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On China

Henry Kissinger

Allen Lane, London 2011

Pages: 586 Rs. 899

Diplomatic Courtesy? Oddly sentimental portrait of Mao

Henry Kissinger dealt with China at the height of the Cold War. Dilip D’Souza finds he still harbours an abiding interest in the nation, its history, and its most storied Chairman

DILIP D'SOUZA  17th Jul 2011

Chairman Mao (left) is elated upon meeting Henry Kissinger

ou know what I've always wondered? What happens when the Prime Ministers — or even just other senior officials — of countries meet? We might read in the papers that one told the other to rein in terror, or that they had "frank and cordial" talks, or some other diplomatic verbiage. But does it really, actually, happen that one looks the other in the eye and says "You better rein in terror!" Or that they are truly cordial despite issues that bedevil their countries' relationship?

Kissinger's book has plenty to recommend it, and one thing it does is offer some hint of answers to those questions. Reading it, I started getting a sense of how diplomatic exchanges go, the nuances here, the meaning extracted there. Never does unpleasant stuff get said out loud, but neither is it swept under the carpet. Every word said has meaning. One 1991 statement by a Chinese leader that Kissinger quotes is instructive. It's just a casual mention of China's population, but Kissinger calls it "somewhat threatening". Why? Maybe you need to have been there.

Diplomatic arcana apart, what's most fascinating about On China is what Kissinger wrote the book for: to explain the Chinese way of thinking to his readers. Patience, but decisiveness when needed; reach out to the world, but without compromising the idea of a Chinese culture: such are the themes China holds dear. Much of this has roots in the Chinese perception of themselves through history, which in effect certified them as a chosen people and the rest of humanity as "barbarians".

No kidding. Here's a line from Wei Yuan, a mid-19th Century Chinese diplomat, to his Government: "Today the British barbarians ... have occupied Hongkong and accumulated a great deal of wealth as well as a proud face among the other barbarians." They're everywhere, those barbarians. So elsewhere, the Chinese search for ways to play off one set of barbarians against another, calculating that this, rather than going to war, is the way to secure Chinese frontiers. In Kissinger's telling, it is only in relatively modern times that Chinese leaders and diplomats have stopped seeing the world as they did for much of their history — divided into Chinese and barbarians.

India doesn't figure much in the book, apart of course from the passage that interests us all in this country: about our 1962 war with China. Every conflict is seen differently by the different sides, no doubt, and this one is no exception. This is why it's always interesting to learn the other side's point of view, to understand how it challenges your own. In this case, it is clearly China's perception (and probably Kissinger's) that India's claims on the territories in dispute are "of relatively recent vintage", as opposed to China's historical claims. It was the British who, in an effort to contain Russian ambitions, drew what came to be called the McMahon Line between the two countries, thus designating substantial tracts of land Indian, not Chinese. But China never recognized the validity of the Line and therefore India's hold on that land, although — and this is crucial — China "initially made no overt attempt to contest" that validity.

Especially, there’s Mao. Going against the grain of everything I have assumed about him, I was strangely drawn to Kissinger’s portrait. He was fiercely Chinese. A ruthless, calculating, take-no-prisoners man. a man of humour, vision and insight

Starting in 1961, Indian forces began patrolling the border "as far as possible from [India's] present position" (words from what Kissinger calls "the official Indian history of the war"). In response, Mao made a speech in October 1962 in which he said: "Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy emphasizes reciprocity."

Friendly and courteous, Mao was determined to teach the Indians a telling lesson. Chinese forces launched a "massive assault" on two fronts, more or less reached the McMahon Line, and then withdrew to where they started from. There the two Asian giants have let the border dispute lie, ever since: unresolved, but at least not fought over again.

Three paragraphs is necessarily a precis of what is already, in Kissinger's book, a precis of a brief and brutal war. But half a century later, for all but the most blindly xenophobic of Indians, it's worth considering this history from every angle possible, even ones that we find hard to swallow. It teaches useful things about the thinking of our northern neighbours. That's the worth of this book.

But especially, there's Mao. Going against the grain of everything I have assumed about him, I was strangely drawn to Kissinger's portrait. He was fiercely Chinese, yet being so he managed to drag his countrymen into misery and extreme hardship. A ruthless, calculating, take-no-prisoners man. And yet, and yet ... he was also a man of humour, vision and insight, with a knack of getting into and under adversaries' skins. Kissinger has a side-splitting account of one of Mao's meetings with Nikita Khrushchev, conducted in a swimming pool precisely because Khrushchev could not swim and had to flounder about wearing "water wings". (The image itself is delicious). "It was," moaned the Soviet leader later, "Mao's way of putting himself in an advantageous position."

A remarkable man, Mao. Among much else, this remarkable book is a window into his mind and thinking. Friendly and courteous, of course.

 
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