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On China

Henry Kissinger and the mysteries of China.

On China
Henry Kissinger
Allen Lane, 608pp, £30

There were two great parades in Beijing each year, on 1 May and 1 October, the first civilian, the second basically military. After several hours of processions, the immense crowd gathered in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The Chairman, leaving his position above the huge portrait of himself, moved slowly, first to the western then to the eastern end of the platform high above the crowds, parading himself before the people. Their welcome was thunderous and the symbolism clear. The Son of Heaven, latest in a line of emperors stretching back over many centuries, was presenting himself to the millions of Chinese over whom he ruled.

That much was clear to us, the handful of foreign diplomats who had been summoned to bear witness and bring our tribute to the ruler of the Middle Kingdom situated at the centre of the world. That much was apparent to the most ignorant of us - even to Nikita Khrushchev, standing stout and grey-suited beside the members of the Politburo; clear with a different resonance to the young Dalai Lama, still a few years away from his flight to India and living then as an exile in Beijing. Few of us, however, had grasped the full implications of what we were watching.

Henry Kissinger comes close to unlocking the door and revealing the Chinese mystery. The best passages of his new book are pedagogical. He tells again the story of his expeditions in China, of the Nixon visit and of all that has happened since. But he is at his best as a teacher, instructing us in the reality of what we watched on those mornings long ago.

The square would be full of soldiers, and yet the philosophy of China was not militarist - the Chinese knew too much history. To sing "Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set" would have been meaningless. Their bounds could go no wider, as they already encompassed the whole earth. From time to time the Chinese dynasty would change and the mandate of heaven would pass to other lands. The new rulers might be Mongol, or Manchu, or from other distant places. They would have their hour, but it would pass.

Gradually they would be embraced and brought within the culture of China, accepting the rules and habits of the vast nation that they had conquered. For China was more than a nation; as one American scholar wrote, it remained "a civilisation pretending to be a nation state". (True, across the sea lived a less numerous people with their own emperor and habits, but until the 19th century the Japanese, though stubborn and wilful, offered nothing comparable to the greatness of China.)

From the west came occasional barbarians, led by the British, who prided themselves on their own paltry inventions; but on examining Lord Macartney's wares in 1793, his hosts remained convinced that they were mere toys and that the most valuable possessions and intellectual achievements were to be found within China. When the western toys became cannon and battered down the walls of Canton and Peking, the lesson was modified. It would be necessary after all to copy the barbarians - but the fundamentals had not changed. China remained and would always be the centre of the world. Modern Chinese diplomats may pretend otherwise for tactical reasons, but they do not in their hearts question this truth.

This Chinese self-confidence has a moral basis. Confucius taught the people how to behave towards one's neighbour, whether superior or inferior, how to act with rational restraint, how to carry out the necessary rituals in honour of heaven and one's ancestors. It was not necessary or possible to control countries which, by misfortune, were a long way from China. The Chinese were to concentrate on controlling the barbarians lurking on their doorstep.

The rules of war were laid down by Sun Tzu. The successful warrior did not aim to win a total victory. He studied psychology; he aimed at strategic encirclement and achieving a relative advantage. The aim of a game of chess was to paralyse and defeat the opponent. The Chinese counterpart game wei qi starts with an empty board with 180 pieces at the disposal of each player. The player places them so as to build up a position of relative strength while working to encircle and capture the pieces of his opponent. Prudence is the great military virtue and war often includes subterfuge:

Feign inability;
When you are deploying troops,
Appear not to be.
When near, appear far,
When far, appear near.

Having given us his summary of Chinese political philosophy, Kissinger launches into a spirited attempt to fit Mao Zedong's main decisions on foreign policy into this framework. He analyses Mao's defence of nuclear power in a speech made in Moscow in 1957: "We should not be afraid of atomic bombs and missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out - conventional or thermonuclear, we will win . . . We may lose more than 300 million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass and we will get to work producing more babies than ever before."

Khrushchev was worried by this speech. The Czech Communist leader complained that Mao was pronouncing a death sentence on 12 million Czechs. In fact, Mao was deliberately provoking the Russians. He had decided to follow the ancient Chinese practice of setting one barbarian to fight another. He provoked a crisis with Washington by bombarding the islands off the coast of Taiwan. If this pushed the world to the brink of war, the Russians would have to choose between a policy of peaceful coexistence with the US and their alliance with China.

The outcome was convoluted. The Americans in fact wanted Chiang Kai-shek to withdraw from the islands. This would not have suited the Communists, who signalled to Chiang that they were not in earnest by shelling the islands only on odd days. This bizarre equilibrium between the two Chinas baffled both the Russians and the Americans.

Kissinger applies the same analytical process to Mao's other big decisions, to intervene in the Korean war in 1950, to invade India in 1962 and to handle the twists and turns of the Taiwan problem. The results are not always convincing. So keen is he to underline the logic and subtlety of Mao, Zhou Enlai and then Deng Xiaoping that he leaves out the effect of unforeseen events and Chinese miscalculation. Also lacking is any sense of indignation. Kissinger admits the enormity of Mao's later mistakes - for example, mobilising the Cultural Revolution to dislocate the system that he had created. His account of that upheaval is very similar to the one Mao made to Ted Heath during the latter's visit in May 1974: left to themselves, the Chinese would forget the revolution and begin exploiting each other all over again. Only by breaking the mould could he preserve the revolution.
Kissinger is right to be proud of his own part in transforming relations between China and the US, but he leaves the future somewhat in the air. Each side, he stresses, has to remember the history of the other. "The mood of the moment is less relevant than the ability to develop a pattern of action capable of securing inevitable changes of circumstance." Quite so. We must leave it at that while we wait for his next book, which surely must be On America.

Douglas Hurd served as foreign secretary from 1989-95 and is a Conservative peer

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0