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Reviewed by:
  • On China
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Henry Kissinger. On China. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. xviii, 586 pp. Hardcover $36.00, ISBN 978-1-59420-271-1.

Henry Kissinger is one of the great statesmen and diplomats of our time. He was secretary of national defense and later secretary of state to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon. Kissinger was the key person in effecting Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, which initiated Sino-American relations after a hiatus of two decades. That unforgettable handshake between Premier Zhou Enlai of China and the U.S. president began the process of transformation not only of United States-China relations, but the international configurations of many countries as well.

Since that earthshaking event, Kissinger has made more than fifty trips to China. In diplomacy, he has related and interacted with four generations of leaders in the People’s Republic of China (Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and many others). He has availed himself as consultant in foreign relations to succeeding administrations after Nixon’s and to governments in different parts of the world. For several years in the late 1970s, he taught international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and in 1982 he founded the consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, which identifies strategic partners and investment opportunities and government relations in the world. Now, in his late eighties, the sage Kissinger writes from his wealth of personal experience with Chinese leaders when he represented America “as a senior official, as a carrier of messages, and as a scholar” (p. xv). He recalls that historic mission, carried out in extreme secrecy to Beijing some four decades ago. In this memoir, written in hindsight, Kissinger shows the knowledge and insights he has gained, in the intervening years of study and reflection, regarding Chinese leaders “whose attitudes we were being sent to discover” (p. 236, emphasis added). He concludes that the Chinese leaders he experienced were politically astute and diplomatically skillful, leaders whose survival capacity was unlimited, a legacy of China’s that goes back thousands of years.

In order to appreciate fully Kissinger’s chastened thoughts of his journeys to China with a positive world peace spin, it is instructive to revisit earlier accounts of Kissinger’s (and President Nixon’s) daring mission in opening up China. In the context of the turmoil of the great proletariat Cultural Revolution in China and the mounting protests in America against the Vietnam War in 1972, not to mention the two decades of mutual U.S.–China animosity, any attempt at rapprochement between the two enemy states fraught with their respective social disorder must be, by necessity and expediency, carried out in absolute secrecy. An added dimension to the clandestine nature of the historic mission was Nixon’s single-minded focus on the November presidential election; his opening up of China contributed to his landslide victory over George McGovern. [End Page 200]

That Nixon and Kissinger enjoyed carte blanche in shaping U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis China, a Communist country, is well documented. The secrecy of their diplomatic activity necessitated even excluding members of the president’s cabinet in the process.1 How Nixon viewed this historic journey, six years after the event and thirty-three years before Kissinger’s account, can shed light on their different angles of vision and the provincialism in time, as well as a glimpse of the integrity of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Preoccupied with domestic politics and the next U.S. election, the deceptive Nixon (popularly nicknamed “Tricky Dick”) gave this account of his historic mission to China in his memoirs:

“The conventional way we handle a meeting at the summit like this, while the whole world is watching,” I [Nixon] said, “is to have meetings for several days, which we will have, to have discussions and discover differences, which we will do, and then put out a weasel-worded [Shanghai] communiqué covering up the problems.”

“If we were to act like that, we would be not only deceiving the people, but we would be deceiving ourselves,” [Z]hou replied.

(RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. [New York...