On China

Sep. 12th, 2011 08:18 am
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This was Henry Kissinger's take on China. It was okay, meaning it was insightful in parts, useful for some historical nuggets, and quite readable. This is, after all, Henry Kissinger, America's greatest diplomat, writing about a country whose modern relations with America were created by him.

He starts out grandly, giving a rather hilarious description of Lord McCartney's ill-fated expedition to China, and covers the Opium Wars and following century of subjugation fairly well, noting the various coping strategies Chinese mandarins applied to keep the country from being annexed (Queen Victoria was never Empress of China), even while retaining the customary arrogance and pigheaded blindness that kept them from building an effective resistance. China's grand tradition, for which Kissinger has so much mystical reverence, is basically that of thinking it's the center of the universe. In this respect, China and every other country are about the same, except for microstates too small to carry out that pretence.

He gives somewhat short shrift to the traumas of China's civil wars of the 20th century (1912-1949), probably because there was less interesting diplomacy happening. It's hard to apply a grand analytic pattern to chaos. Kissinger gives Mao far too much credit for Xanatos-level schemeing and Machiavellian levels of subtlety, when Mao was really being a buffoon, bumbling around, and bloody-mindedly killing off millions of people. He definitely goes overboard with his hymn of praise to Zhou En-Lai.

There is a rather cogent analysis of Chinese strategic thinking, even though he overdoes the Go metaphor, and he notes the tendency towards pre-emption and to view the world in strategic, rather than technical-legal, terms. For most of the Mao years, China sought the psychological, rather than material, advantage in confrontations. I think he's incorrect to attribute that to the subtlety of Chinese culture - it's really more a strategy of weakness. When you're actually strong, you don't have to carry out elaborate psychological games. There's good coverage of the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, which tends to be underreported in the West.

From there, the book deteriorates. There are some interesting portraits of individual leaders, but his insight into motivations is much weaker. I suspect he is deliberately censoring his own opinions to avoid criticizing people who are still in power, or their proteges. Especially as he approaches the modern era, he becomes both vague and banal, offering up platitudes rather than clarifying observation.

While a fun read, this book definitely falls short of the standard Kissinger set with books like Diplomacy or his memoirs, which were long, witty, extremely detailed, and deeply insightful into not just the grand themes, but the little quirks and habits that governed the fates of nations.

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