On China | Henry Kissinger

Summary of: On China
By: Henry Kissinger


Delve into the rich, captivating world of ‘On China’ by Henry Kissinger, where you’ll journey through thousands of years of Chinese history, mythology, and cultural evolution. This insightful book provides the backdrop to understand China’s unique position as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and emphasizes the importance of Confucian thinking in shaping Chinese self-perception. Discover how China has navigated through international politics as it faced European powers, endured the Opium War, and experienced monumental internal conflicts, such as the Boxer Rebellion and the civil war. Gain an understanding of China’s strategic doctrine, which relies on long-term advantages achieved through diplomacy and subtle maneuvering in contrast to aggressive, short-term tactics.

The Enduring Legacy of China’s Ancient Civilization

China’s rich history that traces back to the third century BC continues to influence its current thinking. Confucian philosophy, emphasizing order, harmony, compassionate rule, and disdain for power, was adopted by the ancient bureaucracy. Even Chinese mythology asserts the eternal existence of the “Middle Kingdom” at the center of the universe. The country’s written language that dates back to 2000 BC preserves its literature and historical figures’ legacies. The leaders of modern China inherit the sense of continuity of their history and adopt long-term views. Throughout its history, China has been wealthy, self-sufficient, and powerful, with the world’s most advanced navy in the 1400s. Rather than pursuing foreign conquests, China focused on commercial opportunities before dismantling its fleet. Before the Industrial Revolution, China generated over 30% of global GDP in 1820, greater than the combined GDPs of Europe and the US. The notion that China was unique, not just among “great civilizations” but civilization itself, prevailed among the Chinese elites.

The Art of Diplomacy in Chinese Strategy

China’s foreign policy relies on subtlety and protracted diplomatic campaigns that offer long-term benefits. Instead of employing short-term aggressive policies, the Chinese embrace the idea of surrounding their opponent’s game pieces with their own like strategic encirclement in Wei qi, a game similar to chess. Sun Tzu’s Art of War also emphasizes the importance of psychological and strategic military victory through the avoidance of direct conflict, a strategy that Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh deployed in China’s civil war and Vietnam’s wars. For centuries, China’s foreign policy has been based on the principles of making contact with other nations only on its terms, accepting its language, political institutions, and culture. The Chinese Emperors believed in not trying to influence countries far from China. China’s unique approach to foreign policy focuses on strategic flexibility, subtlety, patience, and indirection to achieve long-term advantages, making it one of the most enduring games in the world.

Western Powers and the Chinese Dragon

In the late 18th century, Western countries sought diplomatic relations with China to access its vast wealth, but China only allowed Russia an embassy in Beijing. British attempts failed, and resentment grew over limited commercial access. By the mid-19th century, the Opium War marked Western encroachment, and Britain forced China to cede control of Hong Kong and permit trade access to five port cities. The US and France soon negotiated similar treaties. Chinese advisers called for “self-strengthening,” but their strategy of pitting “barbarian against barbarian” only delayed inevitable foreign interests. The Chinese have been “shrewd practitioners of Realpolitik,” with a strategy and diplomacy distinct from the West. Despite Britain’s technological advancements, China’s GDP was still seven times that of Great Britain’s.

China’s Turbulent 20th Century

In the early 1900s, a multi-national force halted China’s rebellion, triggering the end of their dynastic rule. The Chinese Communist Party, Nationalist, and military factions battled for control until Chiang Kai-shek assumed power. In the mid-1940s, civil war broke out between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Nationalist forces, leading to their retreat on Taiwan. The Communists then established the People’s Republic of China, shaping a new ideology from the ashes of a turbulent century. Chinese leaders’ historic perspective spurred their unique outlook and decision-making.

Mao Zedong’s China

Mao Zedong defied traditional Chinese concepts of harmony and sought to create a militaristic worker’s society through constant revolution. Mao’s leadership led to the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, resulting in death and destruction. However, he believed in China’s exceptionalism and people’s resilience. Despite starting from a position of relative weakness, Mao transformed China into a nuclear superpower capable of standing up to the US and Soviet Union by pitting barbarian against barbarian. Mao’s strategy was to develop a psychological advantage that could set the stage for political maneuvering. His leadership left a controversial legacy in Chinese history.

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