Book Review: On China, by Henry Kissinger

How do you describe China? How could one understand a land with historic roots that spawn for almost 4000 years? No easy task, that’s for sure.

Henry Kissinger, the statesman credited for opening the US ties to Communist China in 1971, tries to do just that in its book “On China”.

On China, Henry Kissinger

On China, Henry Kissinger

The book is a framework for anyone willing to dive in the complex culture that China has carried throughout the ages. It is a vast exposition on what makes China so enduring and so different from the type of empire we have come to know in the west.

The reason “On China” is reviewed here, a blog on the future of retail, goes beyond the obvious (manufacturing). By reading Kissinger’s masterpiece, we will get a glimpse into the future, through the lens of the past. We can see China is not a rising power. It is a returning power. It is a land that fostered the strongest economy in the world through 18 out of the previous 20 centuries.

China predated the Roman Empire. It survived it and lived on to be reached by the British Empire. It survived this one as well and now it survives another one. The fact that its economy keeps rising and rising, its retailers take the world by storm and the country has moved beyond its Mao Zedong legacy shows the quiet force this country packs.

The Wei Qi principle

Henry Kissinger proposes the Wei-Qi game as a start point to understanding China. As opposed to the oldest western strategy game, Chess, Wei Qi has some key differences.

First of all – there are a lot more pieces that have to be used in the game. The pieces are all equally valued. As opposed to chess, the Wei Qi pieces are all just as valuable. There are no knights, no bishops, no king and no queen. All pieces are equally important and equally effective.

The point is not to find the pivotal action to winning the game. The point is to avoid being surrounded. Throughout China’s troubled history, generals have discovered how costly defeats are, when the enemy surrounds the troops. The war strategy has shifted from direct engagement to battles that are won before they are even fought, through good preparation, as the mythical Sun Tzu general would have noted.

These simple yet powerful differences and others such, have shaped China’s destiny throughout the centuries. Western history barely mentions the Chinese Empire, yet the court viewed itself as ruler of all that is “Under the Heavens”. The Chinese Empire rarely fought outside its borders (viewing such act as a crime). It nevertheless encountered its fare share of troubles with barbarians outside its borders, constantly being attacked. Unlike its western counterparts, it used diplomacy, rather than force to subdue weaker civilizations. The court was well taught by centuries of rich history on how to negotiate alliances, resisting attacks, integrating barbarians or even using politics to break alliances between its closest enemies. Sometimes using the enemies farther away to control those closest to the empire.

The fall of the empire

Throughout the centuries diplomacy and politic skill has been enough to keep the “barbarians” at bay. Eventually, even the Celestial Empire had to run out of luck. In the beginning of the 18th century, Western colonial powers, as well as Russia, were knocking on the gates of the Empire, trying to develop a commerce relationship. Russia, being closer and in a position to threaten China, was the first country, Kissinger notes, to be allowed to have a de facto embassy. The embassy was in fact an orthodox mission but it was a lot more than the British Empire had.

The British, as well as other colonial powers, were barely allowed a presence within the empire. Commerce was carefully regulated and restricted. In time, as diplomacy failed to get results, the British decided to use force. As China previously refused to get  western military technology, it was quickly overwhelmed by better trained soldiers, using more advanced weaponry. The “Barbarians” forced their way towards the capitol, eventually being stopped by Russia’s diplomats who negotiated a temporarily redraw. But this help from the friendly Russians was costly. China agreed to a humiliating act that would offer vast territories to Russia, in exchange for its help.

This humiliating treaties, rising internal instability, and the enemies at the gates eventually lead the empire to crumble. In 1912, the last Emperor abdicated, and China became a republic.

It wasn’t for the better, as China was virtually ungoverned. Henry Kissinger lists intervention by the United States to help the forming republic, supporting the existing nationalist government. But it was not this government that eventually won the power. It was a new leader, a communist leader: Mao Zedong.

The Communist China

Kissinger lists Mao’s rise with a reverence that may seem unnatural at times. After all – Mao is seen less like an enlightened leader in the western world, and more like a power hungry criminal that lead its country, as well as the party close to imminent self destruction. Whether it is diplomatic courtesy (you have to expect reverence from a high level US statesman) or genuine interest, if not admiration – Kissinger is clearly inclined to describe Mao as a Chinese savior. Whether it is the fact that he reunited China, or that China survived the Soviet Union’s threat, Henry Kissinger sees Mao as an important geopolitical player.

Mao defied and somehow survived both the US and the Soviet Union. Unlike the weakened European countries, Mao repeatedly declared his country was not afraid of the Nuclear Threat. No one will know if he was just bluffing to resist on the world stage, or he was actually not caring if 300 million Chinese would die in a Nuclear war. The “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” would later point into the second direction.

The farthest enemy

Although Mao listed Confucianism and “the old ways” as obsolete and not to be used, he did resort to one of these tactics when the Soviet Union deployed 1 million soldiers at the Chinese-Soviet border. The soldiers were not much of a problem, but the nukes were. China and USSR were no longer comrades, and the Soviet Union was likely planning a preemptive nuclear attack. Mao decided to apply the old strategy of using the enemies from afar against those closer.

In 1971 Henry Kissinger lists its meeting with both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. At the time, Zhou Enlai was the prime minister for over 22 years and he left a deep impression on the US statesman: “In 60 years of public life, I have never met a person more fascinating than Zhou Enlai“. This meeting extended in the next year with a visit from Richard Nixon and it was the the start in a long relationship between the two states.  It was also the visit that probably stopped a nuclear attack on China.

Mr. Enlai was eventually replaced and Mao left its position, leading the way for a new leadership. It was this new leader, Deng Xiaoping, that turned China from a starving, barely educated country, bathing in Mao’s shadow, to a growing economic power.

His work was later continued by Jiang Zemin, that encouraged education, technology developments and eventually helped China join the WTO in 2001.

Since 2001, just 13 years ago, China became a leading manufacturer, the sourcing choice for retailers worldwide, to a dominant power that now exports not only products, but rather leading businesses.

Henry Kissinger ends the book by reminding the reader of the Crowe Memorandum,  an analysis of pre-WWI Germany and the causes that lead to war. Though he envisions a future where the Pacific Powers (US and China) can collaborate in peace, he does pose the question of whether such a future is possible. The last paragraph cites Zhou Enlai, at the first meeting in 1971, when the Chinese PM mentioned their meeting will “shake the world”. The big question, for this new century, mr Kissinger asks, is could China and the US build the world, rather than shake it?


Book Review: The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman

“In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today Britney Spears is Britney Spears. And that’s our problem”. These three sentences perfectly describe the point I believe Thomas Friedman tries to get across in “The World is Flat“.

the_world_is_flatThe world has been radically transformed by politics, technology and economics in the past five centuries. The industrial revolution helped western countries and than companies rule the world. It all lead to a disparity between developed and underdeveloped countries. In the past century the force of governments was overcome by the force of companies spreading globally. And that is about to change.

The past three decades or so, the companies themselves helped a new entity rise above, in a connected world: the motivated and empowered individual.

“The World is Flat” is about the global individual and how he can rise above his own limits, when given the chance. Thirty years ago the birthplace was a pretty good predictor on the chance one has for success. Not anymore. Things have changed and Friedman shows the ten factors that lead to the new status quo:

The ten Flatteners (Forces that Flattened the World)

Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas L. Friedman

This global change didn’t happened all at once. Neither was it caused by one single force. Thomas Friedman lists ten factors that made the world a flat (or more connected) world:

No.1: 11/9/89 – The day the Berlin Wall fell became the day when communism started to crumble. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, countries grew closer together and the world became smaller.

No.2: 8/9/95 – The day when Netscape went public. We know that the world wide web changed the way computers talked to each other and how people connected to these computers. Few of us know how important Netscape, the company founded by Jim Clark and Mark Andreessen, and its Mosaic browser were when Netscape had its IPO. Before Microsoft embeded Internet Explorer into Windows, Mosaic was the tech wonder that allowed people to access websites in a friendly manner.

No.3: The Workflow software. We are now all familiar with some kind of workflow software, be it Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop or some 3D rendering software. But at some point such things didn’t exist. When people started using them they could split parts of business processes and outsource them

“Open-source is nothing more than peer reviewed science. Sometimes people contribute to these things because they make science, and they discover things, and the reward is reputation” – Marc Andreessen on open source software

No.4: Uploading – the power of communities. When people first got online they were using the web just like they were using the TV or other “old media” – consuming. But the Internet was a two-way highway – it allowed for downloading, as well as uploading. Soon people started building websites, writing blogs and developing open-source software. It allowed for better collaboration and a new type of empowerment for the individual that was previously nonexistent.

No.5: Outsourcing. In 1999  three seemingly unrelated but soon to be very important events started to converge in India. The first – the country started producing more and more software developers in its IIT college. Second – fiber optic extended all across the globe and reached Indiay. Third – the Y2K scare was pushing every large company to update its software. As India’s software support was way cheaper, companies started hiring new people to help with the update. The outsourcing movement accelerated and then spread throughout the world.

No.6: Offshoring. On December 11, 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization. By doing so it agreed to the WTO terms governing exports, imports and foreign investment. That became one of the biggest steps in global commerce in the past millennium. Companies started offshoring companies to China where they could manufacture products at lower costs, lower taxes and export them worldwide.

No.7: Supply Chaining. What do Walmart, Amazon, Zara and HP have in common? Probably a lot but one of the most important things that makes these companies what they are is their supply chain. When the world got connected companies such as these spread their supply chain all over the world, to the places where products can be manufactured cheapest and at the best quality. Their supply chains brought the world together in a way governments and armies never could.

No.8: Insourcing. While you might not know this, companies such as UPS or FedEx are doing a lot more than just moving things from point A to point B. Of course, they do that but they also fix your Toshiba laptop, pack, inspect and deliver your Nike shoes and all in all handle logistics for many of the companies you love. How do they do that? They get inside the companies that contract them and help them be better at delivering value.

No.9: Informing. We take Google for granted. We can navigate to the answer for any question. We can access content written all over the world. Information became accessible as never before in human history, to anyone with access to a computer and Internet. Google, Wikipedia and others allowed information to flow everywhere in the world.

No.10: The steroids. Digital, virtual, mobile. When the book came out in 2005, the author listed the HP’s iPaq as a steroid for flattening the world. The device was supposed to be omnipresent allowing for constant connectivity. The irony is that the iPaq is now dead and another i-something (the iPhone) became the revolutionary device HP went for. These steroids are the digital enhancements that allow all the others to converge constantly and empower the individual.

The World is Flat is a book that might feel unpopular …

…especially for anyone in the western world, people that were told all their lives that they will have a job, they will have a house, they will drive a good car and they will have a happy family. And then comes Thomas Friedman and says – not so fast. There is a kid in China, or India or Eastern Europe that will work 3 times as hard for half your pay and he will be happy about it.

Thomas Friedman gets some very unfriendly reviews on this book and sure, some may be true (the writing style tends to get a little boring and repetitive at time) but most are unfair. It is not Friedman’s fault that jobs are outsourced. You shouldn’t blame the book for having to work harder for the same pay. The world IS flattening (it is not yet flat) and soon we will all need to run a little faster, just like a gazelle and a lion in Africa ….

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. 

It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. 

Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. 

It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”


The book is a must read for any retailer looking into understanding how the global world shapes the global commerce and what ecommerce has to do with it. Before long – it might become mandatory to understand retail on a global scale if you’re willing to survive in business.

Book review: Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

“Genius!”, “Brilliant!”, the book cover says.

Outliers on Amazon

Outliers on Amazon

Yes, the book is fun. Yes, Malcolm Gladwell has an entertaining writing style. “Outliers” points out some interesting facts and figures. It tells the extraordinary story of child prodigy Bill Gates and his road to found one of the greatest companies in our history. It shows you the the unusual circumstances that drove Robert Oppenheimer to the leading position in probably the biggest science project in human history: Project Manhattan. Many other stories follow and Gladwell points to a simple truth: context is everything.

The big idea behind “Outliers” is that nothing matters more than the context. There is no individual motivated enough to rise against the odds and our usual “rags to riches” stories are usually no more than fiction.

Bill Gates would not have succeeded were it not for a series of fortunate events that led him to be one of the few (probably 50) people in the world having access to the technology he used to develop his programming skills.

The 10 000 hours

Add 10 000 hours (Gladwell points out that nothing great is ever achieved without at least 10 000 hrs of practice) to the opportunities someone like Bill Gates had, a lot of self-determination, a strong individual and you get a success story. The point is that we should always look for the details that make up the context.

Such details seem visible in the Beatles’ success as well. Were it not for the time spent in Hamburg performing over 1000 hours live in less than 2 years (most than many bands play live in their entire career) the Beatles would not have had the showmanship, stamina or apparent innate talent that made them probably the biggest band in history.

Is high IQ an indicator of future success?

The book shows what talent or a high IQ can do for an individual. Nothing, basically. In the early 20th century a psychologist named Lewis Terman searched for gifted children, with an IQ of over 135. His “Termites” as the group would later be called were followed throughout their life. Terman tracked their path through life and had seen that theier high IQ was not necessarily an indicator of success in professional life. The adult “Termites” group had an impressive array of accomplishments. However – not all of them. It seemed that a certain “C” group was not very successful. As Terman put it, their lives turned out “disappointing”.

Gladwell outlines the things that made some of the “Termites” successful and others not. It was their upbringing, their social and economic background. Basically if you were to be born in an educated, high income family, you had great chances to become successful. If you had the misfortune to be born in a family where you and your brothers were constantly abused by an alcoholic stepfather, as was the case with Chris Langan, your chances to succeed in our society would dramatically drop.

Outliers – fun to read

Malcolm Gladwell bring several stories together in order force a connection between what we, as society, call success and the context that led to said success. Some of these connections may seem far fetched and sometimes they are. However, the book makes for an entertaining read.

“Outliers” is neither genius nor brilliant. It’s fun and interesting. It gives you some hard data you can show off when meeting your friends over beer but the fact is you will probably forget what was it about 10 months after you’re done reading it. When time’s limited I would rather suggest Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”. It’s fun, well written and you’ll still know what’s it about 2 years after you’ve read it.