I HAVE been riveted to a fascinating account of China’s evolution as a modern power by an author who has had a ringside view of the country’s crucial days in the transformative journey from its near mythical past. Henry Kissinger’s new book, On China, reads like a novel with parallel narratives.
It is at once the story of the country’s Confucian past, its self-absorbed cultural grandeur rooted in the Sino-centric worldview of the Middle Kingdom, and how it all begins to unravel painfully, even tragically, before the assault by ‘distant barbarians’ from the West. That’s how the Chinese still describe their tryst with colonialism. Kissinger’s view of China’s perception of itself is laced with unmasked admiration, bordering on obeisance, of a brilliant but not always idyllic dream, one which was destined to be jolted in its rude appointment with history.
The heady triumph and frequently bloody tribulations of Mao Zedong’s ‘continuous revolution’ forms the parallel track of the book. Mao’s rise as a peerless leader is interspersed with his jostling between a quaintly Chinese communist vision and an enigmatic relationship with the country’s innately Confucian past — and its continued shadow on the present, though Mao would always deny it.
Kissinger captures the flavour of China’s strife and its yearnings with an admixture of sensitivity and indulgence. This, even as he was perceived by the more orthodox of his interlocutors as an archetypal advocate of global capitalism, and its inevitable aggressions.
The author’s full-throated tribute to his elegant and genial host Zhou Enlai, who set aside unequal rank and protocol, may have eventually become a factor in the latter’s fall from grace in Mao’s last years. The passages read like a heartbreaking denouement, inevitable as in any searing tragedy.
Criticism of Zhou by the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s actress wife Jiang Qing, climaxed in December 1973 when the Politburo censured him for heralding the controversial point of departure with the United States.
“Generally speaking, (Zhou) forgot about the principle of preventing ‘rightism’ while allying (with the United States). This is mainly because (he) forgot the Chairman’s instructions. (He) over-estimated the power of the enemy and devaluated the power of the people.”
An essential thread in its transition from Confucianism to communism, as revealed by Kissinger, is China’s unshakable belief in its cultural invincibility. When Khrushchev, whom he disliked as much as he loathed Stalin, offered to build submarines for China in return for naval bases in its warm water ports, Mao ticked him off. Everyone should keep their armies within their national boundaries, the Soviet leader was told.
Kissinger finds frequent occasions for a chuckle in his storytelling though much of the humour flows from the demeanour of his awe-inspiring, acerbic protagonists. For example, when he proclaimed that ‘war was war’ during a trip to Moscow, Mao Zedong was referring obliquely, as Chinese are wont to do, to his country’s readiness to be bombed, including with nuclear weapons, by his Soviet hosts who he didn’t trust at all. China could lose several million people, but it would still have enough survivors to “make babies” fairly quickly. As was expected, the prospect frightened the assembled East Bloc comrades, with one of them pleading whether Mao had thought of countries that had a population of only a few million.
If this was bluster one could never tell, but Kissinger believes the posture could have been part of a strategic projection in which China never wished to be perceived as craving for foreign support — not even from the United States, which it in all probability used to play “barbarians against barbarians”. The subsequent Soviet-American détente was a setback to China, and possibly led to Zhou’s fall.
When the time came to probe an end to their hostilities over Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, in that order, neither the Americans nor the Chinese were prepared to be seen making the first move. Gradually their diplomats began to “exchange words”, or just about. Given the delicate assertion of aloofness, when President Nixon accepted the idea of rapprochement with Beijing the setting was a Yugolsav fashion show in the Polish capital. “The Chinese diplomats in attendance, who were without instructions, fled the scene.”
The Americans, determined to carry out their instructions, followed the Chinese. When the desperate Chinese diplomats speeded up, the Americans started running after them, shouting in Polish: “We are from the American embassy. We want to meet your ambassador…President Nixon wanted to resume his talks with the Chinese.”
Eventually, Pakistan played a key role in the Nixon-Zhou summit. The planning for Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing to probe the feasibility was foolproof. His team set off to Beijing via Saigon, Bangkok, New Delhi, and Rawalpindi. “In Rawalpindi, we disappeared for 48 hours for an ostensible rest (I had feigned illness) in a Pakistani hill station in the foothills of the
Himalayas,” acknowledges Kissinger. “In Washington, only the President and Colonel Alexander Haig (later General), my top aide, knew our actual destination.”
Marxist dialect posits an interdependence of any two phenomena even if the link looks remote or tenuous. There was thus a link between the Cuban missile crisis and the Chinese standoff with India.
Much of Chinese strategy is governed by tactics of the complex chessboard game of wei qi — ensnaring the enemy in an invisible coil rather than defeating him frontally. “You wave a gun, and I’ll wave a gun. We’ll stand face to face and can each practice our courage,” Mao declared.
Later, he told his military commanders not to give any more ground to an Indian forward movement. “Once we give ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equal to Fujian province … 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 emphasises reciprocity.”
Moscow promised support to the Chinese in any Himalayan showdown. Kissinger offers a “plausible explanation” for the strange move. “Khrushchev, aware of the imminence of a showdown over Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba, wanted to assure himself of Chinese support in the Caribbean crisis. He never returned to the offer once the Cuban crisis was over.” But Mao always knew what was afoot.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.