On China | Henry Kissinger

Summary of: On China
By: Henry Kissinger


Embark on a journey through the depths of Chinese history and its impact on modern China’s political and strategic thinking in Henry Kissinger’s ‘On China’. This book summary unravels the immense influence of China’s long history on the nation’s psyche, from ancient mythology and enduring cultural beliefs to the rise and transformations of its remarkable leaders. Delve into the teachings of Confucius, explore the intricacies of Chinese foreign policy, and take a peek into China’s most remarkable political minds as they maneuver through a global landscape rife with tension. Along this fascinating voyage, learn how ancient Chinese strategies are still relevant today and grasp the significance of harmony, subtlety, and strategic patience.

The Continuity of China’s History

China’s history shapes its thinking today as it continues to see itself as the “Middle Kingdom,” an eternal existence at the center of the universe. Confucian philosophy, centered on order, harmony and compassionate rule, has underpinned Chinese governance. For much of its history, China has been wealthy, powerful, and self-sufficient, with a vast bureaucracy that prioritizes learning, honesty, and strength of character. China’s indifference to foreign conquests led it to dismantle its navy just as the West began to expand internationally, and before the Industrial Revolution, it had the world’s highest GDP. This sense of continuity imbues the actions of modern Chinese leaders, who take a long-term view of the world and their role in it.

China’s Diplomatic Strategy

China’s foreign policy for centuries has followed the idea that any state wanting to initiate diplomatic relations with them had to accept China’s language, political institutions, and culture. They relied on protracted diplomatic campaigns based on subtlety, patience, and indirection to give them long-term advantages. Sun Tzu’s Art of War emphasizes psychological and strategic military victory through the “avoidance of direct conflict.” This strategy is deployed in China’s civil war and Vietnam’s wars. China’s distinctive geopolitical style is evident in wei qi, a contest of “strategic encirclement,” which focuses on “strategic flexibility” in contrast to the Western game of chess, which emphasizes “single-mindedness.”

China’s Encounter with Western Powers

Western pressure and Chinese reluctance meet in unequal terms, leading to opening their door to foreign interests.

In the late 18th century, Western forces were keen on developing diplomatic relations with China, hoping to gain access to the country’s potentials for trading. However, China’s Emperor allowed only Russia to open an embassy in Beijing, thereby limiting the trading opportunities for Western powers. This move caused Britain to feel aggrieved and German to send Lord George Macartney to China to bargain for special trading rights. However, he failed as he refused to perform the traditional kowtow ritual, and the Chinese thought of him as disrespectful.

As the 19th century approached, the Opium War left a stain on Western-Chinese relations and resulted in Great Britain controlling Hong Kong and having five port cities opened up to trading. Later, the US and France demanded similar treaties and, as a response, China thought of “self-strengthening” by developing an armament industry and acquiring scientific innovations and new technologies. It delayed the inevitable foreign interests, but it could not prevent them from taking over China eventually.

China’s experience with Western powers has demonstrated the significance of strategy and diplomacy. While the West had primarily focused on employing technical advancements to achieve progress, China’s shrewd practice and strategy served as a lesson on how to be a wise practitioner of Realpolitik.

China’s Turbulent Path to Modernity

Foreign invasions, civil wars, and political strife marked China’s journey to modernity in the early 20th century. In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion was quashed by an international expeditionary force, but this spelled the end of Chinese dynastic rule. Democratic and military factions, along with the Chinese Communist Party, struggled for control throughout the 1920s. The mid-1940s saw a civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, with the latter emerging victorious and establishing the People’s Republic of China. The country’s pathway to modernity was marked by ideological changes and strategic battles based on wei qi principles.

Mao Zedong: The Paradoxical Revolutionary

Mao Zedong revolutionized China by destroying traditional Confucian values to build a militaristic worker’s society based on constant struggle, elevating and purging leaders to keep revolution and societal transformation going. He launched campaigns inviting public criticism, only to penalize participants and institutionalized his ‘disequilibrium’ vision through the Great Leap Forward creating one of modern history’s worst famines. The Cultural Revolution, aimed to eliminate elitist thinking, led to destruction and death. Despite this, he believed in China’s exceptionalism and the resilience of its people. Mao’s successful “long-term goals” from a “position of relative weakness” transformed a near-feudal China into an independent nuclear superpower, capable of standing up to the US and the Soviet Union. He demonstrated a psychological advantage through a first-strike capability, positioning China as a military power and revolution center in Asia, shifting from geopolitical tension to a “free-agent of the Cold War.” Mao’s inspirations came from China’s ancient texts and legendary leaders, and though a paradoxical revolutionary, he paved the path for China’s future emergence as an economic and technological superpower.

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