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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Jonathan Mirsky


On China
By Henry Kissinger (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 586pp 30)
Zhou and Kissinger: help yourself

Henry Kissinger, sometime Harvard professor, President Nixon's Secretary of State, and 1973 Nobel Peace Prize winner, says he has been to China 'more than fifty times'. Of these visits, the most famous was his secret trip to Beijing in 1971, paving the way for Nixon's journey the year after when Mao Zedong, feeble but still firing on most mental cylinders, laid out his 'thought' while Nixon and Kissinger sycophantically praised him. Thereafter, Kissinger went to China a few more times on official business, including by invitation from Deng Xiaoping in 1989 after the Tiananmen killings, when China-US relations were sagging badly.

But more than fifty trips! Journalists apart, no one goes to China that often unless they are doing business there. What Kissinger doesn't say, although it is mentioned on the inside flap of the book jacket, is that he is the chairman of Kissinger Associates, a firm of international consultants. One of its tenets is never to reveal its clients. But J Stapleton Roy, probably the best-qualified ambassador to China America ever had, was once Kissinger Associates' Managing Director; another senior member was President George H W Bush's National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, also a man with high-level contacts in Beijing. Kissinger, conscious of Beijing's reprisals against critics near and far, is very complimentary to Chinese leaders. His criticism, when it happens, is accompanied usually by a note of sadness, a reminder of China's neo-colonial victimisation and its enormous pride about its imperial past. If he wrote an article about China neglecting to mention his considerable interest there, few respectable editors would publish it.

That is why there is something intellectually disturbing when Kissinger states:

This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has different perceptions depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis ... The occupation of the main square of a country's capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.

Is Kissinger's implication that we must understand, if regretfully, why the People's Liberation Army mowed down hundreds of unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square? I declare an interest. I was there through to the final day. To say that the demonstrators - and as Kissinger himself notes, there were over 300 other uprisings throughout China - tempted the government, which had a total monopoly on the means of violence, to act rashly and thus to put itself at a disadvantage is, to put it politely, not the truth. We know from the 'Tiananmen Papers', to which Kissinger refers, that Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues were planning to clear the square forcibly almost from the beginning of the demonstrations, and when Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, up to then a disciple of Deng's, demurred, he was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The US whitewash had begun early. In Beijing, on 10 December 1989, only six months after the Tiananmen killings, Scowcroft told Deng Xiaoping, 'President Bush still regards you as his friend, a friend forever.' In Washington, White House press spokesman Marlin Fitzwater advised: 'We hope that we have reached the point where time heals all wounds, and that once the public gets used to more normalized contacts it won't be focused on the past.'

Kissinger includes a substantial introductory section on traditional Chinese history, intended to show how ancient concepts of status and rule continue to animate China's leaders today. For the most part, this is the version I was taught in 1955. It is seriously out of date, for instance, to state that even 'foreign' rulers (Kissinger's inverted commas) of China, such as the Mongols and Manchus, were soon Sinified. The research of scholars like Pamela Kyle Crossley and Evelyn Rawski has shown this to be untrue.

Nonetheless, it is the burden of this book that China, the world's oldest continuous culture (far more than a mere country), has always seen itself as 'zhongguo', the central country, with its own way of looking at the rest of the world. Sometimes it existed in 'splendid isolation', sometimes in contact with other places near and far (Kissinger can't make up his mind); sometimes as the Confucian country which believes in harmony within and without; sometimes - again no visible Kissinger certainty here - it followed the tradition of the ancient wily strategist Sunzi and the game of 'weiqi', which both influence how Beijing's leaders treat foreign relations.

Skip Kissinger's mangled pop-history. The interesting parts of his book are about his and Nixon's conversations with Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. He is an admirable writer and his descriptions and analyses are clear. Mao was willing to calm US anxieties about possible actions to retake Taiwan, and he and Zhou wanted to stop the war in Vietnam. Kissinger has written about these encounters at great length already, but new readers can grasp the essence here. He includes without comment these words from the Chairman: 'If the Soviet Union would throw its bombs and kill all those over 30 who are Chinese, that would solve the problem [of the complexity of China's many dialects] for us. Because the old people like me can't learn [Mandarin] Chinese.' If this is serious - and Mao uttered similar words on other occasions - it is ghastly. But Kissinger gives no hint if it was a joke. And yet, he was dealing with Mao, one of history's greatest mass killers, and while he mentions this very briefly it is not unfair to ask if Kissinger, a Jew who fled Germany, would so eagerly have sat down with Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot.

As for Zhou, Kissinger fell for him head over heels, like many others: 'In some sixty years of public life, I have encountered no more compelling figure than Zhou Enlai. Short, elegant, with an expressive face framing luminous eyes', etc. I once spent four hours in Zhou's presence and he was all that, but in retrospect Kissinger seems untroubled that the elegant Zhou had been Mao's premier for almost twenty-two years - which meant total complicity. Again one must ask: would we see such a star-struck reaction to Hitler's closest comrade, or, say, Stalin's intimate understrappers, Vyshinsky and Molotov? Reading Mao's doctor's book shows what Zhou was ultimately like - servile. This takes nothing away from Kissinger's appreciation of Zhou's willingness to cut deals with Washington, especially about lowering the temperature over Taiwan. But although Kissinger praises China's leaders as masters of subtlety in negotiation, what shines out is that, like leaders of all great powers, they rarely surrender anything essential to their national interest.

Kissinger never misses the opportunity to shower praise on any Chinese leader. He does so on Deng Xiaoping, especially right after Tiananmen. He admits there are 'violations of human rights so egregious that it is impossible to conceive of benefit in a continuing relationship', for example in Rwanda and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, although he actually approved of China's temporary rescue of the Khmer Rouge from the Vietnamese. Kissinger admits that the Vietnamese defeated the US, so anything that gives them a bloody nose is fine with him.

So was Deng 'egregious' in ordering the slaughter in Tiananmen? As noted above, Kissinger makes no judgement on this. To this day, however, the word 'Tiananmen' (officially termed the counter-revolutionary uprising), if used in an email, still brings a knock on the door. Inevitably, he lets China off the moral hook: it is difficult to pressurise a country like China, he reminds us, 'so imbued with the memory of humiliating intervention by Western societies'. Nor does he recall for his readers that in the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s, in which hundreds of thousands were purged, it was Deng, so admired by Kissinger, who oversaw that operation.

Finally Kissinger praises President Hu Jintao, who was 'trained in [China's] rugged, unstable frontiers', which included a stint as Party Secretary in Tibet. Hu, says Kissinger, wants a 'harmonious society' and a 'harmonious world'. When I interviewed Hu in Lhasa in 1989 he told me he despised and feared the Tibetans. Since then Hu's regime has detained or imprisoned many political adversaries, most recently the artist Ai Weiwei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, dozens of lawyers who have attempted to defend dissidents, and the man who called for mass action against the makers of the tainted powdered milk that poisoned hundreds of thousands of children and killed six.

There is a deep conceptual hole in Kissinger's analysis, and we must remember his book is called On China; when an author uses 'On', his intention is to explain something big. He repeatedly describes America's 'aggressive human rights posture', which reflects 'a general concept of world order in which China was expected to participate as a respected member'. In Beijing, he continues, this was 'seen as a design to keep China weak'. Such a difference, Kissinger suggests, 'should be studied carefully by advocates of a confrontational policy in our day'. As Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia and an authority on human rights, pointed out to me, however, it is a fallacy to contend, as Henry Kissinger does in this revealing book, 'that the universality of international human rights is a matter of opinion rather than of international law'.

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Jonathan Mirsky began reporting from China in 1972. He was named British International Reporter of the Year for his dispatches from Tiananmen in 1989.