Chinese and American leaders have been sniping at each other in public again. This month Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, discussing political reform, told the Atlantic magazine that China’s leaders were “trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand”. This may have been what provoked Wang Qishan, a Chinese deputy prime minister, to tell a television interviewer that Americans were “simple” (perhaps “innocent” conveys the Chinese word better), and have trouble understanding China, “because it is an ancient civilisation, and we are of the Oriental culture.” Mr Wang will applaud Henry Kissinger’s latest work, a distillation of more than 40 years of involvement with China and its leaders, and an unabashedly Orientalist affirmation of the otherness of the country. The most riveting chapters deal with Mr Kissinger’s leading roles in the Nixon administration as it established links with Mao Zedong’s China.
The well-known story bears retelling by a central protagonist who made his first, secret trip in July 1971, pleading illness to take a few days out of his official schedule while on a visit to Pakistan. President Richard Nixon’s own trip in 1972, which had been initiated by Mr Kissinger, was indeed a “week that changed the world”, as China and America ganged up to deter Soviet expansionism. Mr Kissinger’s encounters with the urbane, conciliatory prime minister, Zhou Enlai, and the elliptical, moody Mao—and indeed with every senior Chinese leader since—make gripping reading. Some of Mao’s allusively poetic dialogue, in particular, is beyond parody: “At the approach of the rain and the wind the swallows are busy.” The panoramic authority with which the Chinese leaders (and their interlocutor) dissect the world is breathtaking.
But Mr Kissinger is not telling all. He recounts how, in the years beforehand, more than 100 exploratory meetings in Warsaw had made no progress because of Taiwan, which America still recognised as “the Republic of China”. It is not clear when or why America abandoned its notion that China should commit itself to peaceful reunification as a precondition for a presidential visit. China has never renounced the threat of invasion. Nor does Mr Kissinger explain the thinking behind the communiqué signed after Nixon’s first visit, in which America acknowledged “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Large numbers of people in Taiwan have never maintained any such thing. But for China’s leaders, and, it seems Mr Kissinger himself, public opinion anywhere outside the United States is not really a factor when the geopolitical stakes are so high.