Tag Archives: Henry Kissinger

Two plausible views of Xi Jinping's rise prove we're clueless

Is Chinese Vice President and presumptive next President Xi Jinping a hard-liner who will return China to confrontations with the west? Or could it be that only a hard-liner could convince domestic nationalists that a more cooperative stance is beneficial to the CCP and the Chinese people?

Bruce Gilley argues Xi could end the reform era:

It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally. As his time in office nears, Xi is evincing signs of being a narrow nationalist on foreign policy and of having a penchant for police actions in dealing with domestic frictions. Hence, his rise could signify that the long struggle between Maoists and reformers that characterized China’s “reform era” is now ending.

Daniel Drezner proposes that the opposite might be true:

The phrase “only Nixon could go to China” refers to the idea that only someone who sounded as rabidly anti-communist as Richard Nixon in the past would be able to have the dometic political clout to meet with Mao Zedong and cut a deal with the People’s Republic of China.  Could it be that Xi is simply buttering up his base before taking power in order to make it easier to do business with the United States?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect even hardcore China-watchers don’t know either.

I’m with Drezner, not because I think Xi Jinping is a Chinese Nixon, but because I think these arguments are rooted in nothing but speculation. Sure, it’s fun to speculate, and we’d be delighted to know more. But the personality of a leader is hard to interpret.

If you’re from the United States, consider less “exotic” leaders such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The former was supposed to be an isolationist and started two big wars. The latter was supposed to bring the wars to an end but has escalated the conflict in Afghanistan while participating in a new intervention in Libya. There’s no sense in arguing about these events, but there’s also no way we could have known how these events would unfold.

Put another way, consider the “only Nixon could go to China” aphorism. It may be true, but then, we never would have known that when Vice President Nixon was assigned to make the most strident anti-communist statements by President Eisenhower. Nor did Americans know in 1968 that Nixon was such a complex and conflicted figure, an anti-Semite one moment and a great proponent of Henry Kissinger the next, a leader who desperately wanted the United States out of Vietnam but decided the best way to do so was to enter Cambodia.

My point is that we don’t get to predict these sorts of things, and that there is nothing special about “Pekinology” in this sense. Intuiting the future by interpreting public statements and speculative psychology of leaders is a fool’s errand. Our effort would be better spent working on concrete problems and preparing for the actual negotiations and dilemmas the United States and China are likely to face: environmental regulation, cybersecurity, sovereign debt and currencies, and the like.

Here’s hoping that future leaders in the United States as well as China are motivated to work together and able to overcome domestic resistance to cooperative outcomes.


George Bush Sr.'s Frustrated Tenure in China

One of George H. W. Bush’s less discussed jobs, lost among president of the United States, ambassador to the United Nations, and CIA director, was head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing during the Nixon administration. Bush’s China journal has recently been published, and it reveals frustration at being made irrelevant by direct contacts between Henry Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping.

James Mann, author most recently of The China Fantasy, has an article on the book in The New Republic. A couple of choice paragraphs.

When Bush landed in Beijing on October 21, 1974, its wind and dust reminded him of places he had encountered in the oil business. “It reminded me very much of West Texas and also of a trip to Kuwait,” he observed. He soon tried to establish high-level contact with Chinese leaders. He paid a call on Deng Xiaoping, then a vice premier under Mao Zedong. Bush’s initial impression of Deng, eventually the father of China’s economic reforms: “He was a very short man.” (For American one-liners about China, this ranks right up there with Richard Nixon’s verdict on the Great Wall: “It really is a great wall.”)

And then there was the question of human rights. “China is very vulnerable on human rights, just as the Soviet Union was,” Bush thought. “Some day sure as can be Congress will turn its attention to these aspects of the Chinese policy. … [T]his euphoric analysis of this society as an open society, as a free society, a soft or gentle society, is simply wrong.” All in all, Bush concluded, China was getting more out of its relationship with the United States than the United States was getting from China. “They need us, actually more than we need them in my judgment,” he decided. “This is the consensus of the international community incidentally.”

Nixon in China Part One: Keeping Japan in Line

This is the first of two posts in which I will outline some historical context on U.S.–China–Japan relations surrounding Nixon’s 1972 China visit. This material is all drawn from Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao, which I recently finished reading. (Page citations are included.) The book was full of engaging reconstructions of the diplomatic maneuvers and rhetorical subtleties of the visit and the extensive preparations. Its only weakness is the sometimes elementary background information that is interspersed throughout.

Nixon, in conversations with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai,* tried to make the case that U.S. involvement in Asia was good for China. Its ability to keep Japan in check was a primary reason, along with balancing India and of course the Soviet Union. If the United States withdrew from providing Japan with security, he argued, Japan may rearm, which would be disagreeable to China and the rest of Asia. He said the United States could keep Japan under control.

“But,” Nixon warned Zhou solemnly, “if the U.S. is gone from Asia, gone from Japan, our protests, no matter how loud, would be like—to use the Prime Minister [Zhou]’s phrase—firing an empty cannon; we would have no rallying effect because fifteen thousand miles away is just too far to be heard.”

In response, Zhou paid little attention to the suggestion that having American troops in Asia helped China. Indeed, he pointed out, their presence in Indochina was only helping the Soviets increase their influence there. (236)

Meanwhile, Zhou had brought up the suffering Japan had caused China in the past with Kissinger frequently in the 1971 talks leading up to Nixon’s visit. Noting Japan’s developing market and appetite for raw materials and markets abroad, Zhou told Nixon, “Expanding in such a great way as they are towards foreign lands, the inevitable result will be military expansion.” (238) Quoting directly from MacMillan:

The Americans, Zhou charged, had been careless in helping Japan rebuild after the Second World War: “You helped Japan fatten herself, and now she is a very heavy burden on you.” It had also been a mistake to receive the Japanese emperor in the Unite States; as Zhou had said earlier to Kissinger, he remained the basis on which a renewed Japanese militarism could be built. … Although the Chinese wanted the United States to reduce its forces in Asia, Zhou in his talks with Kissinger and now with Nixon repeated expressed concern that Japan would move its troops into countries such as Taiwan and South Korea to fill the vacuum. (238–9)

I may just have missed it, but the emperor seems to have fallen out of the debate over Japanese rearmament these days. Much of the rest of the sentiments seem to resonate quite a bit 35 years down the line.

*I use the Pinyin spelling. Macmillan uses Wade-Giles. I have changed her renderings for my style.

Next time: Japan’s reactions to the Nixon visit.

James McGregor on How the U.S. Misunderstands China

“After two decades of on-the-ground experience investing billions of dollars and employing millions of people in China, the U.S. business community is far ahead of politicians in understanding the Chinese government and people,” writes James McGregor in a column someone posted on Danwei. It’s a bit of a polemic, and it claims knowledge of what a monolithic “they” (Chinese) think, but two anecdotes of U.S. media and political misunderstanding of China are worth repeating.

From the political side, Henry Kissinger, who is said to be generally respected in China because he has respected China since the Nixon years, seems to believe in the unilinear ascent of all countries toward democracy. McGregor writes:

At a lunch I hosted to bring Henry Kissinger together with young Chinese entrepreneurs, he looked around the table and asked: “Now that we have such impressive economic progress in China when and how do you envision democracy developing?” They looked at him, aghast. Finally, one answered for the group: “Do we want to destroy all the progress China has made?”

To the extent that Kissinger is still an influential figure in Washington, this doesn’t bode well for U.S. understanding of China. It puts China in a category with all non-democratic states and seems to gloss over the subtleties that Kissinger most likely understands—this in favor of a democracy-without-understanding principle that shares roots with the Bush administration’s neo-conservatism.

The other anecdote is perhaps unsurprising for people who know how media organizations work, but it’s consistently aggravating for people who chase truth outside of three-minute segments. He writes:

During a book tour that took me to many American broadcast outlets in the past year the producers invariably asked: “Are you our anti-China or our pro-China guest?” They were baffled when I answered that I was the “let’s-try-to-understand-China guest.” Our TV screens may be in color, but discussions of China are exclusively in black and white.