It has taken me about five months to finish “On China” by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Although I have faced several distractions along the way, including the desire to spend time with someone I love, that long delay tells me I was not very enthusiastic about finishing the book. Reading a book by an alleged war criminal requires some justification, which is that Kissinger was present at the historic opening up of China to the US under President Richard Nixon (another nasty character) and, whatever you think of his politics and conduct, he is supposed to have intelligent views on international affairs.
Well it’s a bit of a let down. The account of how Nixon ordered Kissinger to go to China and tee up the first historic meeting between the leader of the capitalist west and the communist dictator of the world’s largest country is fascinating. But Kissinger wants to interpret every thing that Mao says as a brilliant insight into geopolitics drawing on centuries of distinctively clever Chinese philosophy. Mao did pull off something of a confidence trick in making a very weak and poor China seem a genuine rival to the US and Soviet Union. But a lot of what Mao says just seem odd or opaque.
Like most international relations experts, Kissinger is uninterested in and ignorant of economics. So he underplays the great disservice Mao did to China in holding it back from its economic potential for so long, quite apart from allowing around 40-50 million people to die of famine. Things get more interesting in the story when Deng Xiaoping gets control but by then Kissinger’s role is fading and the account loses its eyewitness vitality.
Kissinger does seem a bit starstruck by Mao and to some extent by China as a whole. A lot of westerners seem to think that China and the Chinese Communist Party have achieved a kind of awesome infallibility. They contrast this with the decadent and incompetent western democracies. This is reminiscent of what, with hindsight, now looks an absurd fear of Japanese economic success inthe late 1980s, again played out against a temporary lack of self confidence in the US. That is not to say that China is a huge bubble waiting to burst but one should at least be wary of over-reaction. Japan and China each have remarkable achievements and China has doubtless more to come. But one, slightly simplistic lesson of the period since Deng introduced market forces to the People’s Republic, is that if you have a lot of people willing to work hard and prosper and you put them together with the profit motive and simply get out of the way, then you will get a lot of economic growth. The fact that this growth has continued for three decades at a remarkably high rate is some testimony to the pragmatic effectiveness of the Chinese Communist Party. But Chinese themselves are first in line to explain what is wrong in the corrupt, unbalanced and paranoid Chinese economy. And it is much harder to keep up fast economic growth once you’ve gone through the “catch up” phase of simply copying richer countries’ methods. Even more so when the working population starts shrinking in just a few years from now.
The book is most disappointing towards the end. We might expect Kissinger to have some insights and perhaps controversial opinions on the future relationship between the current superpower and the rising one. But his reflections are rather dull and mainstream. Perhaps he has too many friendships or consulting relationships at stake to risk saying anything too critical of the US or China. It will be a fascinating era ahead, in which we see to what extent the US gives up its leadership gracefully or not and how China rises to the challenge of taking on global responsibilities. But don’t read this book for clues.