272 of 326 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The book is worth reading. And yet, a novice to the subject of China, its history, and especially China's foreign relations, should be advised to take Dr. Kissinger's analysis with great caution and skepticism. Kissinger analysis is at times very interesting, at times pretentious, and, unfortunately, very often naïve. Of course he "was there," he experienced a great deal of what he describes, and certainly he had studied the subject. But instead of helping his analysis, his own experience stands on the way of objectivity. First, Kissinger is in awe of Mao Zedong. Mao can do no wrong for Kissinger. All Mao's decisions are based on meticulous planning; informed by the millenia of China's culture; and with long term considerations. In Kissinger's view, when Stalin maneuvers in some negotiations, he is conniving and conspiring, but when Mao is doing the same, he is planning, he is thinking, and following ancient Chinese strategy. Historical facts do not sustain that picture. Although Mao clearly was very skillful revolutionary, his behavior was also very erratic and often reckless. Kissinger rarely, if ever, admits that. For example The Great Leap Forward that led to famine and estimated 30-40 million deaths and set China back decades in economic development is barely mentioned by the author. The destructive and humiliating Cultural Revolution is actually presented in a positive light by Kissinger. Maybe he didn't intend the portrayal to be that way, but Kissinger writes about Cultural Revolution as it would be a political and philosophical campaign that simply didn't fulfill Mao's expectations. It was a "titanic struggle." The fact that China's society and culture was almost destroyed doesn't seem to be bothering Kissinger that much. For him Mao is still the "philosopher king," and no, there is no sarcasm in Kissinger's words. Kissinger seems to be impressed by Mao's skillful use of poetry and ancient proverbs, but doesn't see the ignorant, paranoid, and delusional side of the man who was responsible for destructive policies throughout the 50 and 60s. That's why I would argue that Kissinger's portrayal of Mao is naïve.
Second, Kissinger has an annoying habit of explaining all in terms of Chinese culture. Obviously, the culture does play an important role, but when all is explained by culture, nothing is. There is a "cultural explanation" for the Chinese being assertive in politics, and there is a "cultural explanation" when they are diffident. When they wait patiently when they are overrun by others, well, that's their culture, they know from thousands of years of history that the tide will turn one day. When they fight and resist, well, there is also some cultural explanation.
Kissinger's analysis gets better the closer he gets to the present times. Although he never abandons his respect for Mao, his description of the reforms under Den Xiaoping beginning in 1978 is fascinating, not so much the fact that China finally began economic expansion, but how difficult and even uncertain the reforms were in the early years. Of course, Kissinger cannot avoid a constant reminder of his own importance throughout all these years. His grandiosity is somewhat annoying (and that's why I said the book is at times pretentious).
Finally, I would argue that the epilogue is the best part of the book: a look into the future of China and U.S.-China relations. In short, I am rather disappointed with the description and analysis of Mao's Years, but satisfied with the later parts of the book. And overall, knowing Henry Kissinger's work and writing, I expected a greater mind.
332 of 405 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Prior to the publication of this book the definitive resource on China was Jonathan Spence's "In Search of Modern China". Spence the Yale Professor, is still indispensible to a modern understanding of this remarkable country. Now there is a second more up to date source and that is Henry Kissinger. The former Secretary of State who is now 88 years fortunately has taken the time to put together this incredible piece of work that only he could have created.
The book demonstrates the necessity of having lived a very long productive life and generating wisdom capable of distilling his understanding of a country down to a 530 page volume of work. It is as good as any of his previous works (13 with this one) and for my money I now put this book in Kissinger's top three, along with WHITE HOUSE YEARS and DIPLOMACY.
First the MECHANICS of the Book
If you are going to read the hard copy as opposed to digital, you are in for a treat. The font is beautiful, and the paper used to print the volume is delicious. I say this because if you are a heavy reader; you really appreciate turning the pages of beautifully textured pages. I annotate all of my books, writing in margins, in the back on blank pages and just about everywhere, and I love writing on beautiful page that take the ink nicely. This book was crafted professionally as good as it gets.
The ORGANIZATION of On China
The Secretary has made 40 trips to China in his lifetime, enough that he should be the Honorary Ambassador to the country. He is thoroughly infused in the history of China, and he certainly does give you the history. There are 18 chapters plus an epilogue spread over 531 pages. There are 36 pages of footnotes and it is obvious that the Secretary had considerable organizational help with the footnotes which is to be expected.
The first three chapters or 91 pages are devoted to the nation's history and Kissinger gets it right. I have made many trips to China, but I still have problems with the language. When you read any book on China, you will have problems with pronunciation. What I do is quickly scan the book writing down 50 or a 100 names or terms I can't pronounce, and then head for the first Chinese restaurant in town, and ask for help with the words. People love to help, especially when you are taking an interest in their culture and language.
The guts of the book begins on page 91 or Chapter 4 which is Mao's Continuous Revolution. This chapter is superb and superbly written. If you study American China relations, the question that is always stipulated is whether or not America lost China in 1949. Kissinger correctly reminds us that China might never have been ours to lose, so we asking the wrong question.
Mao always believed that the Confucian order had for thousands of years kept China a weak China. Confucius preached HARMONY, and Mao believed that progress could only come from brutal confrontations both in China and with outside adversaries for China to advance. Mao also believed that these confrontations would happen naturally, but if they did not, he was not beyond creating confrontations even if they had to be within the Communist party to kept progress going, as he understood progress.
Chapter 6 which deals with China Confronts Both Superpowers is another section that only Kissinger could have written. It is here that China confronts the Soviet Union creating the Sino-Soviet split, and the United States with the Taiwan Strait Crisis. The chapter is riveting, and will affect and change your understanding of history.
The book is indispensible. You cannot understand China and modern Asia without having this book under your belt. One would have to be foolish to visit China and not read this book first to truly benefit from such a trip. Mao was famous for the Long March, and this book is a long journey for the reader but it is very rewarding. The Secretary takes us through the Road to Reconciliation in Chapter 8, and then the first encounters with Nixon, himself and the Chinese leadership in Chapter 9.
It is a fascinating portrayal of power meeting power head to head, and the respect that even enemies can hold for each other. It is now generally accepted that only Nixon the hardened right winger could have opened the door to China and brought the American people along with him, because he Nixon was viewed as tough. Perhaps in a decade or two, Harvard will accept what most historians have already accepted.
In Chapter 11 we witness the End of the Mao Era. Zhou Enlai falls and Deng's first return to power begins. Kissinger loves writing about Deng and calls him the indestructible Deng throughout chapter 12. Keep in mind that it was Deng who opened up modern China and began the reforms that were necessary for China to assert itself years later internationally and economically.
For those readers that know very little of China, this book is a whirlwind tour of a country fast gaining hegemony over Asia. You need to read Chapter 13 on the Third Viet Nam to understand how China is capable of dealing with its neighbors. Had we handled Viet Nam this way, the outcome and history would have been different.
Henry Kissinger ON CHINA is destined to become a best seller and in the process will greatly help an America that knows very little about China except for newspapers, to understand not just the history of this vital country, but its future and the nexus of that future with America's future. No one can ignore China, so the sooner we as Americans gain the understanding that we need to make intelligent decisions, the better off we will all be. If you have an interest in China whatsoever, run to read this book, and do not put it down until you are finished with it. Good luck and thank you for reading this review.
Richard C. Stoyeck
I will share something extraordinary with you. When you read a book like this, you will have a better understanding of China than 98% of the people living in China and 95% of the Chinese people living in America. I am still shocked when I meet Chinese people in this country young and old who have next to no understanding of Chinese history prior to Mao. They do not know the name Sun Yat-sen, or even Zhou Enlai, and forget about the Cultural Revolution unless they lived through it. Even the tragedy of Tiananmen Square is fast fading from memory.
It reminds me of German history in the post Hitler period. Anybody in Germany who was educated post 1950 has very little to no understanding of the Hitler period. It is simply glossed over as a dark period in German history; the teachers do not know what to say. Just amazing.
74 of 93 people found the following review helpful
Dr. Kissinger has had personal experience with four generations of Chinese leaders, as well as building an appreciation of its long history. His "On China" primarily covers China's initial encounters between China and modern European powers, the breakdown of its alliance with Russia, rationale behind and its involvement in the Korean War, and President Nixon's historic trip to Beijing. The book is an attempt to explain differences in how the Chinese both view themselves as an exceptional civilization (cultural; non--applicable to other nations) and think about foreign and military strategy, vs. the U.S. (God-given, with an obligation to spread to others). Most of "On China" consists of a readable, but detailed history of China, along with how those events have shaped its leaders. Kissinger's historical accounting begins with with Confucius, and goes on to also summarize the forced opening of China by Great Britain and other 'barbarians,' Japanese and Russian occupation, Mao's takeover and creation of continual chaos, reclaiming former boundaries (India, Tibet, Inner Mongolia; crises over Taiwan), rationale for Sino-U.S. rapprochement, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and China's subsequent healing and economic resurgence initiated and led by Deng Xiaoping.
Early China was plagued by internecine conflict that threatened the empire's sustainability. Confucius (551 B.C.- 479 B.C.), an itinerant philosopher largely ignored in his lifetime, provided the 'glue' that has both kept the empire together since, while uniting its people, and providing much of Asia's 'state religion.' Expertise in Confucian thought became the key to advancement after the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) adopted Confucius' thinking. In doing so, the State assumed a moral obligation to provide virtue and harmony, and its people took on an obligation to obey the state as well as honor their ancestors and emphasize learning.
Between 1405-1433, China's Admiral Zheng sent out a fleet of large, technically advanced ships to Africa, the Middle East, India, and other closer locales. The fleet's size, number of vessels, and sophistication dwarfed that of the Spanish Armada that was created 150-years later. The purpose of the voyages is unclear to historians, and the next Emperor ordered the fleet destroyed, along with Zheng's records of those voyages. The expeditions were never repeated. More significantly, withdrawal from Western nations limited access to new ideas and led to China being physically and economically dominated by others from the mid-1800s until the 1990s - its 'Century of Humiliation.' (China's share of the world's GDP was about 25% in 1500, grew to approximately 30% in 1820, and fell to about 4% in 1950.) Deng's re-opening China's economy in 1979 brought China back - it is now the world's #2 economy and expected to become #1 in about 15 years, based on purchasing-power parity.
As an aside, Kissinger also notes that China's turbulent history has taught its leaders that not every problem has a solution, and that too great an emphasis on total mastery over specific events could upset world harmony. Important lessons that the U.S. could benefit from.
Keys to understanding China: 1)Confucianism - a single universal standard of conduct and social cohesion. 2)Sun Tzu - outsmarting an opponent = good, conflict = bad. 3)China's recent history of humiliation. 4)Fear of social disorder.
Human-rights activists will not be satisfied with Kissinger's lack of umbrage on human rights in China - especially regarding Mao; realists, however, will recognize that the passage of time, China's rapid economic improvement and Confucian history make the topic much less important to the Chinese. Those more sardonic will simply note that Kissinger's firm does extensive business in China and he does not want to risk that. Kissinger also does not cover China's newly acquired economic power vs. the U.S. via its extensive holding of U.S. debt, our recent loss of respect due to the 'Great Recession' and our loss of manufacturing leadership. Regardless, "On China" is essential reading; it also clearly demonstrates why Dr. Kissinger is renowned among foreign policy experts.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2011
When it comes to China, it's hard to think of a person or diplomat who has served as long and has as much hands-on, working knowledge of the relations between the red giant and the West as Dr. Henry Kissinger. In fact, it's impossible.
With engagements dating back nearly a half-century and covering administrations on both sides of half a dozen rotating regimes, Kissinger has devoted his life's work to bridging the gaps between the U.S. and foreign entities, with China being at the top of the list. In this voluminous, 586-page work, Kissinger warns of the U.S.'s desire to bring its own democratic morals to a land whose sovereignty is of paramount import. Only by studying the past, Kissinger argues in "On China," can one find the middle ground that will prevent the two superpowers from coming to loggerheads in the future.
At one time, China and the U.S. shared a common enemy in the Soviet Union. This triangulation was the basis for much of the early U.S.-China detente as promulgated by the diplomat's early visits to China under President Nixon. With the fall of the Soviet regime, the relationship evolved into an economic battlefront where U.S. interference (over democracy, human-rights, economic agendas, etc.) was looked down upon by the Chinese though, of course, issues related to these positions continue to remain in force today.
Along the way, Kissinger relates stories of his relationships with Mao Zedong and the post-Mao leaders (Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemen and Hu Jintao) with whom he has continually interfaced. Mao, he states, was an often cryptic and mercurial leader and those in the post Mao world have, at times, adopted some of his confusing attributes in his wake. Much is made of conflicts - from Vietnam to Taiwan to Tiananmen Square - where Chinese and U.S. policies remained at odds, while some form of shuttle diplomacy prevented either side from attempting a massive outbreak. Kissinger details the backroom politics of such moments in ways that seem both perplexing on the surface yet humanistic at the core. By citing details of both the 2,000 year history of the empire as well as the last century of Chinese governmental behaviors, the 87 year-old diplomat allows for a broader window of perspective in viewing what are often seen as isolated incidents.
As far as the future of the Sino-American relationship, Kissinger argues for an understanding that sets aside the urge of U.S. diplomats to try and re-create a new China in the U.S. mold. Expecting China to embrace democracy anytime soon is a fool's errand according to the author. Kissinger cites China's stated goals as eschewing revolution, saying "it does not want war or revenge; it simply wants the Chinese people to `bid farewell to poverty and enjoy a better life.'" Whether, the U.S. or China's own neighbors in the region are ready to accept that remains uncertain, but one thing is for sure, if relations between the two economic superpowers are to remain steady and grow, it will be the efforts of the next Kissingers that will have to help navigate the course.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2011
Unlike excellent histories that focus on broad theoretical origins of politico-economic systems such as Fukuyama's Origins, this book focuses on the modern manifestations and practical lessons of the Asian giant that could only be witnessed first hand by someone with intimate connections to the leaders. Kissinger proves throughout this erudite book that only someone with his experience and diplomatic savvy could have possibly gotten close enough to understand the culture. It just so happens that he is the only one that has such experience and savvy.
Of course, this book does offer a grand history of the culture, from its beginnings nearly 5,000 years ago, and it is a brilliant survey. It shines most, however, in the 20th century, when Kissinger's personal account is employed to convey the rest of the story.
Anyone looking for insight into the rationale for China's isolationism and that of the United States, which wanted badly to open the door, will be enthralled by this account. We learn, as seems obvious in retrospect, that it was not much more than the shrewdest of pragmatic policy decisions in an age when shrewd policy was the only way to survive. Kennedy and Johnson had both tried and failed. With the help of Kissinger, who has a reputation for shrewd pragmatism, Nixon finally succeeded.
Kissinger reflects on the sleeping dragon at perhaps a more interesting time than the 1970s, when he was secretary of state. After 40 years, Nixon and his measures seem vindicated, as China has steadily moved in the direction of freedom and capitalism. And yet, with human rights issues far from being resolved and growing economic friction between China and the U.S., the fate of the relationship is more precarious than ever.
That is why this is such an important book. It is our good fortune that Mr. Kissinger has been able to produce it.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Henry Kissinger has lead one fascinating life. He has earned it though by being thoughtful, competent, trustworthy and, quite obviously, super smart. His thoughts in "On China" are essential reading for anyone with an interest in how China came to its present condition and what the future may hold for US-China relations.
As a 530 page doorstop, there is a lot of content in the book, but some of they highlights to me were:
- Just how much Chinese history permeates their world view. From the "Middle Kingdom" notion of China as THE dominant country to their obviously bitter memory of colonial interferences, Kissinger weaves together the history itself and its manifestation in modern day geopolitical behavior.
- Mao is a larger than life leader. HIs "continuous revolution" and his ability to drive China from a dirt poor straggler in 1949 into the modern era was impressive. Chou En Lai also rises above the masses - what a fascinating statesman.
- The tension and paranoia between China and the Soviet Union was on a level I never knew before - and ultimately led to the reconciliation between US and China who lived the old maxim "my enemy's enemy is my friend"
- Deng Xiaoping is the star of the story in my opinion. His mantra of "Reform and Opening Up" changed China's fate forever and put it directly on the path it maintains today - and his taking of this position was an incredible personal risk, not to mention visionary. The picture of him with a ten gallon hat on is worth the price of the book!
- The pressure on the US to repudiate China in the wake of Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 was intense. We were fortunate to have George H.W. Bush as President and utilize his deep knowledge of China to navigate a very difficult course between US "national interest" , domestic political pressure and China's irritation at the US criticism of what they viewed as a purely domestic incident.
If I had one "complaint" about the book - it didn't cover enough of what China's current "game plan" is. What is their objective in rapid military buildup? In maintaining a weak currency that creates havoc in Western economies? In accumulating raw material positions across Asia and increasingly Africa? In becoming the largest holder of US debt? One could argue they are setting the stage for an attempt at global domination, despite their protests to the contrary. And if that indeed is their objective, should the US take a more "pre-emptive" stance to prevent that from happening?
All in all, another great book by Henry the K. Always very well written and thought provoking.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2012
This is third book on my China series and by far written by most high profile author, who himself was at forefront in modern US China relationship, first as NSA and then as Secretary of State for Nixon and Ford administration.
Written in chronological sequence, book follows history of China, its culture, philosophy and wars from ancient era to the times of Bill Clinton's presidency. For China starters, author has taken pain to explain all the basics. History of Taiwan, China Sea and China-Vietnam relations is particularly illustrative. The language is clear and straight.
Coming straight from horse's mouth, book presumes high credibility, only to be undermined by author's grandiose and vindicative portrayal of himself, as well as few leaders of his choosing. While doing so, Mr. Kissinger crossed line of neutrality, expected from author of his stature. I was particularly put-off by the his supersized philosopher-king like description of Mao Zedong, often at the expense of other contemporary world leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, Stalin etc. Author's fascination with Mao, be is his habit of sleeping naked or defecating in open is bizarre. As per the book, everything Mao did had nothing but only great strategy and grand vision behind it. He even tries to put Cultural Revolution in positive light. This in light of the fact that Mao did not particularly liked Kissinger and often belittled him (Ref: "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World" by Dr. Margaret MacMillan), shows that author was completely awed by Mao's cult of propaganda and violence and has some kind of complex about it.
Interestingly his description of Nixon was not that rosy and author claimed many initiatives for himself, which has been historically attributed to Nixon. From writing style, one can clearly sense much speculated rivalry between him and Nixon.
His depiction of Zhou Enlai is particularly interesting and touching. He is one figure, who has generated a lot of curiosity inside me.
Later part of the book which describes making of modern China and role Deng Xiaoping played, is relatively neutral and explain development more from an outsider's perspective.
Overall a very informative and good book for readers who wants to know more about greatest transformation in world history. However you cannot rely on its neutrality and should be supplemented by some more unbiased sources, which can offset `go-go China' theme of this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2011
Rarely have I turned the last page of a book and, without any conscious thought say, "phenomenal." That was my reaction to this broad and insightful text on China.
At 530 pages this book may look intimidating, but the writing is clear, captivating and compelling, and although it may take a few days to read, this is hardly a dense or unfriendly text.
Dr. Kissinger takes us through 40 years of US diplomatic history with China. But this is not just about the history (fascinating as it is); understanding the background that led China to its current status is extremely useful as a going forward exercise.
I recommend this book without reservation to anyone who does or anticipates doing business with China, to anyone who wants to understand the pre-eminent diplomatic focus that faces the next generation or two of Americans, and to anyone who believes it is important to learn from history.
To that last point: in his introductory chapter, "The Singularity of China," Dr. Kissinger provides the cultural context with which to consider interactions with the Chinese. In so doing, he also points out an important topic to keep in mind for American foreign relations: when we think about interactions with other governments, we use chess as the metaphor. "[chess] 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." In contrast, "China's most enduring game" is wei qi, approximately pronounced way chee. "The wei qi player seeks relative advantage. ... wei qi generates strategic flexibility." Dr. Kissinger relates this thinking to Sun Tzu's guidance on strategy: "A successful commander waits before charging headlong into battle. ... a doctrine less of territorial conquest than of psychological dominance..." Independent of political view, consider this way of thinking in the context of the continued US presence in both Iraq and Afganistan; the classroom study question might be, how would a wei qi -oriented policy differ -- or would it?
Another topic that is quite current and relevant to American foreign policy today is the tension between America's belief it has the moral imperative to tell other nations (and thus cultures) how to run their sovereign nations, and China's irreducible commitment, born of its history of interaction with British and other colonial interests in the past couple of hundred years, to not be bullied by other nations. As Dr. Kissinger paints it, an unfortunate event such as Tienamen Square (where in 1989 protesters were forcibly, i.e., violently removed, and more importantly, in full view of the cameras of the world press) is viewed by the Chinese government as only that: an unfortunate event. In the eyes of the US, it is viewed as a fundamental failure of human rights.
As a consequence, Americans tend to engage in social re-engineering diplomacy, trying to tie trade agreements to changes in China's internal structure. China's view is to simply reject meddling in their domestic affairs as meddling, and to point out that the US doesn't have its own house in order with regard to human rights.
So if you were a Chinese government official, you'd observe the unprovoked US invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan (especially given that the weapons of mass destruction story was not accurate) and translate Congress' hard line oratory as a literal risk of war. Consider Liu Mingfu's "China Dream: the great power thinking and strategic positioning of China in the post-American age," just briefly referenced by Dr Kissinger. Colonel Liu (as I understand it) suggests that war can be avoided if the US can stifle its hegemonic aspirations. One must rely on English language analysis of Liu's writing, see perhaps Cheng Li's "China in the Year 2020: three political scenarios," at the Brookings Institute, or Christopher Hughes' "In Case You Missed It: China dream," in The China Beat.)
The point is, to China, appearances matter, and events as simple as President Obama meeting with the Dali Lama can be viewed as attempted interference with China's domestic policy.
To put this into context, imagine a group in the US, proposing that a part of the country secede from the Union. How would President Lincoln have interpreted a cheerful meeting in Beijing between Jefferson Davis and the Chinese head of state? Yes, I know: the Dali Lama is the very image of pacifism, and recently retired from his role as the head of Tibet to focus entirely on his religious leadership role. But to the Chinese government, the parallels may be considerable.
My only complaint about this book is that the epilogue seemed too brief and too imprecise: Dr. Kissinger imagines a "Pacific community" (for example, see Lee Kwan Yew's writing on the toic) but doesn't clearly articulate the implications, including national self-interest values (to the US).
All in all though, a small complaint about an extraordinary work from one of the finest minds of American diplomacy in action.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I must confess that prior to reading On China, I knew little about the country other than popular culture stereotypes and a smattering of history. This has now changed and I feel more secure in my knowledge of China and the reasons they act illogically and irrational at times.
I do not believe that there is another country on the face of the earth where the totality of history must be so strongly considered when constructing diplomatic strategy. Kissinger provides this in-depth history and analysis that provides us a scaffold. In the past, too often we have stumbled around in the dark trying to keep one step ahead of their mindset. And too often, our Congress and leadership has presented simplistic and naïve solutions to the China problem without consideration of this deep history.
Throughout the book Kissinger expounds on the Chinese canon of strategic thought that includes subtlety, indirection and patience over sword rattling. The modern western world must understand these strategies to the nth degree or we will once again become vassal states of the "Middle Kingdom". Kissinger has provided this well written book as a guide and offers wise advice for the future. It greatly concerns me that we will not take it.
I hope you find this review / opinion helpful.
Michael L. Gooch, Author of Wingtips with Spurs.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
As a Chinese who have spent 21 years in China I would say this is a rather illuminating book. It reveals some historical facts and their influences I was not aware of. Also I am getting a better understanding of how Americans are looking at China and the foreign policies. Surely he seems to show too much respect for Mao's actions but his analysis about more recent leaders and events are really insightful. In a modern world filled with superficial media coverage it is really beneficial to read a book like this and reflect.