Book Review: On China by Henry Kissinger

After reading On China I am a little more skeptical about the conventional wisdom that declining age brings about a corresponding decline in ones mental faculties. Henry Kissinger wrote On China in his mid 80s and the book was published two years ago when Kissinger was 88. Kissinger just turned 90 this past spring.

There is no trace of an enfeebled mind in On China. It is a wonderful book, elegantly written with penetrating analysis and breathtaking in its scope. It is a book about how China has seen itself and the world beyond its borders over the past three hundred years. Kissinger looks particularly at diplomatic missions to China and China’s response to those missions from the 18th Century up to the present day. That is a lot of ground to cover but Kissinger is able to highlight the important detail so that we feel informed even though we may not know everything. Kissinger’s recounting of the early missions to China by Lord Macartney, for example, is skillful. This is no mean feat as this period is sometimes very difficult to comprehend because of all the global players who looked at China, saw gold and laid their claims, often with brutal force, at the feet of the archaic Qing Government.

And as with China’s distant history so with the more recent, post revolution history. Kissinger is able to look at complicated relationships e.g. China’s relationship with the Soviet Union and bring the reader to a clear understanding of why China was at odds with neighboring and/or western countries, adding chronology or detail only when necessary.

Sometimes though the strength of the book is also its weakness. When Kissinger discusses his and President Nixon’s own trips to China he focuses on the diplomatic achievements only and there is no sense of the drama of these visits. How he or Nixon felt when a US President stepped onto Chinese soil for the first time is not related here. Nor does Kissinger talk much about Nixon’s first meeting with Mao, a meeting, it is often said, where Mao had to be drugged and propped up so he would be able to physically meet Nixon. Nixon was also said to have taken a liking to Chinese “bai jiu” the feared and infamous Chinese liquor that is served at banquets. Nixon enjoyed bai jiu so much that he kept a small bottle of it in the Oval Office. The book, although wonderful as it is, might have been even better had Kissinger included these superfluous, but nevertheless interesting and colorful details.

Maybe the most interesting part of the book is that section which deals with the intense negotiations to get the Chinese Physicist and Dissident, Fang Li Zhi out of China. This is a story about how one individual almost destroyed decades of relationship building and how only the commitment of both the China and US sides to keep the relationship moving ahead eventually prevented this from happening.

Although his focus in On China is diplomacy Kissinger does not fail to see and applaud China’s economic miracle. And who would know better than Kissinger who has made fifty trips to China over the past 40 years. When Kissinger first went to China, as he himself tells us, only 0.87% of the workforce had a college education. Nowadays China’s workforce is decidedly sophisticated and educated, especially in the big cities. For China and for the world at large, this is a good thing. And this is Kissinger’s ultimate message in On China, that although China’s ideology may be different from that of other countries, its leadership has the same goal, to improve the standard of living for its citizenry.

On China is a positive affirmation of China. And, at least in Henry Kissinger’s case, it is also an affirmation that age is no obstacle to achievement.

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