three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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missing imageVeteran statesman and Nobel Peace Prize–recipient Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations, has visited the People's Republic of China repeatedly and has played a crucial role in the relationship between China and the United States. His previous works include three memoirs and twelve books on foreign policy.

The Topic: Drawing on key events in both its ancient and more-recent past, Kissinger argues that the history and culture of China dictate its modern-day approach to the West. While American leaders tend to view the world as a chessboard to be conquered, their Chinese counterparts employ the strategies exercised in a complex game called wei qi--patience, flexibility, subtlety, and the cultivation of psychological rather than military gains--to achieve their diplomatic goals. Concluding that the respective mind-sets of East and West are fundamentally incompatible, Kissinger advises Americans to scale back their "missionary" zeal and advocate "co-evolution" rather than partnership, a state of affairs in which "both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict."
Penguin Press. 608 pages. $36. ISBN: 9781594202711

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The man who helped shape modern East-West relations presents an often unsettling, occasionally hopeful and always compelling accounting of what we're up against. ... In fascinating detail, Kissinger also attaches historical context to pivotal political and military events and draws on personal experience to place the reader at the table with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping." Alan P. Henry

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is a book that promotes Kissinger's own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Mao's ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of more recent American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese." Michiko Kakutani

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kissinger offers no convincing answer to how a dangerous U.S.-China rivalry can be averted." Minxin Pei

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"In On China, Henry Kissinger's disturbingly entertaining history-cum-memoir, the sweep of Chinese history is drained of moral lessons for Western man. It is instead a playbook packed with the wily machinations and tactics of a team of Kissinger manqués." Jonathan Liu

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[The] central theme of Kissinger's experience and counsel must be distilled from the sometimes meandering and largely familiar history he tells in On China. Only in its last pages does he discuss the essential question of future Sino-American relations: With no common enemy to bind them, what will keep the peace and promote collaboration and trust between the world's major powers?" Max Frankel

Critical Summary

While most critics were disinclined to take issue with Kissinger's arguments and conclusions, they nevertheless experienced mixed reactions to the book as a whole. Kissinger's extensive direct experience with China energizes his account of that country and its leaders, and he capably clarifies the cultural and philosophical differences that divide East from West. However, he is "chillingly cavalier" (New York Times) in his assessment of China's track record on human rights, and his current position as head of a consulting firm whose clients have business interests in China leaves his motives open to debate. Even so, readers with a genuine interest in the history and future of Sino-American relations will find a wealth of material to ponder in this "necessarily biased, but reasonably good-faith account" (Boston Globe).

Cited by the Critics

Nixon and Mao The Week That Changed the World | Margaret MacMillan (2007): In this surprisingly enthralling account of Chinese-American relations, Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan describes the momentous 1972 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Communist dictator Mao Zedong and the event's profound--and ongoing--effect on world history. (4 of 5 Stars May/June 2007)