Barbarians Against Barbarians: Henry Kissinger's 'On China'

Henry Kissinger (left) meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, 1972.

The diplomat believes he’s a skillful player, he believes he’s in control; but the game is much bigger than he is, and defines what he can and cannot do.

On China

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 586 pages
Author: Henry Kissinger
Price: $36.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-05

In April 1971, in the middle of the Cold War, America’s national ping-pong team stepped into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. There, Premier Zhou Enlai greeted them in person, welcoming the start of a friendship. Ten months later, President Nixon landed in China to meet new best friend Chairman Mao. It was a shocking whack of the paddle in the long-running game of international diplomacy.

As National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger led the secret mission that prepared Nixon’s historic visit. Since then, he has been Secretary of State under two administrations, visited China over 50 times, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and inspired a Monty Python song:

“Henry Kissinger / How I’m missing yer / You’re the doctor of my dreams / With your crinkly hair /And your glassy stare / And your Machiavellian schemes …/ Alright, so people say that you don’t care / But you’ve got nicer legs than Hitler / And bigger tits than Cher”

Now, with this book, he gives us a history of Chinese foreign policy informed by his personal and political experience.

It turns out that the time-honored arts of Chinese diplomacy have nothing to envy Machiavelli. Take Sun-Tzu, author of the ancient The Art of War, who placed “considerable emphasis on the use of subterfuge and misinformation” (29). Or the old advice to China’s rulers: “Resort to peace and friendship when temporarily obliged to do so; use war and defense as your actual policy” (70). Or the traditional view that China, as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and centre of the earth, must play the ‘barbarians’ -- the foreigners -- against each other.

Nowadays, of course, ‘subterfuge and misinformation’ are globally-established techniques of the political speak, whereby, for example, popular rebellions are “quelled” (72), the US suffers the “travail” of the Vietnam War (xv), and America and China enjoy an “essentially cooperative relationship” (xvi) -- so cooperative that (oops, Kissinger forgets to mention) they stockpile nuclear weapons against each other.

It was perhaps the Cold War that made this kind of double-talk the new normal. Then China was, “technically” (xv), an ally of ‘communist’ USSR; yet she systematically conspired with the ‘bourgeois’ USA against the Soviets. She styled herself as a friend and member of the ‘Third World’; but fought a land-grabbing war with India in 1962. Others in the ‘Third World’ were (and are) equally predatory -- in this book we learn, for example, about Vietnam’s attempts to create an Indochinese empire, leading to her invasion of Cambodia in 1978, and to a rivalry with China that set off the Third Indochina War in 1979 and still causes tensions today.

Kissinger rarely comments on the cost of all this, but when he does, the effect is chilling. China’s bombardment of Taiwan’s offshore islands Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, during which, he says, around 1,000 people were killed or injured, was aimed at pressuring the US to resume talks at the ambassadorial level -- results he admiringly describes as “brilliant achievements” (179).

Chilling too is what Mao and his cadre really thought about the ‘socialism’ they peddled to the ‘masses’:

“MAO: … I think that, generally speaking, people like me sound a lot of big cannons. [Zhou laughs.] That is, things like “the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries, and establish socialism.”

Mao laughed uproariously at the implication that anyone might have taken seriously a slogan that had been scrawled for decades on public surfaces all over China.” (262)

No such naiveté for Kissinger, who understood well enough how the power of Chinese officials ‘inevitably led to corruption. Jobs, education, and most perquisites depended on some kind of personal relationship… Communism, advertised as bringing a classless society, tended to breed a privileged class of feudal proportions” (398). Corruption and privilege, he also understands, still thrive in pro-market China.

As for China’s main rivals in this story, they don’t come off much better. Observe, for example, the three-way game the Soviets were playing with (that is, against) China right after WWII: “The Soviet Union recognized the Nationalist government but had kept its options open by supplying arms to the Communist Party; at the same time, it had rushed a massive and uninvited Soviet military force into northeast China to restore some of their erstwhile colonial claims” (89). Later we read about how the Soviets sought to ensnare the Chinese over Korea.

Meanwhile, an America that was fighting the Cold War ostensibly for freedom was allying herself with a tyrannical regime and bargaining with it over the fates of other nations. Most infamously, for the purposes of thwarting Vietnam’s regional ambitions, Washington and Beijing co-operated in “indirectly assisting the remnants of the Khmer Rouge” in Cambodia (372).

The only refreshing moment in this book comes much earlier, when Lord Napier, sent to China as British representative in 1834, is given by the local authorities in Guangzhou the nickname of “Laboriously Vile” (45).

Evidently you can fool people much of the time; but history can’t be fooled. Kissinger works hard to convince himself that the anti-Soviet alliance he helped engineer wasn’t, in the long run, a Chinese masterstroke, and that, if China continues to rise and America to decline, a major showdown between the two countries won’t ensue. Alarmed by growing hostility on both sides of the Pacific, he reveals his true fears when he urges them to “merge their efforts not to shake the world, but to build it” (530). As if, in our kind of world, building didn’t usually also involve shaking.

The diplomat believes he’s a skillful player, he believes he’s in control; but the game is much bigger than he is, and defines what he can and cannot do. Kissinger once said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”, but he also admits that leaders “cannot create the context in which they operate” (215). The diplomat, willing tool in the brutal game of national competition, behaves more like the paddle than like a player -- that’s why people say he doesn’t care.


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