Kissinger's China Confessions: A Review of "On China"


On China
by Henry Kissinger
New York,  Penguin Press, 2011.  

This is a remarkable and insightful volume – though not in the ways the author intended.

It is a memoir cum history of Chinese history and foreign relations, particularly since the earth-shattering revolution of 1949. Given the author’s pre-eminent role in 1971 as National Security Advisor in the White House in thawing the then frozen relations between China and the U.S. and his subsequent role as an interlocutor between the two governments (not to mention the lucrative and handsome fees he has earned opening doors for U.S. corporate interests in China), Kissinger obviously is capable of delivering a helpful perspective.

Thus, first the good news: though hysteria grows apace in the U.S., perceiving that its star is being eclipsed by that of China, the author stands firmly against the launching of a new “Cold War,” this time targeting Beijing. Clearly, there is a rift in the highest ranks of the U.S. ruling elite as to how approach China with some clamoring to enhance their bottom line there while others seek the overthrow of Communist Party rule: this rift in itself is good news since like any class, the U.S. ruling class operates optimally when it is united. (This book is so idolatrous in its treatment of Mao Zedong and so shameless in apologizing for every twist and turn in Chinese foreign policy, it would not be surprising if it were to be used as a teaching text in the Party School in Beijing. Strangely, he seems more willing to criticize Washington’s policy to Beijing – and not the reverse. [see e.g. p. 143])

The bad news – or perhaps, more accurately, the disheartening news – is that with obvious relish, Kissinger tells a depressing story about how China was enlisted in a “quasi-alliance” or a “de facto alliance” against the socialist camp, which not only contributed to the dissolution of then existing socialism in Eastern Europe but, as well, inflicted a devastating blow against national liberation and progressive movements in Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Vietnam (and Indochina generally).

There was something unhinged about Chinese policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War; it is difficult to see how even ideological dispute or military threat from the north dictated Chinese hostility. It is similarly difficult to characterize it as simply “nationalism run amok,” since Mao and his comrades delayed national unification with Taiwan in pursuit of Moscow and acquiesced to Japan for the same reason, though it had committed war crimes against Chinese in the 1930s, as Tokyo has been the principal target of Chinese nationalists for decades.

Nevertheless, Kissinger does realize that a key to the spectacular economic development of China in recent decades is an influx of capital from the overseas Chinese community, which dominates economies from Thailand to Singapore to Indonesia to the Philippines (p. 359). This nationalism was recognized most recently by Yale Law School professor, Amy Chua in her first book.  

Kissinger in some ways is more perceptive than many “left” analysts who have assayed the collapse of the Soviet Union when he argues, “a coalition of the United States, China, Japan and Europe was bound to prevail against the Soviet Union” (p. 285). Of course, China now finds itself confronting Japan to the east, India to the South and the U.S. from all sides though – ironically – Beijing’s saving grace may be its enhanced relationship with Moscow.

Yet, as it turns out, it is the U.S. ruling class that has been hoist on its own petard by this turn of events. Thus, Communists had argued that October 1917 marked a general crisis of capitalism, a fatal breach from which this system could not escape. Yet, in December 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved, critics yelped that this theory had been disproven and if there was any general crisis leading to dissolution, it was a syndrome that had ensnared world socialism. Yet, it is not difficult to see in retrospect that in order to bring Moscow to its knees, Washington unleashed forces – not only in China but also “Islamic fundamentalism” – that will be bedeviling U.S. imperialism for some time to come; thus, October 1917 did involve a disfiguring breach of the capitalist system – but not in the way that was envisioned originally. As in a adroitly rendered film dissolve, slowly but surely it is dawning on Washington and Wall Street that China was underestimated, that this Asian nation is on track to dwarf the U.S. economy sooner rather than later, which – inter alia – will have enormous import for white supremacy; the ironic result of the anticommunist mania of the Cold War has been to make sure that the 90 million strong Chinese Communist Party, surely the largest and most powerful political organization on this small planet, is presiding over a nation that according to Nobel Laureate in Economics, Robert Fogel, will grow to $123 trillion by 2040 (compared to the U.S.’s of $14 trillion today – with pathetically anemic growth rates in store). 

Moreover, by way of analogy it can be argued that 1 January 1804 – the anti-slavery republican revolution in Haiti – marked the onset of the general crisis of the slave system that could only be resolved with its collapse. As in the 20th century, Washington strained mightily to reverse that result and seems to have succeeded when Hispaniola was split – leading to the birth of the Dominican Republic – and Haiti was plunged into a crisis not least because of having to devote so much of the national income to military spending to fend off repeated threats from the “Colossus of the North.” Yet, this development did not prevent a bloody U.S. Civil War leading to the death of hundreds of thousands – and the dissolution of the hated slave system.

Remarkably, Kissinger rationalizes, if not justifies, Mao’s repeatedly blithe indifference to the possibility of nuclear conflagration—though this could have destroyed this lovely planet (p. 155, 167, 287). Simultaneously, the author revels at the discomfort this caused in Moscow in the 1950s when the two socialist giants were still ostensibly allies; similarly, he points out how this apparent insouciance in China, was contradicted in practice by Beijing’s retreat in the face of U.S. nuclear threats.

A turning point in Sino-Soviet relations occurred in 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev unveiled the crimes and blunders of his predecessors, particularly Josef Stalin. Beijing upbraided its soon-to-be antagonist for sheathing the “sword of Stalin” (p. 166). Mao could not be assuaged after that, leading ultimately to charges that the line of “peaceful co-existence” was “revisionist” (which is ironic in that Beijing now stresses the need for “peaceful development,” which sounds suspiciously what was reviled not so long ago [p. 508]). In an equation that ultimately has been applied today to Mao himself, the party chairman averred that 70 percent of Stalin’s contribution was positive and 30 percent negative and that Moscow had gone too far in emphasizing the latter. On the one hand, one can congratulate Mao in that his calculation was at least more balanced than those occurring in Washington, where it is routinely asserted that the much ballyhooed “Founding Fathers” descended from the heavens to uplift us all, with no flaws attached to this pro-slavery clique; on the other hand, future analysts may well seek to re-evaluate Mao himself not just because of the depredations committed against his own compatriots during the disastrous “Cultural Revolution,” but more so due to the devastation he wreaked worldwide after he chose to throw in his lot with U.S. imperialism.

Of all the missteps of Beijing’s during the Cold War, perhaps none was more disastrous than the war waged against India in 1962 – a reality that manages to escape the author, just as he avoids underlining the evidence that this escapade was timed to coincide with the so – called “Cuban Missile Crisis,” as the U.S. and China launched a pincers movement against Moscow and its major allies in Havana and New Delhi. Instead, Kissinger gushes praise about this conflict which is still painfully recalled in India and adds fuel to U.S. imperialism’s contemporary desire to enlist New Delhi in an encirclement of China just as China was once enlisted to encircle the Soviet Union.

It was left to the wily Richard Nixon to take advantage of these evident contradictions in the socialist camp. Strikingly, when he bruited the possibility of an entente with China in 1967, he compared arresting this nation to the then ongoing problem in seeking to curb unrest among African-Americans (p. 203-204). At the time, according to the author, conflict on the Sino-Soviet border was escalating, which was to lead to sharp and deadly clashes.

Both Nixon and Mao were to conclude that Moscow was the most dangerous force confronting both, which drove the two together. (Ironically, I recall having too many conversations at the time with too many U.S. “leftists” seeking to convince that it was actually  “white” Washington and Moscow that were collaborating against “colored” China.)

The book accelerates when Kissinger and the U.S. delegation arrive in China on 9 July 1971 for secret negotiations preparing the way for Nixon’s own journey in 1972 which was – as suggested at the time – a game changing event.  Here Kissinger prates shamelessly about the skills of his Chinese counterparts, as if he were still angling for more lucrative contracts in today’s Shanghai. Nonetheless, he is accurate in suggesting that this demarche “became central to the evolution of a new global order” (p. 243).  The devious Kissinger acknowledged at the time that he and the Chinese leadership “knew that my very presence in Beijing was a grievous blow to Hanoi,” a point made evident when a few years after U.S. imperialism suffered a shattering defeat in Vietnam in 1975, China itself invaded this beleaguered southeast Asian nation.

What Kissinger makes clear is that Nixon’s much heralded visit to China on 21 February 1972 – a day that will forever live in infamy – was all about destabilizing the Soviet Union and national liberation movements (p. 258). Happily, Kissinger recounts conversations where Mao states that he was elated when right-wing forces assumed power across the globe – a point that was to be underscored a few years later when China sided with apartheid South Africa and U.S. imperialism during the anti-colonial war in Angola.  “Mao laughed uproariously,” said Kissinger, at the idea that any sane person took his many slogans – e.g. “seize the hour, seize the day” – seriously, slogans that captivated and misled a generation of activists (p. 262). Mao’s comrades advised Kissinger that he should pay more attention to “China’s actions, not its ‘empty cannons’ of rhetoric…” (p. 208).

Kissinger was delighted with this newly minted relationship. “Consultation between China and the United States,” he writes, “reached a level of intensity rare even among formal allies” (p. 273). He adds, “in fact, throughout the 1970s, Beijing was more in favor of the United States acting robustly against Soviet designs than much of the American public or Congress” (p. 277). According to Kisssinger, writing admiringly, Mao “was the quintessential Cold Warrior, American conservatives would have approved of him” (p. 283).

Mao’s passing in 1976 did not end his catastrophic foreign policy. Deng Xiaoping has been accorded substantial credit for the opening of the Chinese economy to massive foreign direct investment – particularly from the U.S. as a kind of payoff for Beijing’s collaboration – which has created the gargantuan economy that threatens to topple the U.S. itself from its leading perch.

Intriguingly, Kissinger sees 1979 – not Nixon’s journey in 1972 – as the turning point in the Cold War onslaught against the socialist camp and he may be correct. For it was then that Deng made a triumphant visit to the U.S., returning home with his pockets bulging with contracts from U.S. corporations – then repaid the favor by invading Vietnam days after arriving back home. Then later than year, Washington and Beijing collaborated once again in the destabilization of a left-leaning government in Afghanistan, with China seemingly ignoring the “blowback” raining down on its own restive Muslim minority and Washington being dragged catastrophically into a conflict from which it has yet to emerge.

The ostensible reason for the attack on Vietnam was Hanoi’s dislodging of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia, interpreted by China and the U.S. as more “expansionism.” The smarmily sly Kissinger manages to besmirch political rival Jimmy Carter as he praises him for collaborating with the murderous Khmer Rouge and their Chinese ally – realities largely absent from the sparse press coverage in the U.S. of the war crimes tribunals of these bandits now unfolding in Cambodia. Kissinger was highly pleased with the new Chinese leadership: “Mao acted like a frustrated teacher, Deng as a demanding partner” (p. 349). Further, “operationally, the Chinese leaders were proposing a kind of cooperation in many ways more intimate and surely more risk taking than the Atlantic Alliance” – or the war-mongering NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, now bombarding Libya and Afghanistan). In his zeal in crushing the Soviet Union and its allies, Kissinger compares Deng to the ancient Roman statesman, Cato the Elder who is reputed to have ended all of his speeches with the clarion call translated as “Carthage must be destroyed”! (p. 364)

Thus, Beijing and Washington worked together in the 1979 invasion of Vietnam, which – he says enthusiastically – “ushered in the closest collaboration between China and the United States for the [entire] period of the Cold War” (p. 371).

With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Solidarity movement in Poland and impending collapse of the socialist camp, Beijing-Washington relations predictably entered a rough patch – a trend that was exacerbated with the massacres in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Reading between the lines, it is apparent that both Kissinger – and Beijing – felt there was a tendency then in the U.S. to now go after China itself in its hour of weakness; what he does not say is that by that point so many U.S. corporations were so deeply invested in China that the U.S. ruling elite was not united on such a turnabout, which made united action problematic at best. Moreover, the U.S. ruling class was so focused on Moscow as the bête noire of the century, that it was hard to turn its focus elsewhere. “By the fall of 1989, relations between China and the United States were at their most fraught point since contact had been resumed in 1971,” says the author (p. 421). The Chinese leadership, other portrayed as almost other-worldly in their depth of perception, also – shockingly – seemed to be taken by surprise by this frostiness, though in retrospect it was utterly predictable that once Washington brought Eastern European Communists to their knees, they would go after those in Asia – even if they had been avid collaborators.

Thus, he recounts the tense events of the mid-1990s when Washington dispatched two aircraft battle groups to the Taiwan Straits, the U.S. “accidental” bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade a few years later and the Chinese downing of a U.S. spy plane a few years after that. Before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, it did appear that Washington and Beijing were headed for a showdown – or a reckoning – but with U.S. imperialism bogged down in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, this now appears unlikely, not least since the self-proclaimed “sole remaining superpower” has to go with its begging bowl to Beijing to finance its various misadventures.

The September 2008 debacle on Wall Street has “seriously undermined the mystique of Western economic prowess,” says the author understatedly—and has emboldened Beijing, which is now less prone to hide its light under a bushel (p. 501). In retrospect, diplomatic historians – of which Kissinger considers himself one – may well regard the “alliance” between Beijing and Washington as the most disastrous fiasco since London appointed Tokyo its watch-dog in Asia at the beginning of the 20th century, a relationship that ended disastrously on 7 December 1941.

Again, Kissinger is to be hailed for discouraging the notion of a new “Cold War” against its former ally. Yet, one closes this book with a strange feeling: the assisting architect of what may be the most profound diplomatic catastrophe in historical memory, as far as imperialism is concerned, i.e. the “peaceful rise” and ultimate ascendancy of China, does not acknowledge his role in this disaster (for imperialism) or even point to the downside of his handiwork. Is it simply false consciousness on his part? Embarrassment? Whatever the case, despite the bloodiness left in his murderous wake, Dr. Kissinger can be congratulated for his role in accelerating the general crisis of U.S. imperialism.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. (Wikimedia Commons)

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  • Amy Chua becomes geopolitical? Hmm...

    Posted by Tango, 07/07/2011 7:18pm (12 years ago)

  • As a "Maoist" for about 20 minutes in the 1960s, I remember thinking it odd when China was one of the first countries to recognize Pinochet's Chile after the golpe of Sept. 11, 1973.

    That, for me, began my reassessment of the glorious Chinese people's revolution.

    Thanks for this very insightful commentary.

    Posted by , 07/06/2011 4:40pm (12 years ago)

  • Excellent article. Been looking to get this book and this piece provides a little bit of history to get me wanting the book more.

    Posted by Palooka, 07/06/2011 2:33pm (12 years ago)

  • "Dr. Kissinger can be congratulated for his role in accelerating the general crisis of U.S. imperialism."
    Stop blaming the USA's self-inflicted problems on China or even Kissinger.
    Kissinger was not responsible for the repeal of provisions of the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (1999) which then allowed banks once again to own other financial institutions and create even more conflicts of interests in the financial world. Kissinger was not responsible for the poor savings of the spendthrift American public. Kissinger wan't responsible for the no-docs mortgages, etc. That's just on the financial side. On the political/military side, Kissinger wan't responsible for two unecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with loose accountability? On soft issues where the USA has fallen down, Kissinger was not responsible for the removal of habeas corpus for alleged terrorists confined indefinitely in Guamtanamo, Abu Gharib or Bhagram with torture thrown in for kicks.

    Posted by The_Observer, 07/05/2011 6:56pm (12 years ago)

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