international economic order.

By 1980, the People’s Republic of China had joined the IMF and the World Bank, and foreign loans were beginning to flow into the country

"Systematic decentralization followed".

"What Deng was proposing politically had no precedent in Communist experience. The Communist Party, he seemed to suggest, would maintain an overall supervisory role in the nation’s economy and political structure. But it would steadily withdraw from its previous position of controlling the detailed aspects of Chinese daily life. The initiatives of individual Chinese would be given wide scope".
"China started economic reform out of China’s own interest not because of what the US wanted"
- Qian Qichen, Vice Premier in charge of foreign policy.

"Deng dismissed criticism that his reforms were leading China down the “capitalist road.” Rejecting decades of Maoist indoctrination, he invoked his familiar maxim that what mattered was the result, not the doctrine under which it was achieved".

"By the end of the decade[1990's], what had once seemed an improbable prospect had become a reality. Throughout the decade China grew at a rate of no lower than 7 percent per year, and often in the double digits, continuing an increase in per capita GDP that ranks as one of the most sustained and powerful in history".

Lessons for engagement with China

Here are lessons derived from the book for any entity looking for engaging China:

Study China's history and culture: Don't impose your ideology on a vast civilization that was pre-eminent in the world for the last 1800 out of 2000 years; contributed 30% of the worlds GDP in 1820; and has been in continuous existence since eternity. Appreciate greatness of China - its people, history, culture, its political system, and its overall development.

Impartiality, not equality: "China offered surrounding foreign peoples impartiality, not equality: it would treat them humanely and compassionately in proportion to their attainment of Chinese culture and their observance of rituals connoting submission to China".

Continuity of relationships: is important as one solution leads to another set of problems. Transactional interactions, case-by-case interaction, and formal documents are less important. "Chinese protestations of friendship seek durability for long-term relationships through the cultivation of intangibles".

Reliable: be a reliable and durable partner rather than seek transactional benefit.

Rational: Be rational rather than emotional.

Mature: "There are no traces of the state of infancy among this people".

Protocols: observe all protocols.

Depth: be prepared to engage deeply and show appreciation for subtleties, nuances, protocols. As an example, President Nixon's meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai lasted 15 hours. It was Nixon's "unique grasp of long-term international trends" that made this possible.

Quality of its people

"Nixon forecast that despite China’s turmoil and privation, its people’s outstanding abilities would eventually propel China to the first rank of world powers:".

"Well, you can just stop and think of what could happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that mainland. Good God... There’d be no power in the world that could even—I mean, you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system... and they will be the leaders of the world".

This, in Nixon's words, is what made China so successful today. The quality of its people.
The author Henry Kissinger writes in the Preface of the book: "I have come to admire the Chinese people, their endurance, their subtlety, their family sense, and the culture they represent".

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