Farewell to China

15. 3. 2017

Henry Kissinger, O Chinach, Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2014. [Henry Kissinger, On China, Penguin Press, 2011]

The 90-year-old giant of American diplomacy and strategic thinking devoted his over 500-pages-long volume to China. Once again, as in the famous Diplomacy (1994) and in the three volumes of memoirs on his spectacular political career called White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982) and Years of Renewal (1999), he presented the diplomatic backstage to us and gave an impressive demonstration of cool analysis and realistic calculation.

An undisputed asset of the book is the author’s personality and his role in American politics and diplomacy. Ever since he was “opening China” in the heated era of the “Cultural Revolution” and was evidently fascinated with the local leaders, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, he was regarded as a “friend of China” in the eyes of Beijing. He plays this role to this day, also as an expert and advisor to U.S. and transnational companies in the People’s Republic of China.

Such a positioning allowed him to enjoy face-to-face meetings with all major Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong to today’s President Xi Jinping. He took advantage of this unique position and, giving us a kind of political testament, he presented us with a report on these discussions and meetings, initially with the use of existing transcripts, and then resorting to his personal notes. For, as he writes, I have kept records of my conversations with four generations of Chinese leaders.

Kissinger is still fascinated with his interlocutors. He has a high regard for Mao, even calling him “a philosopher”(perhaps in gratitude for the way Mao addressed him: “Doctor of Philosophy”). It is true that he sums up the era of Mao’s reign with such phrases as constant turmoil or a state in permanent upheaval, but he downplays the sins of the totalitarian leader, underestimates the number of his victims (whether of the infamous terrible famine after the “Great Leap Forward” or of the “Cultural Revolution”). He also downplays the role of the events in the Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 (but his descriptions and assessments of this bloody massacre, and of the reactions of the U.S. authorities to it, are very interesting). The elegant, balanced, diplomatic tone of his discourse contrasts with the dominant mainstream arguments about the new economic giant in American and world media. Kissinger’s account, in fact written from the heights of the ruling elite, shows China as a country with interesting leaders, reasonable and strategically calculating, and at the same time amply drawing on the unfathomable Chinese stock of knowledge and wisdom, on the rich treasury of the local civilization. Such a perspective is by no means dominant in the American—extremely diverse—discourse on China. This diversity, we may assume, will even increase now, given that this country—or rather a state/civilization—is becoming more assertive and starts to promote the slogan of a “great renaissance of the Chinese nation” or the “Chinese dream” (an equivalent or rather a challenge to the myth of the American Dream).

The book abounds in sometimes insightful, sometimes disputable assessments, but it does not go beyond the state of knowledge about China available to specialists. Of key importance are the opinions of this experienced statesman on the present state and future prospects of the US-China relations. Kissinger is concerned and even alarmed: I am aware that the cultural, historic and strategic gaps in perception that I have described will pose formidable challenges for even the best-intentioned and most far-sighted leadership on both sides.

The author compares the current situation to the period just before World War I and on this basis he gives us a kind of memento. These words are of great import, for they concern two currently largest economic powers on the planet—and the history of mankind does not provide even a single example of one superpower giving way to another without a fight. In such circumstances Kissinger is wisely declaring: I am aware of realistic obstacles to the cooperative US-China relationship I consider essential to global stability and peace. A cold war between the two countries would arrest progress for a generation on both sides of the Pacific. It would spread disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when global issues as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy security, and climate change impose global cooperation.

Kissinger is right. But is anyone ready to listen to him carefully? What will prevail: a vision of global challenges or a more traditional approach of competition and fight within the framework of a new balance of power, just emerging on our horizon? This seems to be one of the most crucial dilemmas of our contemporary era.

We would do well to consider the author’s appeal to avoid triumphalism in these bilateral relations, to further cooperation between the two parties sides in all possible areas, to promote the spirit of cooperative co-existence. Is it possible? Of course we do not know. Things may turn out variously. We have a lot to ponder on.

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

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