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Dr. Kissinger and how NOT to understand China

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Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger introduces China’s President Hu Jintao on Jan. 20, at the U.S.-China Business Council. / AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

By Sol W. Sanders

I haven’t read Dr. Henry J. Kissinger’s latest book, On China. But as someone who for most of his adult life has lived in China’s shadow, including reading, thinking, exchanging ideas with students of that civilization, I was interested. But now I leave evaluating the work to scholars, as some have already done.

That’s come about because I heard the good doctor recently laying out a strategy for “accommodation” with China. One could excuse the cacophony of bromides — many fallacious — Dr. Kissinger trotted out in this wide ranging NPR interview.  Time was short, the interlocutor unskilled, and the subject matter vast. But here is the crux of what Dr. Kissinger had to say:

“…through thousands of years of Chinese history, I know no example where outside pressures about the domestic structure of China produced domestic changes in, in [cq] China. …”

This is stultifying, a misconception so wrong it puts into question any analysis Dr. Kissinger might otherwise make. In fact, although obviously a most original civilization, China nevertheless – like all other societies – has been impacted, often in revolutionary fashion, by outside forces. Space prohibits even an outline of such convoluted episodes. But let me site three chronologically dispersed examples:

  • In the first century of the Common Era, Indian Buddhism entered China. It not only upended Chinese metaphysics but introduced such everyday artifacts as bridges, tea and the chair. [The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, John Kieschnick, Princeton University Press, 2003]
  •  As a result of a humiliating defeat by the British in the First Opium War [1839-42], Taiping, a heterogeneous Christian sect, led two decades of bloody revolt. Before it was subdued [by China’s “alien” imperial rulers, the Manchu, with the help of foreign military] state levies shifted from land to trade and military power from central armies to regional warlords. Slavery, polygamy and foot-binding were banned if not eliminated. Most importantly, the Taping reaction to foreign intervention ended China’s isolation.
  • In 1949, after decades of Japanese invasion, the Chinese Communists established a unified government modeled on the USSR to be massively aided for almost two decades by Moscow. While conventional wisdom now holds the Chinese Communists have shed all but the rhetorical trappings of Marxist-Leninism, its economy remains largely in government hands, a complete break with China’s centuries of market economics [That concept, ironically, was passed to Europeans as laissez-faire by late 16th century European Jesuits in Beijing!]

Dr. Kissinger’s formulation is no blooper.

It underpins his proposed strategy for dealing with Beijing’s growing power. It equates to his 1970s call for “détente” in The Cold War. That was to be an acceptance of Soviet power for a hoped for extended period of relaxed tension. That strategy proved precarious until Moscow imploded in 1990 — in no small part as a result of confrontation tactics by President Ronald Reagan.

Historical analogies are misleading and often dangerous but marginally useful. China today does constitute a somewhat similar problem. While no sane person in the West and Japan advocates military engagement, not to recognize American interests are jeopardized by an increasingly powerful hostile China is to ignore reality.

That indeed, has been until now Washington’s modus operandi:

  • The U.S. has made great efforts to bring China into the highest world councils with Beijing responding by courting pariah regimes threatening peace and stability.
  • Washington has pursued free trade and investment with China while Beijing responds with unfair trade practices, protection for state corporations and markets, and financial manipulation.
  • Washington has sought open exchange of military information and lent security for an expanding China trade, but Beijing rejects transparency and secretly pursues a rapid military buildup against an unidentified enemy.
  •  These American policies have strengthened the power and influence of a highly vulnerable Chinese regime, one facing great economic ambiguities and unpredictable political challenges.

Washington is now reexamining how to restrain what could well be a new aggressive formidable power. It must not repeat the long prelude to World War II when East Asia storm signals were largely ignored – incidentally, then too involving a burgeoning commercial relationship [with Japan].

That requires extensive, intensive and knowledgeable debate about Beijing’s capacities and goals — and America’s abilities to meet them

Dr. Kissinger contributes little to this gargantuan undertaking.

Sol W. Sanders, (solsanders@cox.net), writes the ‘Follow the Money’ column for The Washington Times on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He is also a contributing editor for WorldTribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com.

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