May 30, 2011


Chinese Dreams: Why is Kissinger so reverential and nostalgic about China? (James Mann, May 30, 2011, Slate)

When Kissinger begins to revisit the era when he ran American China policy, it's striking how much his views and assumptions about Chinese leaders still seem bathed in the sense of awe that he acquired in his early trips to Beijing. Mao, Zhou Enlai, and successors like Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin are regularly depicted as wise and far-sighted. In Kissinger's version, they make few if any mistakes. Where others have argued that China erred during the Korean War or in China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam—in which the Chinese suffered astonishingly heavy casualties—or in the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, Kissinger demurs. He maintains the Vietnam incursion was still a strategic victory for China because it "succeeded in exposing the limits of the Soviet defense commitment to Hanoi." Kissinger can't bring himself to say he approved of what he called the Tiananmen "tragedy" of 1989, but he nevertheless urges understanding, as he did at the time, for Deng Xiaoping's decision to launch the violent crackdown. After all, Kissinger says, even peaceful protests can be a tactic aimed at weakening a government and demonstrating its impotence.

In the last chapters, retracing the years since he left office, Kissinger still tries to plant himself center-stage—and still pays tribute to Chinese leaders whom he portrays operating on a lofty plane well above the mundane concerns of ordinary politicians. As he compares visits to China today with those of four decades ago, he emphasizes the subtlety of the government's diplomacy, even though some of its recent actions concerning the South China Sea and even Norway (which gave Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize) seem more heavy-handed than subtle. "What has not changed significantly," he marvels, "is the meticulous preparation, the complexity of the argumentation, the capacity for long-range planning, and the subtle sense of the intangible."

Meanwhile, the Chinese people are determinedly civic-minded and public-spirited in Kissinger's portrait: "Among the many extraordinary aspects of the Chinese people," he writes, "is the manner in which many of them have retained a commitment to their society regardless of how much agony and injustice it may have inflicted on them." This is a romantic stereotype that dates back to the 1970s, when China was first opening up, and visitors would report that if they left a used razor blade in a hotel room, a hall attendant would rush down the hall to return it to them. It is out of touch with today's China, where private interests often overwhelm wider social loyalties. Not a few Chinese people fear for the safety of their food, health, or pensions precisely because of the society-be-damned greed of others who pollute, dilute, or cheat.

Recall that Mr. Kissinger's fellow Realist, Barrack Obama, wished he were Hu Jintao.

Posted by at May 30, 2011 8:43 AM

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