In the cold winter of 1972, a schoolteacher in a poor Chinese village asked his whole class: “The U.S. president Nixon and his adviser Dr. Kissinger will be in China. What should we do?”
Then 8 years old, I was a good student and had just finished my homework — writing down 50 times in Chinese characters the omnipresent political slogan: “Down with the American imperialists! Down with the Soviet revisionists! Long live Chairman Mao!”
So I quickly popped up with an answer: “Arrest them, because they are our enemies!”
Within a few years, I realized how wrong I had been. The American outreach crafted by Henry Kissinger helped catalyze decades of complex political changes in China, leading to an era of reform and opening that eventually lifted 800 million people out of poverty and opened the eyes and minds of even more people.
All of that greatly affected my life, along with the lives of millions of other young students. Five years after Mr. Kissinger’s visit in 1972, China reopened colleges after being effectively closed for a decade. Through hard work and good luck, I was able to enter college and later went to the United States to obtain my Ph.D. from the same university where Mr. Kissinger received his. What a magical change for a schoolboy who had just been copying down party propaganda. The simple lesson I learned that day? Don’t be tricked by political slogans.
I can think of no other political figure or thought leader today who helped to initiate as monumental a positive impact on a foreign country as Mr. Kissinger. Although his death at the age of 100 last week has triggered polarized reactions in America, it has aroused overwhelmingly warm sentiments in China’s normally harsh internet space. Grateful articles by private citizens in his memory have gone viral. As the debate rages on over his legacy, I believe one thing is indisputable: Mr. Kissinger was right about China.
Forty years after I called for Mr. Kissinger’s arrest, I found myself standing nervously next to him on a stage facing a live audience of 2,700 people in Toronto for the Munk Debate, which also included Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria. The debate topic was thus: “Be it resolved, the 21st century will belong to China.” Mr. Kissinger took the con side of the argument, and I was pro. I wished I had been on his side. Not only because I continued to feel guilty about suggesting he be thrown into a Chinese jail, but also because I disagreed with the proposition I was being asked to argue; I have never believed that China will own the world. To the disappointment of my debate teammate Mr. Ferguson — but to my secret satisfaction — we lost. It was clear that Mr. Kissinger’s authority and command of the topic, coupled with Mr. Zakaria’s articulate presentation, gave their team a significant advantage. Most of the audience left the debate less convinced that the 21st century would belong to China.
Mr. Kissinger’s approach to China was formed by his lifelong study of world history and politics. He had a deep understanding of the interplay among big powers and an inherent understanding of China’s perspective of the world. Underneath it all, he had an unwavering loyalty to America’s best interests.
There are three important lessons to be gleaned from Mr. Kissinger approach to China. First, China is not a great threat to the United States. China simply does not appear to have the global ambition, institutional capacity, historical tradition or ideological clarity to replace and behave like the United States of today. Its geographical position doesn’t help. During the Toronto debate, Mr. Kissinger said rhetorically: Look at a map of the world. China is bordered by 14 countries. How many of them can China count on as stalwart friends? How much energy does China have left to spend on managing global affairs after coping with its neighbors? The United States, by contrast, has only two.
Second, no one can change China from the outside. Its size and history make this impossible. You may work with China and help its leaders initiate domestic changes, but you can never change it from the outside. Mr. Kissinger argued repeatedly, including in his book “On China,” that China has thousands of years of history of sophisticated political institutions that continue to exist today. It is impossible and counterproductive to push China to change unless the forces of change come from inside. In fact, as early as the late 1960s, Chairman Mao had already begun thinking about allying with the United States to better resist the growing ambitions of the Soviet Union. Had Mao not made up his mind to work with Washington, Mr. Kissinger could never have made his historic trip to China in 1971.
Third, the United States must treat China as an equal partner to resolve global challenges, including nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, proper governance of artificial intelligence and sustainable development. This point is more relevant today than ever: China is now the world’s largest producer of solar panels and windmills, a global leader in artificial intelligence research and the only nation operating its own crewed space station.
In recent years, many American political leaders have begun to disagree with Mr. Kissinger’s approach, especially the first one. As a result, U.S. foreign policy has become increasingly hawkish toward China. This is very unfortunate. Yes, China has become more powerful and gained more international influence. But Beijing does not participate in any international military conflict. To my knowledge, China has not trained any top foreign officials in the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School and has no plan to change in this regard. Continuing to treat China as a growing threat is a major diversion of U.S. political energy, to say the least.
Mr. Kissinger was a refugee of the Nazi regime and unquestionably loyal to the United States. His strategies served American interests: The United States won the Cold War and enjoyed the peace dividend with at years of economic prosperity. Of course, China, too, has risen fast, but just because China has done well does not mean that the United States is losing. Don’t blame Mr. Kissinger’s China strategy for America’s domestic problems today. Just focus on solving them.
Reviewing the past helps one to understand the present, Confucius said. Re-examining Mr. Kissinger’s views about China upon his death would be a good learning exercise for American statesmen today.
Mr. Kissinger was right about China and still is.
(The article is from New York Times)