Review: Henry Kissinger’s “On China”

Kissinger’s China tome, which is now available, is sort of an intimidating book to review. It is unrepentantly direct right down to the cover “design” which is pictured at right here. Henry Kissinger On China. No photo, no summary on the back of the jacket. What you’re getting is Kissinger on China, and if that hasn’t sold you, this book isn’t for you. That might seem cocky, but it’s probably accurate, and Henry Kissinger is a famous diplomat and an 88-year-old man who doesn’t care at all what you think about his book cover.

Anyway, the book itself is more or less what you’d expect: a fairly exhaustive review of China’s foreign relations through the ages, though with a heavy emphasis on modern China. Students of Chinese history will be mostly familiar with what Kissinger offers up about China’s foreign relations during the dynastic period; it’s very competently explained, but there’s not much new there if you’ve spent some time studying the period already. Still, it’s good to review, and it lays the groundwork for one of his main theses; namely that modern Chinese foreign policy has inherited more than you might expect at first from ancient barbarian-management techniques.

There are some bizarre jumps in history. Most noticeably, after spending quite a bit of time on the fall of the Qing, Kissinger breezes through the Republican period, the war with Japan, and the Civil War in just a few pages. Yuan Shikai takes power from Sun Yat-sen in the beginning of one paragraph, and he’s dead before the end of it, his disastrous reign having been reduced to essentially a single sentence. It’s odd, because a lot of things that happened during this period affect the way China deals with outsiders today, especially Japan; and certainly, the US involvement with the Republican government as well as the second World War and (to a much lesser extent) the Chinese civil war might be worth a mention.

Of course, the real reason anyone is reading this book is to get the inside scoop on the rocky-but-fascinating Sino-American relationship that started with Nixon’s historic visit and continues today. Kissinger played significant roles in the China policy of several administrations, and as such, he was privy to (and relates stories about) conversations on both sides that are quite interesting. We see Mao become increasingly sick and out of touch until, during Kissinger’s last conversation with him, he has an interpreter of sorts for himself because his speech has become so muffled and slurred that the regular interpreter can’t understand what he’s saying.

And, of course, we get to see a succession of American presidents confront and be baffled to various degrees by China and its often esoteric leaders. Sometimes, the candor is quite surprising. I especially enjoyed Richard’ Nixon’s off-the-cuff thoughts as relayed by Kissinger early on in the book (best if read while imagining the Nixon voice from Futurama):

“Well, you can just stop and think of what could happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of the mainland. Good God…there’s 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.”

Sort of prophetic, although “decent system” is a relative term.

Fun with Nixon aside, it’s an incredibly astute and informative read. That said, there are two things that bothered me about it, aside from the history-jumping. The first is that Kissinger overuses weiqi ((You know, the Chinese chess-like game that involves surrounding the other player’s pieces)) as a metaphor and explanation for everything Chinese leaders do. The first few times, it’s a meaningful observation, but the more it comes up, the more it feels like a crutch, and I have to assume that in many of these cases even if the weiqi analogy was one aspect of the Chinese perception of a strategic problem (say, for example, Vietnam’s cooperation with the Soviet Union), there are probably other metaphors to use and other aspects worth examining. This is by no means a reason to avoid reading the book, just a warning that by the time you’re 400 pages in you’ll probably be groaning to yourself every time you read the word weiqi.

My second complaint is even less significant; I simply felt that Kissinger afforded too much importance to the nationalist books Unhappy China (中国不高兴) and China Dream. I’ve read segments of the former, and it is basically trash — there may be fair points to be made that support the author’s conclusions, but the author does not make them. China Dream may be better, but in his epilogue Kissinger spends a few pages on these books — odd when a topic as large and important as the Civil War barely got a paragraph. Obviously, he finished writing his book around the time when those books were making waves, but it makes the whole thing seem a bit dated now. It’s only a couple years later, but does anyone still care about Unhappy China?

That said, On China is an excellent read and if you’re at all interested in Chinese foreign policy or the Sino-American relationship you should absolutely buy it. If you’re interested in learning more about the personalities of some of the CPC’s most famous (and infamous) leaders it’s worth buying for that too, as Kissinger hasn’t shied away from sharing his more personal impressions of various officials’ personalities. Coming in at over 500 pages of not-overly-dry-but-not-gripping-either analysis, it’s not exactly the year’s summer beach read unless you’re the sort of person who simply has to hear the latest gossip about Mao from the early 1970s.

Then again, if you’re that kind of person you might well be reading this blog. So, buy the book, read it, enjoy it, and thank me later. Or now, your call.

Note: I was provided with a free advance review copy of the book in order to write this review. Probably obvious, but you know I’m a fan of disclaimers and disclosure, so there you have it.

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0 thoughts on “Review: Henry Kissinger’s “On China””

  1. I’ve read, and enjoyed, Kissinger’s book on diplomacy called (surprise, surprise) Diplomacy. However, I’m not sure I’ll be reading this book unless I see it going cheap second hand. Some analysis stands up well after a few years, but some (Gordon Chang’s most famous opus for example) seems very hollow very quickly.

    By the way, thanks for the disclaimer. I’ve seen some somewhat gushing reviews on other China blogs for this book and wondered why. Now I think I know – it seems that certain people may have been very flattered to have been asked to review this book.

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  2. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  3. Good review, I will probably download the book on kindle when it goes on sale.

    At the end of the day, without Kissinger and Nixon China is likely just another North Korea today. I can see why Kissinger would like to speak about China more positively, this is one of the highlights of his legacy.

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  4. Why give this cocktail circuit louse and Grade A war criminal oxygen? He should be in a cell next to Mladic.

    Can’t help but notice that HH also got a review copy.

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  5. I was just reading Huffpo and found a piece from Jeffery Wasserstrom which talked about his take on this. An alternative review from Times:

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2075237,00.html

    And finally, another book on China which just came out: Scramble for China by Robert Bicker, reviewed by Financial Times:

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/6a461c96-45e3-11e0-acd8-00144feab49a.html#axzz1OMEzOunO

    The later book looks very interesting and takes on a topic which very few Western authors have bothered to cover: The Qing Dynasty.

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  6. How curious–a book with the all-encompassing title “On China” by a retired foreign relations official who is illiterate in Chinese. Might this have some connection with the “arrogance of power” found in many in the Beltway cocktail party circuit who are proud of their connections with Party leaders yet blissfully ignorant of the complexities and diversity within Chinese society? Kissinger should have stuck to writing a memoir and not pretended to have the bona fides of a scholar in Chinese studies.

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  7. Hey C. Custer! Good review. Keep up the great work. I will make sure I get a copy. Just watched a documentary on China : ‘The Roots of Madness” (see link below) which was made in 1967. It is interesting to see a US view of China at this time and also has some quite cool footage.

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  8. I was laughing when I was watching this youtube video, especially when the commentator made his perceptions on China. This crazy guy and its caviler “White Man’s burden” attitude toward China in this propaganda film.

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