China's modern history has been shaped by improbable occurrences. Only a reckless gambler would have wagered in 1929 that the Communist Party, then a ragtag organization on the verge of extinction, would rule the nation in 1949. In 1952, as the Korean War raged and Chinese children watched plays casting Uncle Sam as an arch villain, it seemed unimaginable that just two decades later Chairman Mao would be greeting an American President in Beijing. Similarly, who thought back in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping went to America and spoke of his country's need to modernize, that China's economy would surpass Japan's by 2010?
I was reminded of just how long the list of China's prediction-defying developments is when I visited a used-book store on the same day that I began reading Henry Kissinger's On China. My prize purchase at the store was Mao Tse-tung: Emperor of the Blue Ants, a 1963 work by George Paloczi-Horvath. By 2000, Paloczi-Horvath believed, China would have 2 billion inhabitants and be in thrall to Mao's legacy. In fact, at the millennium's turn, China had closer to 1 billion inhabitants and seemed more spellbound by capitalism than any ideology of Mao's.
The value of Kissinger's book lies in the insider perspective it offers on many of these unexpected developments. There are no smoking-gun revelations in his account of Ping-Pong diplomacy and Nixon's historic meeting with Mao. He also goes over familiar ground when it comes to the standoffs and reconciliations that have defined and refined the relationship between Washington and Beijing ever since. But there is something special about having the story told by someone present through all of it. Kissinger's longevity makes him unique. No one else has briefed (and been briefed by) each post-Nixon U.S. Administration or chatted with so many Chinese leaders of the Mao era or after.
At the same time, it's clear that brevity is not among Kissinger's gifts. On China could have been a slim, appealing diplomatic memoir. Instead, we get a 500-plus-page behemoth within which that engaging thinner one struggles to be read. Bloating the work are efforts by Kissinger to get us to think of him as a major geopolitical thinker proved right by history. It's easy to accept this notion vis-à-vis his admirable part in Ping-Pong diplomacy. But given his role in misguided U.S. military endeavors in Vietnam and Cambodia, many readers, myself included, will chafe at the vision of him as an all-seeing sage. Even with China, Kissinger can be taken to task for working far too assiduously to soften global censure of Deng a longtime "friend" directly responsible for 1989's June 4 crackdown.
On China has many passages that are so misleading or simplistic they resemble something from the pages of that dated gem I picked up at the used-book store. Kissinger reduces all "Chinese tradition" to an enduring, unchanging Confucianism and overlooks the diversity of China's population (the Chinese "people" are as homogeneous a mass here as the armies of Mao-suit-wearing "blue ants" in Paloczi-Horvath's book). The historic continuity of China's governance and diplomacy is also overstated.
Kissinger expresses his regard for the "subtlety" of the Chinese people. He also refers admiringly to the importance of "subtle" moves on the part of all key players in making the Ping-Pong diplomatic breakthrough possible. It is too bad, then, that when it comes to Chinese history and culture, On China is not a subtler book.
Wasserstrom's latest book is China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know