On China


I haven’t read Dr. Henry J. Kissinger’s latest book, On China. But as someone who for most of his adult life has lived in China’s shadow, including reading, thinking, exchanging ideas with students of that civilization, I was interested. But now I leave evaluating the work to scholars, as some have already done http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/message-dr-k_573239.html
That’s come about because I heard the good doctor recently laying out a strategy for “accommodation” with China. One could excuse the cacophony of bromides — many fallacious — Dr. Kissinger trotted out in this wide-ranging NPR interview. http://onpoint.wbur.org/2011/05/12/kissinger-on-china Time was short, the interlocutor unskilled, and the subject matter vast.
But here is the crux of what Dr. Kissinger had to say:
“…through thousands of years of Chinese history, I know no examplewhere outside pressures about the domestic structure of China produced domestic changes in, in [cq] China. …”
This is stultifying, a misconception so wrong it puts into question any analysis Dr. Kissinger might otherwise make. In fact, although obviously a most original civilization, China nevertheless – like all other societies – has been impacted, often in revolutionary fashion, by outside forces. Space prohibits even an outline of such convoluted episodes. But let me cite three chronologically dispersed examples:

·        In the first century of the Common Era, Indian Buddhism entered China. It not only upended Chinese metaphysics but introduced such everyday artifacts as bridges, tea and the chair. [The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, John Kieschnick, Princeton University Press, 2003]

·        As a result of a humiliating defeat by the British in the First Opium War [1839-42], Taiping, a heterogeneous Christian sect, led two decades of bloody revolt. Before it was subdued [by China’s “alien” imperial rulers, the Manchu, with the help of foreign military] state levies shifted from land to trade and military power from central armies to regional warlords. Slavery, polygamy and foot-binding were banned if not eliminated. Most importantly, the Taping reaction to foreign intervention ended China’s isolation.

·        In 1949, after decades of Japanese invasion, the Chinese Communists established a unified government modeled on the USSR to be massively aided for almost two decades by Moscow. While conventional wisdom now holds the Chinese Communists have shed all but the rhetorical trappings of Marxist-Leninism, its economy remains largely in government hands, a complete break with China’s centuries of market economics [That concept, ironically, was passed to Europeans as laissez-faire by late 16th century European Jesuits in Beijing!]

·        In the first century of the Common Era, Indian Buddhism entered China. It not only upended Chinese metaphysics but introduced such everyday artifacts as bridges, tea and the chair. [The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, John Kieschnick, Princeton University Press, 2003]

·        As a result of a humiliating defeat by the British in the First Opium War [1839-42], Taiping, a heterogeneous Christian sect, led two decades of bloody revolt. Before it was subdued [by China’s “alien” imperial rulers, the Manchu, with the help of foreign military] state levies shifted from land to trade and military power from central armies to regional warlords. Slavery, polygamy and foot-binding were banned if not eliminated. Most importantly, the Taping reaction to foreign intervention ended China’s isolation.

·        In 1949, after decades of Japanese invasion, the Chinese Communists established a unified government modeled on the USSR to be massively aided for almost two decades by Moscow. While conventional wisdom now holds the Chinese Communists have shed all but the rhetorical trappings of Marxist-Leninism, its economy remains largely in government hands, a complete break with China’s centuries of market economics [That concept, ironically, was passed to Europeans as laissez-faire by late 16th century European Jesuits in Beijing!]

Dr. Kissinger’s formulation is no blooper.
It underpins his proposed strategy for dealing with Beijing’s growing power. It equates to his 1970s call for “détente” in The Cold War. That was to be an acceptance of Soviet power for a hoped for extended period of relaxed tension. That strategy proved precarious until Moscow imploded in 1990 — in no small part as a result of confrontation tactics by Pres. Ronald Reagan.
Historical analogies are misleading and often dangerous but marginally useful. China today does constitute a somewhat similar problem. While no sane person in the West and Japan advocates military engagement, not to recognize American interests are jeopardized by an increasingly powerful hostile China is to ignore reality.
That indeed, has been until now Washington’s modus operandi:
·        The U.S. has made great efforts to bring China into the highest world councils with Beijing responding by courting pariah regimes threatening peace and stability.
·        Washington has pursued free trade and investment with China while Beijing responds with unfair trade practices, protection for state corporations and markets, and financial manipulation.
·        Washington has sought open exchange of military information and lent security for an expanding China trade, but Beijing rejects transparency and secretly pursues a rapid military buildup against an unidentified enemy.
·        These American policies have strengthened the power and influence of a highly vulnerable Chinese regime, one facing great economic ambiguities and unpredictable political challenges.
Washington is now reexamining how to restrain what could well be a new aggressive formidable power. It must not repeat the long prelude to World War II when East Asia storm signals were largely ignored – incidentally, then too involving a burgeoning commercial relationship [with Japan].
That requires extensive, intensive and knowledgeable debate about Beijing’s capacities and goals — and America’s abilities to meet them
Dr. Kissinger contributes little to this gargantuan undertaking.
sws-06-10-11

2 responses to “On China

  1. I don’t like many aspects of China’s government. But you are just so wrong here.

    First, who is more credible? A man with a a diplomatic track record like that of Kissinger? Or yet another babbling know-it-all journalist? Let me clear something up for you: Kissinger meant outside pressure as direct pressure design to cause a change in the domestic social structure of China. None of your examples you cited were outside pressure specifically aimed to change China’s domestic structure.

    1. Buddhism was not imposed on China by force. It was not design to change domestic structure of China. In fact, Chinese philisophy incorporated buddhism and made it “Chinese”.
    2. Polygamy and footbinding wasn’t eliminated until well into the early 20th century, after the collaspe of the Qing dynasty. It was the Chinese themselves who later ban it, not any specific foreign “pressure”.
    3. Qing reforms did not proceed in a straightline. It was constrained by highly conservative forces. It was only a revolution undertaken by Chinese (not foreign forces) that led to it’s overthrow. These were in response to Westen imperialism and aggression. The western powers had no desires to “change” the domestic structure of China, they were there to exploit it for their own advantage. The only real change were caused by the Chinese reaction to such exploitation.
    4. Actually 2/3 of China’s GDP is private. That is a majority. You can say that most important firms are still state-controlled, but not for the whole economy. Please get your facts right.

    This is opposed to outside pressure design to create a specific outcome (i.e, introduce democracy, free floating of the yuan) which is far less effective. So Kissinger is right on that point.

    And next time, do read Kissinger’s book before making your statements. Then you won’t sound so stupid.

    Ye Olde Crabb sez:

    “xxxThe western powers had no desires to ‘change’ the domestic structure of China, they were there to exploit it for their own advantage. xxx”

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