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on 1 June 2011
Henry Kissinger's "On China" falls somewhere between a lap of honour and a potboiler. It is always a pleasure to experience Kissinger's massive, strategic intellect at work and he was, after all, present at the creation. At the same time, this book, for all its 530 pages, offers little new perspective and is so uncritical of its subject that it reads like an authorized history.

"On China" comprises three main parts. The first two hundred or so pages provide a panoramic, four thousand year history of the Middle Kingdom. The second section deals in detail with the momentous period of Kissinger's own involvement in his official role as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State and in the years following when he still had a fair degree of access to and influence over the principals on both sides. The final stretch speculates about the future and whether China and the United States will be able to plot a course of productive "co-evolution" or are doomed to enact a modern version of Europe's nineteenth century rivalry among the Great Powers.

Kissinger sees Chinese foreign relations as shaped by its vast dimensions of time and space. Its leaders work under "a mantle of almost limitless history." The Middle Kingdom is so vast and so vastly populous that it can afford to think of itself as self sufficient and can absorb virtually all assaults by outsiders - even, Mao promised, a nuclear attack would kill a mere three hundred million. For China, the central metaphor is the game of wei qi (or "Go" in its Japanese version) and not chess (though chess too originated in Asia). Whereas the West thinks in terms of "victory," the Chinese pursue "relative advantage....through elaborate, multi-year maneuvers." Except for the relatively brief period when China was eclipsed and bullied by Niall Ferguson's technologically superior West (plus Japan), it represented on the order of thirty percent of world GDP. Its current resurgence is simply a resumption of its natural status. Kissinger admires this long horizoned realpolitik and contrasts it favorably with his old bête noire, the United States' periodic outbursts of ideals-based foreign policy.

Kissinger's recounting of his personal role is moderately interesting, but the tale has been told many times before - indeed there has even been a major opera written about it. He gives due credit to Richard Nixon but this is mainly his own story. His reverence for his Chinese interlocutors is almost boundless. Thus he glosses over the Stalinesque scale of Mao's atrocities to focus on his strategic genius; he listens intently to the aging Chairman's "bantering and elliptical ... conversation" and decodes his every Chauncey-Gardnerish uttering as a gem of oracular wisdom.

Kissinger's interpretation of China is decidedly one dimensional, focusing on the geopolitical dimension of the story and then predominantly on Sino-American relations. The roles of Russia, India, Japan, Korea and Europe in the future evolution of China's strategy receive only superficial analysis. He makes little attempt to explain or even describe the economic miracle of the past thirty years other than to give credit to Deng's "reform and opening up" policy for unleashing it. He does not consider the implications of China's role as the world's creditor, or how rising costs might affect its economy - already factories, even some owned by Chinese companies - are moving to Vietnam and Bangladesh. He does not wonder how the demographics of an aging population and the rise of generations of single child families of piano-playing "little emperors" might affect the evolution of policy. He brushes over the potential for unrest, whether from ethnic or religious minorities, the disadvantaged or an increasingly educated, world travelled and vast middle class - recent election results in Singapore suggest that even a prosperous and pampered Confucian population can eventually tire of a benign autocracy. He barely mentions China's steady building up of its military capabilities, its economic imperialism, its propping up of dodgy regimes, its disregard of intellectual property rights and its extensive cyber-espionage activities.

Much of the writing in "On China" is generic, possibly reflecting the role of Schuyler Schouten, Kissinger's principal research assistant. There are too few character summings up of the caliber of his comment on Jiang: "the least Middle-Kingdom-type of personality that I encountered among Chinese leaders." And there is a disappointing dearth of Kissingerian aphorisms such as "Strategists rely on the intentions of the presumed adversary only to a limited extent. For intentions are subject to change," or his comment on Deng's retirement which perhaps was equally about himself: "the nostalgia of those who are leaving activity in which, by definition, every action made a difference, for a world in which they will soon be largely spectators."

Kissinger's closing plea to China and the United States is that they must find a way to avoid a new cold war. He prescribes the way forward as being some form of Pacific arrangement akin to the North Atlantic alliance. He is not very specific and his optimism is not very convincing.
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on 2 September 2011
In his formidable 500-page-plus book, equally formidable scholar-diplomat Henry Kissinger writes about the nation with which he is inextricably linked: China. Kissinger infuses his text with impressive personal recollections based on more than 50 visits to China over 40 years, working either officially as national security adviser and secretary of state, or unofficially as a foreign policy expert. In that time, he has seen China's evolution through four generations of its leaders. His insights on foreign policy and his personal rapport with top officials enable him to embellish this diplomatic history with extraordinary detail and discernment. getAbstract highly recommends the book's vast scope to anyone seriously interested in examining China's current and future role in world politics and economics, and that should be just about everyone.
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on 13 August 2011
The book covers a huge historical period. It is true, however, that the first of a total of eighteen chapters plus an epilogue covers a period of millenia. It commences with the unification of China in the 3rd century B.C. and ends in the 19th century, a period of humiliation for China with incursions, depredations, and its semicolonization by the Western powers. The aim of this first chapter is to familiarize the reader with China's Confucian culture, its approach to Diplomacy and its conception of the Art of War. The balance of the book covers the remaining period to the present year. This latter period includes the very period of its humiliation including the notorious opium war, the 22 year civil war which ended with communism prevailing in 1949;the Mao era and the turbulent sixties with the Great Leap Forward which left in its wake 20 million Chinese dead from famine, the Cultural Revolution which nearly ruined China and forced Mao to reverse it. But it also describes the unprecedented growth under Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese leaders that followed him rendering China an Economic Superpower.

The credentials of the author for writing the book are impeccable:the book was written 40 years after the author's first high level mission to China at the behest of president Nixon in 1971 and following 50 additional travels and discussions with four generations of Chinese leaders in the interval.

The book aims, partly drawing on the discussions with Chinese leaders as primary source, to explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order, and its relationship to the more pragmatic American way.

American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world. China's exceptionalism is cultural. China does not proselytize;it does not claim that its contemporary institutions are relevant outside China. But it is heir to the Middle kingdom tradition, which formally graded all other states as various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms;in other words, a kind of cultural universality.

At the time when Buddhism appeared in Indian culture stressing contemplation and inner peace, and monotheism was proclaimed by the Jewish - and, later, Christian and Islamic - prophets with an evocation of a life after death, China produced no religious themes in the Western sense at all. The Chinese never created a myth of cosmic creation. Their universe was created by the Chinese themselves, whose values, even when declared of universal applicability, were conceived of as Chinese in origin.

The predominant values of Chinese society were derived from the prescriptions of Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Confucius was concerned with the cultivation of social harmony. His themes were the principles of compassionate rule, the performance of correct rituals, and the inculcation of filial piety. The Confucius canon would evolve into something akin to China's Bible and constitution combined. Its maxim the harmonius society. Confucius preached a hierarchical social order. Oriented toward this world, his thinking affirmed a code of social conduct, not a roadmap to the after-life. At the pinnacle of the Chinese order stood the Emperor, a figure with no parallel in the Western experience. He combined the spiritual as well as the secular claims of the social order. The empire was administered by high literate bureaucracy selected following national examination.

In Diplomacy rarely did the Chinese statesmen risk the outcome of a conflict on a single all-or-nothing clash;elaborate multiyear maneuvers were closer to their style. Where Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces, the Chinese ideal sressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage.

China's most enduring game is wei qi. Wei qi translates as 'game of surrounding pieces;it implies a concept of strategic encirclement.

Chess on the other hand, is about total victory. The purpose of the game is checkmate, to put the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed.

A similar contrast exists in the case of China's distictive military theory. Chinese thinkers developed stragetic thought that placed a premium on victory through psychological advantage and preached the avoidance of direct conflict. The seminal figure in this tradition is known to history as Sun Tzu, author of the famed treatise 'The Art of War'. What distinguishes Sun Tzu from Western writers on strategy is the emphasis on the psychological and political elements over the purely military. Where Western strategists reflect on the means to assemble superior power at the decisive point, Sun Tzu addresses the means of building dominant political and psychological position, such that the outcome becomes a foregone conclusion.

The author is incisive in describing the personalities of Chinese leaders including Mao's and Zhou's:'The difference between the leaders was reflected in their personalities. Mao dominated any gathering;Zhu suffused it. Mao's passion strove to overwhelm opposition;Zhou's intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic;Zhou penetrating. Mao thought himself as a philosopher;Zhou saw his role as an administrator or negotiator;Mao was eager to accelerate history;Zhou was content to exploit its currents. A saying he often repeated was 'The helmsman must ride the waves.' When they were together there was no question of the hierarchy, not only in the formal sense but in the deepest aspect of Zhou's extraordinary deferential conduct.'

And then we come to Deng. Mao destroyed China and left its rubles as building blocks for ultimate modernization. Deng was the builder. The China of today - with the world's second-largest economy and largest volume of foreign exchange reserves, and with multiple cities boasting skyscrapers taller than the Empire State building - is testimonial to Deng's vision, tenacity, and common sense.

Mao had governed as a traditional emperor of a majestic and awe-inspiring kind. He embodied the myth of the imperial ruler supplying the link between heaven and earth and closer to the divine than the terrestrial. Deng governed in the spirit of another Chinese tradition:basing omnipotence on the ubiquitousness but also the invisibility of the ruler.

Mao had governed by counting on the endurance of the Chinese people to sustain the suffering his personal vision would impose on them. Deng governed by liberating the creativeness of the Chinese people to living above their own vision of the future.

In the epilogue the author outlines possible scenarios in the relationship between USA and China:

The conflict scenario: The United States is more focused on overwhelming military power, China on decisive psychological impact. Sooner or later, one side or the other would miscalculate.

The above scenario is countered by China's demographics and the capability of modern military technology.

Another scenario is that the crucial competition between the United States and China is more likely to be economic and social than military.

The author concludes appropriately the book with a wish:that the United States and China could merge their efforts to build the world.
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on 23 August 2011
Great description of how China has experienced the last 250 years and a balanced view (US and China) of how the pacific relationship has evolved. Well written.
Mandatory reading for any westerner who wants to do business in China and who should understand how history and ideology influence thinking and decisionmaking in China, whether in business or in government.
Even for someone like me who has lived several years in Asia and at some point was at least once a month in China, this book puts a number of pieces of the puzzle together.
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on 8 March 2015
Lessons I took away from his book:

A Proud People:
First 3 British Ambassadors (Macartney, Amherst, and Napier) all failed in their objectives to open China to the West .
- 1793 (after a month and a half wait) Lord Macartney was summed at 4:00am to the Forbidden for an audience with the Emperor, who made it clear the he didn't want a permanent British Ambassador. After a short period, he was dismissed - by a humiliating letter "Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce."
- 1816 Chinese sent the British Ambassador Amherst packing "no further Ambassadors are necessary to prove you are indeed our vassal"
- during the Ming dynasty, as representatives of the Middle Kingdom, heir diplomats outranked all other people regardless of their rank.

Empty promises / different perceptions of "keeping my word"
- 1839, British gunboats reached Tianjin - the Chinese said there had just been a misunderstanding and the gunboats should return to Guangzhou for dialogue: but the Chinese instructed their negotiators to draw out the negotiations to wear-down the foreigners; then launched a surprise attack.
- The "Kowtow" question was resolved by Macartney agreeing to kneel on one knee; but the official Chinese record stated that in the moment, he was so overwhelmed by the magnificence of the emperor, he did full kowtow anyway.
- their very "unbritishness" infuriated the Brits: when surrendering British troops under a white flag were tortured to death (a breach of British, but perhaps not Chinese protocol), the Brits destroyed the Summer palace in revenge.

Doing it their way
- China didn't join the Warsaw Pact nor NATO (and perfectly content for frosty relationships all round).
- fought with most of their neighbours: Taiwan (bombed Jinmen 1958), India (border invasion 1962), and Vietnam (1979) - in each case retreating after inflicting damage (proving a point but not getting bogged down overseas)
- Mao was so furious that Khruschev offered to station submarines in Chinese ports, that Khrushev personally came to Beijing to assuage him. "we've had the British and other foreigners on our territory for years now, and we're not ever going to let anyone use our land for their own purposes again".

Wei Chi versus Chess
I think this is Kissinger's best insight (for those who understand the chinese board game wei chi) - western approach to diplomacy is like chess, move early, dominate the centre ground, fight a direct war, and it's fairly easy to see where the attack is being made. Wei chi is different, you surround your enemy, bide your time, hide your strengths, bog him down, and draw your opponent into making mistakes. A slower, more subtle, less militaristic approach.
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on 28 May 2014
This is an excellent history and analysis of political China from the point of view of someone who saw more of the inside of Chinese politics than any other outsider in the 20th century. Kissinger gives what I found a most informative description of the culture within which Chinese political matters occur. In particular he emphasizes the continuity of the history and the fact that with such a long and continuous historical record, the Chinese invariably have a past example to point to, and by which to interpret and analyse current events.

The description of the Nixon-Mao meetings is riveting with the characters of the two leaders - and their lieutenants - Lin Biao, Zhu Enlai, Deng Xioaping and of course Kissinger, interweaving, with strengths and weaknesses, and fears of an aggressive Soviet Union driving events in a manner which was entirely unexpected at the time, but which resulted in the avoidance of serious conflict.

Overall, a very very interesting, and very well written book.
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on 4 October 2014
This is an in depth analysis of china which has enhanced my understanding of the Chinese society and its body politic. China was crucial in the balance of power during the cold war years. President Nixon is credited to have understood this from the very outset. His extraordinary negotiation skills helped to bring out a moderate China that recognized its position and built a modern China based on learning from other countries. Though it took a long time, having to endure centrist authoritarian revolutionary communism under Mao, china embraced change since Mao's demise 40 years that has transformed it into a major super power and economic power house of the world today. Whether this lasts for generations to come is another matter. Kissinger presents as an incredible prolific writer with extraordinary negotiation and understanding of international relations
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on 5 June 2011
It should be noted firstly that the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is not 'on china' as such, but only really about Chinese foreign policy. Nor will you learn much about present day China, as the focus is predominately historical.

Presumably due to the fact that it was during Mao's time that Kissinger had most personal involvement, the book is also quite Mao-heavy, with relatively less space given to the current generation of leaders.

However, where you would expect it to be good (such as on cold war realpolitik, or the characters of China's leaders), it is at times fascinating. It also gives a good insight into the the Chinese worldview, and makes their point of view on issues such as sovereignty and human rights much clearer.

However, as mentioned in most reviews (e.g. Chris Patten's for the FT), this more understanding view of China unfortunately shades into Mao-apology. While devoting whole chapters to Mao's foreign policy, the Great Leap Forward is skipped over in a few brief paragraphs. This is quite remarkable considering it was one of the worst man-made disasters of the 20th century, if not all human history. He also gives the lowest estimate of the number who died (20m), whereas the consensus seems to be around 40m.

While his agenda may be to paint a better picture of China (something I am also in favour of), this method is surely counterproductive. It is perfectly possible to have a positive view of China, but still acknowledge the mistakes that have been made. Trying to gloss over these is intellectually dishonest. It also makes his argument harder to take seriously once you know what you are reading is closer to propaganda than objective fact.

Mao and Deng took China on opposite paths, so to give them equivalent praise is contradictory. That Kissinger spends the vast majority of his Mao chapters on foreign policy, but gives significatly more time in his subsequent chapters to internal policy, shows that he knows Mao was a domestic failure. Kissinger just can't bring himself to be openly critical, and the self-censorship does the author and the reader a disservice.

This dishonesty unfortunately mars what would otherwise have been an interesting tour of the history of Chinese foreign policy.
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on 7 October 2013
I have just read this for a course at graduate school. I will be reading it again in the near future, as there are so many different events and parts of history mentioned - all of which have relevance today.
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on 4 April 2014
Essential reading to understand China today. Intelligent and brilliant. Basically, it tells that, to be successful a diplomacy should take into account the other side's history and sensibilities.
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