One of my newly adopted habits, as I discussed in my “Good Habits” post a few days ago, is to read a chapter a day from a book that covers something I want to know more about. Given the major role China plays in how the world is evolving, I had become fairly current on the Chinese economy, but I had no in-depth knowledge of the country itself.
I still don’t, really. What I do have is a much better sense of the political and historical context in which China makes decisions. I would describe Henry Kissinger’s On China as applied history—history applied to an understanding of how a country is likely to act in the future . . . and why. In that sense, it succeeds well.
It also succeeds well in conveying a sense of the personalities in place, along with the reasons for their past actions. Add in Dr. Kissinger’s eye-witness accounts of many of the meetings and conversations that occurred over time, and you get a sense of how and why different people and positions evolved. In my opinion, no one in the West is better suited to write such a book than Dr. Kissinger, who spent decades traveling to China and meeting with its leaders.
The book is not perfect. It reminds me, in some sense, of Churchill’s World War II histories, in which everyone worked together as a band of brothers; when differences existed, they were ones of opinion, not personalities. It would have been useful, I think, to further develop some of the policy clashes on the U.S. side as a way of providing additional insight into the context of Chinese decision-making. This is a small quibble, though.
Last year, I had a chance to speak briefly with Dr. Kissinger on China, and, despite my high expectations, I was still incredibly impressed with the clarity and scope of his answers. This book added considerably more to my understanding of how China perceives the world and makes decisions, and it will inform my analyses going forward. I wanted a lot from this book—and I got it. Recommended.