Henry Kissenger: The Rise Of Red China & The Eclipse Of American Hegemony?

No other man alive today has the experience to understand, explicate and mitigate the rise of Communist China more than Dr. Kissenger.  Ironically, his latest book due May 17 2011 is a failed attempt to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and half millennia.  I do not take criticism of such an endeavor lightly, but Dr. Kissenger finds himself a constrained insider in attempting such a titanic grasp.  True to his Hegelian form he fails to inculcate a firm historical frame of reference throughout this writing.  Highly idiosyncratic, this book is a worthy read, yet it fails to inform/to teach the reader how a comparative analysis of the rise of Red China would suffice the effort required.  Kissenger’s realist grasp of China’s own history and his place within it seem to suffice.  Nevertheless, I would like to provide the reader with a far more historically informed comparative analysis.

What are the historic sources of Chinese vulnerability?

I have written extensively on this topic throughout this blog, especially concerning the relation between geography, personality development and foreign policy.  China is best viewed as an isolated island, cut off from historically valuable informants.  Constrained by a vast steppe to the north, mountains to the west and the China Sea/Pacific to its east permitted Sinic Civilization to remain isolated for most of its existence.

This coupled with the stringent Confucian mandate constrained China’s relations until the rise of Mao.

Mao is a good starting point when considering where to begin any assessment of ‘modern’ China.  Centuries of official policy of ‘non-intercourse’ only begot the social and political enormity of a ‘prostrate’ China so fashionably exploited throughout uninformed academia and media.  China remained hinged to its feudal past so anachronistically it could not fathom political nor social alternatives to its ephemeral past.  Historically, only ancient Egypt is a good cultural alternative of an example of fossilized civilization on par with the Manchu/Quing dynastic failure that ushered in Mao and the Sinic turn toward modernity.

Before we examine such adventure we must turn to compare how Far Eastern Civilization (Manchu in China and Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan) dealt with the rise of a secular west.

Both Manchu (China) and Tokugawa (Japan) dynasties, in adamantly pursuing the foreign policy of ‘non-intercourse’ failed to seize the initiative when dealing with a secularized western technological advance.  In so doing they permitted a cultural breach to develop that ultimately destroyed both dynasties, for the reception of a secularized Modern Western culture was initiated in both China and Japan.  In Japan, the movement to receive the western barbarian was from below upward.  The Chinese response was different.  Before the rise of Mao, Sinic Civilization was a permanent fossil of a feudal dynastic regime (Manchu/Quing Dynasty).  With the arrival of the Western barbarian, Sinic Civilization received the barbarian technology from upward down.  Until the death of Deng Xiaoping, China never broke from its xenophoic fear of a modern West.  The Japanese gave themselves over to the west far faster and with less anxiety than the Chinese.


The answer if found in studying the geographico-politico situations that dominated both peoples.

Japanese political unification was still not complete when the western barbarian arrived bearing technological advancement.  However, Japanese Civilization was homogenous with demographic, ethnic and social stability.  The dangers that gave serious cause for anxiety to a Chinese Imperial Government were those of overland invasion from the Eurasian Steppe mixed with a heterogeneous population.

Both Chinese and Japanese Westernizing movements were confronted with the formidable task of having to liquidate and replace a well established indigenous oecumenical regime.  The Japanese accomplished this feat far faster and smoother than the Chinese.  The fall of the Quing/Manchu Dynasty in 1912 was the beginning of the disaster for modern China.

Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1853 was solidified in fifteen years.  The Chinese took 120 years to do the same thing with disastrous results.  In overthrowing the Manchu, the Chinese were paralyzed with political anarchy for they did not implement an effective westernizing order.  The failure of the Kuomintang (1923-1948) was the last attempt by the Chinese to establish a liberal Westernizing movement.  It failed with the rise of Communist Mao!

What was the appeal that Communism gave to the Chinese, an appeal that was never felt with other regional, ethnic peoples throughout Asia?

The Confucian centralizing mandate that grounded Sinic Civilization seemed a permanent native tonic.  The Chinese needed political unification to master the Western barbarian and it found such an opportunity in Marx’s secular gospel of Communism.  This gave Mao after the defeat of the Kuomintang his needed political, cultural relief from which to gather strength and put China in a position of strength!  A strength it hasn’t felt for over 200 years!  Ironically, this very centralizing movement would exhaust and defeat China permitting the renewal we witness today.

All of the above historically accurate comparative analysis is absent from Dr. Kissenger’s book.


He is constrained by his relations with the advantages provided by Kissenger Associates as well as by partial consent in acknowledging the fragility of contemporary China.  Translation:  he needs both the money, clout but not the drama of ‘offending’ a partner.

China has maintained a posture of aloofness for centuries.  This was particularly ubiquitous throughout relations in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.  Such posturing is typical for those who reside in positions of relative weakness.  China’s strategic acumen has shaped its earliest international policies.  Sinic Civilization favors stressing subtlety, indirection and patient accumulation of relative advantage as displayed on the ‘weiqi’ board (analogous to Chess).  A game of relative gain, long range encirclement, which starts with an empty board and only ends when it is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength.  This not a game that is perfectly analogous to Chess which relies on a clash of forces, decisive battle and total victory, all of which depend on the full deployment of all the pieces on the board.

Master Sun summarized ‘weiqi’ well when he discussed his favorite tactics for success:  First:  attack your enemies strategy

Second:  attack your enemies alliances

Third:  attack your enemies armies

Fourth:  attack your enemies cities (seige warfare is always a last resort).

Western warcraft only recently acknowledges primacy to master Sun, for we were blinded to the hubris that was ‘Mass’ in our strategic craft of grand strategy.

Although Dr. Kissenger often reveals partial acumen in acknowledging how Mao managed the rise of Red China, Kissenger is often blind to historical realities in not mentioning that parties governing military conflict even within the confines of balance of power politics permit extreme atrocities unacceptable to the West.  No where else was Orwell’s 1984 more successfully and ruthlessly carried out than in China.  The result.  An exhausted, defeated, completely prostrate China whose only fate was a Janus like embrace of Western ideals of governance.  The ‘Great Leap Forward’ & ‘The Cultural Revolution’ was a Satanic imposition on the very people Mao wished to save.

Kissenger does not reveal any comparative insight or judgement on such matters.  Given his stature and ethnicity pertaining to WWII, I find his neglect of this matter unworthy of his professional stature.  Absolutely no where throughout his writings do we find any mention of how Asiatic theologies were perfect incubators for Communist ideology.  No where does Dr. Kissenger acknowledge understanding how atheist ideology discovers a home in relativism, even a sophisticated pluralism that is the Confucian mandate!

Absent any moral reasoning, Dr. Kissenger revels in partaking the Hegelian perspective of pure realism tinged by polarizing psychological acumen in assessing the opening of China and his initial meeting with both Mao and Zhou Enlai:

‘Mao dominated any meeting or gathering,  Zhou suffused it.  Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm opposition, Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuate or outmaneuver it.  Mao was sardonic, Zhou penertrating.  Mao thought of himself as a philosopher, Zhou saw his role as an administrator or negotiator.  Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents.’

Kissenger’s remarks that the rise of Germany beginning with Bismark is the most constructive analogy for studying contemporary China is misleading and defensive.  It remains early to discern how China wishes to develop its foreign policy in light of its transformation.

Throughout this book, Kissenger firmly believes that Chinese leaders no longer make any claim to represent a unique revolutionary truth, instead they seek to build their Civilization on ideals ‘against unfavorable historical tides’.

Although Kissenger provides the reader with excellent political understanding of how the Chinese view its encirclement of the West via India, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and most of Asiatic Pacific.  Nevertheless, the self determination of such peoples mitigates against a determinist view.  The regimes and culture of the West have no design on China.

Missing throughout this book is any grasp of how American leaders and public can cogently anticipate the social and political transformation of China from the impact of foreign technological advance absent the social and political institutions that assimilate such change.

Instead we have an old decorated ‘China hand’ expounding the truth of political realism unalloyed from the texture of an exceptionalism grounding the rise of a Communist foe.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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