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?

 

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