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Chinese Mirrors

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You could venture a materialist explanation for all this, too, a tale of delicious irony: Japan exploits the concessions America made to contain China by provisioning America's war in Vietnam, which was supposed to contain China (this despite the historic enmity between Vietnam and China); and that very economic vulnerability vis-à-vis a rising Japan explains why capitalism brought forth the unlikely peacemaker--Richard Nixon. But you'd get badly bogged down trying to tell it: The personalities get in the way of the dialectic.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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People were always trying to brief Henry Kissinger about Japan. He would only get bored. It is the most fascinating revelation in Nixon and Mao, an otherwise serviceable if uninspired retelling of the historic February 1972 China trip: Kissinger and Nixon couldn't have cared less about commerce. The National Security Adviser dismissed Japanese officials as "Sony salesmen." In the tortured negotiations over the Shanghai Communiqué, which spelled out the new understanding between China and the United States--MacMillan has a whole chapter on it--"The wording on trade and exchanges was...relatively easy to settle." Whispered Kissinger, in heavy Germanic brogue: "We both know that basically they don't mean anything.... The maximum amount of bilateral trade possible between us, even if we make great efforts, is infinitesimal in terms of our total economy."

In Nixon's own conception, the China trip was almost exclusively an intervention in the balance of forces between the Soviet Union and China, an attempt to exploit tensions between the two superpowers to settle the Vietnam War. The meaning turned out to be Wal-Martism. China does more business with the Arkansas retailer than it does with Canada, Russia or Australia. It evolved, too, into Mann's China fantasy: that engagement would lead to democracy--a matter of indifference to Nixon and Kissinger.

MacMillan provides few clues as to how we got from there to here; Nixon and Mao packs about as much analytic punch as a high school social studies textbook. Mann doesn't proffer many either. His book is too short for that--about the size a Wall Street hedge fund manager could digest in a single day's rail commute from Westchester County. It's no longer than it needs to be, for his subject is simple: the psychology of American elites, which in its will to self-flattery and -propagandization doesn't change much at all.

Which, come to think of it, is why our hedge fund manager wouldn't bother his beautiful mind with a book like Mann's China Fantasy. It flatters no one. I can easily see him reading Nixon and Mao on a business flight to Beijing. Its narrative is aggressively benign, starting with our thirty-seventh President striding out onto the White House south lawn on February 17, 1972, for the first leg of his journey. He quoted the words of the Apollo 11 astronauts: "We came in peace for all mankind." Says MacMillan: "It was classic Nixon, that mixture of pragmatism and grandiloquence."

Yes, well: Cattle ranchers have a word for that mixture, too. You're better off not stepping in it.

Ask the people of East Pakistan, which would later be known as Bangladesh. One of Christopher Hitchens's last sound contributions to the republic of letters was his account, in his book on Kissinger, of Nixon's back channel to the Chinese leadership through Pakistan's military dictator Yahya Khan. MacMillan finds in those dealings admirable pragmatism: "If every message back and forth, each step in the negotiations to arrange Kissinger's secret visit and then Nixon's, had been conducted publicly, the Americans would have found themselves with a very public controversy." Actually it was Machiavellian quid pro quo of a scale that might have made even Mao blush. East Pakistan had just had its first free election in a decade. The wrong man won and, in March 1971, Yahya sent troops to put down what he called an insurrection. The American consulate sent Washington a horrified wire: "Our government has failed to denounce atrocities...the overworked term genocide is applicable." Later that week, the American table tennis team visited Red China. The anguished diplomat was soon recalled. The mutual debt--Yahya did Nixon's crucial errand with utmost discretion; Nixon allowed Yahya his massacre--was instrumental to a deal that MacMillan merely describes thus: "Although Yahya was increasingly preoccupied with the growing threat of secession by East Pakistan and the resulting tensions with India, he continued to act as intermediary."

At one point, she assures us that any discussion of an opening to China--and, not incidentally, the selling out of Taiwan--would have made it impossible: "The Chinese Communists, who had little understanding of how an open society worked, would have concluded that the American government was not sincere in wanting an opening and would have pulled back." At another, she betrays bafflement: "It has never been clear why the fact of Kissinger's trip to Beijing had to remain secret until it was over." She doesn't comprehend that the soul of the matter was otherwise: Nixon's and Kissinger's contempt for open civic discussion of America's role in the world was fundamental to who they were, and it was hardly an accident that the President most contemptuous of democracy was the one best able to forge friendships with the world's most savage dictators.

MacMillan treats the evidence as larkish diplomatic small talk: "To general laughter, Kissinger added, 'Wherever possible I will try to tell the truth'"; "Give me a pair of those," Nixon says upon being "shown earplugs that an emperor had worn to screen out criticisms"; Kissinger explains to Zhou En-lai why they couldn't tell anyone in the State Department how they were selling out Taiwan--"They had a complicated system in the United States, Kissinger said wryly; the Chinese did things in so much a simpler way." She skips over the moment, in Nixon and Mao's one meeting together, when the Chairman referred to "a reactionary group which is opposed to our contact with you. The result was that they got on an airplane and fled abroad." He was referring to an international mystery: the whereabouts of Mao's rival Lin Biao. He mentioned "corpses." Zhou hinted that it wasn't an accident. The cryptic exchange suggests that the Chairman was testing the President, gauging his level of squeamishness. Nixon--whose "ratfuckers" were then loose in New Hampshire, sabotaging the Democratic nomination--promises, "The Chairman can be sure that whatever we discuss, or whatever I and the Prime Minister discuss, nothing goes beyond the room."

Nixon bonded with these commissars. He empathized with them, and they with him. "Why is it in your country," Mao asked Kissinger on a later trip, "You are always obsessed with that nonsensical Watergate issue?" Democracy had nothing to do with it. Does it now? Peck writes of the 1950s-vintage China hands of their "unmistakable mixture of public interest and self-interest," a "commitment to 'public duty' and 'civic responsibility'" that "barely masked a naked grasp for power."

Read Tom Friedman: Our latter-day Wise Men are the same. "At this time, when democracies, like India and America, seem incapable of making hard decisions," he wrote in a 2005 column titled "Thou Shalt Not Destroy the Center," "I cannot help but feel a tinge of jealousy at China's ability to be serious about its problems and actually do things that are tough and require taking things away from people."

These China watchers always bear watching--for the times they forget to propagandize themselves.

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