Chinese Mirrors

Chinese Mirrors

China has become like Israel: No matter the party, no matter the leader, the US government will defend its actions.


In 1967, when Time magazine managed to get an Australian reporter by the name of John Cantwell into mainland China, his dispatch read like what a report from North Korea–or from another planet–would look like today. “Red Guards march around in vigilante groups, stern-faced and forbidding…. I saw them surround and berate an old man who dared look at an anti-Mao poster…. Hostile crowds sometimes surrounded me, and people shouted: ‘What are you doing here, white devil?'” A delicate beauty from the Chinese travel service informed him, “Chairman Mao has taught us that we must crush the American aggressors. We must kill, crush, destroy all imperialist monsters.” “Practically no one smiles,” Cantwell wrote. Good thing, readers might have concluded, we were fighting a war in Vietnam to contain these lunatics.

A scant forty-two months later, America was introduced to a China where everyone smiled. American Ping-Pong players, invited on a surprise visit in April 1971, received hospitality so overwhelming a team member started crying. One player, Tim Boggan, reporting back in an article for the New York Times, affectionately described a “large playground where perhaps 200 children of all ages were playing soccer, basketball, and other sports,” the kind of camaraderie he said he’d like to see more of in the United States. Less than a year after that, on Richard Nixon’s historic visit, the nation saw this busy, happy, industrious people for themselves on TV: families picnicking at the Ming Tombs; a chef at the Peking Hotel transforming a turnip into a chrysanthemum for the First Lady; Pat Nixon, fetching in a white lab coat, cheered by the adorable moppets at Peking Children’s Hospital.

Study the tourist snaps on from the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, all the stops on the Nixons’ itinerary: America’s China is now the place where everyone smiles. One typical stop for upper-middle-class tourists on tightly scripted itineraries even recalls Tim Boggan at the playground and Mrs. Nixon at the children’s hospital: the Shanghai Children’s Palace, a lovely old mansion where adorable children dance ballet, play accordions, learn computer programming, practice Chinese opera. An affluent American couple I talked with upon their return from China rhapsodized about it, gushing that every child in this nation of 1.3 billion–this they had been given to understand by their guide–is provided such opportunities free. It seemed, I responded, better than anything a typical American child can expect. “A lot better,” the wife responded. I pressed; she allowed some skepticism to creep into her voice: “It’s possible they made it look better than it was.” No such skepticism, though, when the subject turned to their tour of the site of the Three Gorges Dam, which soon will cause the Yangtze River reservoir to rise to 175 meters over sea level. “It’s going to solve a lot of their problems,” the husband gushed, noting the high-rises being built to house the million exiles who will be displaced, who now live in “shacks like you wouldn’t believe.” “They’re really on the cusp of an economic revolution.”

This man, retired after many decades building a successful business in the Midwest, is a car nut who long ago became dismayed by, then resigned to, the slow decline of American industrial dominance. He didn’t see any American cars on China’s newly teeming roads; China, he pointed out, is “going to start exporting cars to the US in the next few years.” He couldn’t imagine America building a Three Gorges Dam. That was for the Chinas of the world–civilizations of destiny.

This capitalist sounded like the kind of pilgrim who used to visit Soviet steel mills, or cut sugar cane beside Cuban peasants, and returned singing panegyrics to a new, better world being born.

Mission accomplished, you could imagine China’s commissars murmuring. China still has commissars, it’s easy to forget; it is still run, James Mann reminds us in his striking little hand grenade of a book The China Fantasy, “by a Communist Party governed, in hierarchical ascending circles, by a Central Committee, a Politburo, and a Standing Committee of the Politburo.” They still do what commissars do. That’s the point of Mann’s book.

My tourist retirees visited Tiananmen Square. Good American innocents abroad, they asked their guide about the event that made it familiar to them. “He wouldn’t answer questions. He didn’t want to talk about it.” Few American visitors come back better informed than before they arrived about the hundreds (thousands? we will never know) massacred in the democracy demonstrations of 1989; or the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Chinese jails at any given time (some for the “crime,” officially stricken from the books, of “counterrevolution”); or the dozens of criminals killed every day by the state (by one count there were 12,000 executions in China in 2005); or the hundreds of antigovernment protests in rural China. Or, say, about the retired military doctor Jiang Yanyong, who in 2003 became a national hero and international symbol of China’s strides toward democracy for publicizing the SARS epidemic and who, a year later, was thrown in jail for criticizing the Tiananmen massacre.

Those who return no better informed about this record than when they arrived include, it would appear, tourists who should know better. Nicholas Kristof dishonored the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre in 2004, Mann points out, with a column titled “The Tiananmen Victory.” The democracy activists had won: “After the Chinese could watch Eddie Murphy, wear tight pink dresses and struggle over what to order at Starbucks, the revolution was finished. No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot.”

There haven’t been any multiparty ballots for China’s middle class to mark yet. And there won’t be, Mann argues in an elegant formulation: The urban middle class is “a tiny proportion of the country’s overall population,” and in any election candidates representing their interests would be swamped by those of the peasantry; thus it is just as easy, or easier, to imagine them as “a driving force in opposition to democracy.”

That’s not what you used to hear from Bill Clinton. He claimed that with the rise of market economics, and the exploding middle class these reforms have wrought, the road to Chinese democracy was smooth: “Economic freedom creates habits of liberty,” he said in 1997. “And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy…. Trade freely with China, and time is on our side.”

No, wait. That was George W. Bush, in his November 1999 opening foreign policy address. This one is from William J. Clinton: Trade with China, he told President Jiang Zemin, will “increase the spirit of liberty over time…. I just think it’s inevitable, just as inevitably the Berlin wall fell.”

Clinton’s NSC head, Sandy Berger, said in 2000 that “there is an unstoppable momentum” toward democracy in China.

No, wait. That was Tony Blair in 2005. Berger said, “Just as NAFTA membership eroded the economic base of one-party rule in Mexico, WTO membership…can help do the same in China.”

China has become rather like Israel: No matter the party, no matter the leader, certain de rigueur formulas must be uttered. Mann strips the hustle bare: “Every single American president since Nixon has, in one way or another, either ignored or quietly given up on the issue of Chinese democracy.” Since this abandonment has been hemmed around by strenuous presidential representations that democracy is precisely what American policy toward China is all about, this has required some fancy ideological footwork. Mann lays out the steps. He says that the apostle of human rights, President Carter, made the second breakthrough, after Nixon’s: He came up with the rationalization that whatever the abuses evident in the 1970s, the situation was much better than it had been during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Ronald Reagan, President during Deng Xiaoping’s first moves toward market liberalization, was able via that patented Reagan magic to explain away China’s Leninist state with a verbal wave of the hand: He referred to the People’s Republic as “so-called Communist China.” “Mr. Deng, keep up this wall!

The first President Bush was presented with an irritant: that inconvenient 1989 massacre, the same year citizens staged democracy demonstrations in East Germany, where, on the orders of a weak and intimidated Kremlin, the army stepped aside. Incredibly, this became the excuse to downplay Tiananmen: The cold war was over. What was the point of undue hostility? Bush 41 promptly announced a “comprehensive policy of engagement,” making it the United States’ priority to restore the $2 billion in interest-free loans the World Bank had withheld from China in punishment. It was Clinton who “managed to turn black into white and white into black–to persuade Americans that it was somehow politically progressive and intellectually sophisticated to accept Chinese repression and uncouth or unenlightened to attempt to combat it.” He revoked his own executive order on trade sanctions, written to honor his campaign promise of “an America that will not coddle dictators, from Baghdad to Beijing.” “Why bother to protest a crackdown or urge China to allow political opposition,” Mann archly concludes, “if you know that democracy’s coming anyway by the inexorable laws of history?”

James Mann is now best known as the author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (2004), but he was also the Los Angeles Times‘s Beijing bureau chief from 1984 to 1987, and he is the author of Beijing Jeep: A Case Study of Western Business in China (1989), an account of an early attempt to establish a joint manufacturing deal in China, and About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship With China, From Nixon to Clinton (2000). He’s a China watcher. More crucially, he’s a China-watcher watcher. Watching the China watchers, we watch ourselves.

America’s image of China changes with whiplash speed. What never changes is the sort of people propounding the images: the Kristofs, the Clintons, the Sandy Bergers; before them, the Alsops, the Trumans, the Dulleses; and back behind them, men whose names are unfamiliar to us but whose sociological and psychological profiles are the same–mandarins of American power, unshakable in their confidence that the natural and transparent truth about China just happens to coincide with America’s interests at any given time and to the well-being of the about-to-be-uplifted Chinese masses.

Billionaire-by-marriage Thomas Friedman, naturally, makes an early appearance in The China Fantasy. “China’s going to have a free press,” he wrote in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing from dialectical inevitability: “Globalization will drive it.” Half right: China now has an active financial press. Newspapers that publish freely on politics, however, are shut down–at which point, jabs Mann, the Friedmans of the world seem “to vanish from public view.” Same thing, he says, with “initiatives for rule of law”: They “have made some progress when it comes to business disputes.” Regarding other disputes, however, it’s commissars all the way down. “The result could well be a Chinese legal system that offers special protection for foreign investors but not ordinary Chinese individuals.”

What a bastard this James Mann is. The Carter Center in Atlanta has praised China’s system of village elections; he says it’s been suckered. “You can run for office in a single village on your own without any organizational support by going door-to-door, because everybody knows everybody else. However, once you try to have an election that covers three villages, you need an organization”–a political party, which is illegal. “In fact, one might even say that allowing village elections helps to strengthen the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, by giving outsiders the appearance that democracy is spreading across China when in fact the party remains as much in political control as it was before.”

What easy marks these American mandarins are. China knows it can count on them to swat down critics via a standard lexicon of abuse: They are “China bashers” possessed of a “cold war mentality.” The China watchers are also absurdly deferential: “If we reflexively treat the Chinese as a threat, we will answer our own question: They will become a threat,” says Newsweek contributing editor Robert Samuelson. “If you treat China as an enemy,” says Harvard China hand Joseph Nye, “it will become an enemy.”

Economists, those not busy lionizing America’s favorite new source of dirt-cheap labor, might recognize this as a perverse set of incentives that hastens undesirable outcomes. “Pick a dictator anywhere on the globe,” Mann writes, and you’ll find Chinese backing. The Chinese gave Robert Mugabe an honorary degree–and “new surveillance equipment to crack down on Internet traffic and block dissident radio signals.” The military regime in Burma has enjoyed consistent backing, as have Uzbek President Islam Karimov (the “body boiler”), the genocidal government of Sudan, even the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Don’t raise a fuss: “Any tension between America and China is inherently bad,” Mann paraphrases the China watchers, “and is the responsibility of the United States. However, if the confrontation involves intellectual property rights or other U.S. commercial interests, then it is China’s fault and is a legitimate issue that must be addressed immediately.”

Though it may be that they are not suckers at all: They enjoy a handsome quid pro quo. First Kissinger, then Brent Scowcroft, Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and Sandy Berger–all have set up lucrative China consultancies. So have “ordinary working-level civil servants.” Mann singles out Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, a former Clinton NSC aide who pontificates wisely against China bashers (“Those who raise alarms focus too much on the problems of success and too little on the problems of failure” is a recent extrusion) without disclosing his employ at Sandy Berger’s consulting firm.

Oceania has not always been at peace with East Asia. Back when we were at war, the inevitabilities were reversed. The Chinese, President Eisenhower wrote in his diary in 1955, were “completely reckless, arrogant…completely indifferent as to human losses.” “We are going to have to fight the Chinese anyway in 2, 3, 5, or 10 years,” advised Kennedy hand Chester Bowles six years later, “and it is just a question of where, when and how.”

This China where no one smiled was born in 1949, when the Communist revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong prevailed in the country’s civil war over the forces of Chiang Kai-shek, who exiled themselves to the island of Taiwan. The panic of the cold war “Wise Men” we lionize today as the apogee of sound strategic wisdom–the enemies of the McCarthyite lunatics–was something to behold. “When a Chinese classical opera company came to Toronto,” writes Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian professor and author of Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, “the American authorities announced that any American citizens who bought tickets were violating American law.”

The problem was not merely that China was Communist. Russia was Communist, but containment doctrine still allowed for contact with Moscow. By 1959 the iconic image of Soviet-American relations was Vice President Nixon visiting an American trade fair in Moscow, standing nose to nose with Khrushchev in polite if forceful dialogue over whose system would eventually win. No such “kitchen debate” in China. Instead, the iconic moment was at the 1954 Geneva Conference to settle the Indochinese War and the Korean War. Premier Zhou En-lai politely offered his hand to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles rudely brushed past him.

The original rationale for this, James Peck demonstrates in his brilliant, forceful and awesomely researched study Washington’s China: The National Security World, the Cold War, and the Origins of Globalism, was that Mao’s government was, as Dean Rusk put it in 1951, “a colonial Russian government. It is not the Government of China. It does not pass the first test. It is not Chinese.” To believe it, our Wise Men convinced themselves that these 500 million souls, and the party to which they submitted, had been lobotomized of China’s very national character.

The defining political experience of the People’s Republic’s founders was the “century of humiliation,” which stretched from the latter days of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1800s to the 1949 revolution. Zhou En-lai, child of a colonized mandarin class in its death throes, would never forget the shame of being sent, in 1907, to sell the family treasures to pawnbrokers; when a teacher “asked his students why they were studying,” MacMillan relates, Zhou replied, “So that China can rise up.” The uprising’s turn to Marxism was fascinatingly complex: It was relentlessly future-oriented and neatly compatible with “Confucian values of order and harmony and of disdain for business,” Lenin’s simultaneous vision of anticolonial nationalism and world-conquering vanguardism and China’s own “Middle Kingdom” chauvinism that led it easily to believe that it was the vanguard. But these complexities disappeared with a poof! in the reckoning of our Wise Men.

Writes Peck: “American officials never seriously entertained the possibility that Stalin might eventually have to deal with the Chinese communists as a partner or an ally or that China simply could not be dominated.” Instead they searched high and low for regime elements that were “more Chi than Commie,” as one cable put it. The Taiwan Chinese government, on the other hand–whom we bankrolled–was inherently not just “nationalist” but “free.” Even as one diplomat recorded that “any critic is in dire danger of being arrested as a Communist and disappearing…. There is no such thing as a system of justice,” a dissident diplomat across the Straight of Taiwan observed, “The most serious allegation of Russian interference I have heard is that they turned over large quantities of Japanese arms and munitions to the Communists when withdrawing from Manchuria.”

The intelligence laundering was downright Bushian, and the rest of the world thought us mad. London said the primary appeal of Mao to the peasants was his land reforms, their primary methods were propaganda, inspired popular movements, and personal persuasion.” Clement Attlee lectured Truman that “Chinese civilization is very old and it is accustomed to absorbing new things”; Truman was baffled. But then, he was relying on analysis that resembled a John Birch Society newsletter. “To date the Vietnam press and radio have not adopted an anti-American position,” a State Department report noted, which suggested “a special dispensation for the Vietnamese government has been arranged in Moscow.” The department was apparently unaware that Ho Chi Minh was then sending earnest and ignored telegrams to Truman pledging an independent Vietnam as “a fertile field for American capital and enterprise.”

In this context the joint North Korean and Chinese invasion of South Korea was greeted as an opportunity: proof of “centrally directed Communist Imperialism,” a State Department cable trumpeted. “With the war,” Peck says, “the United States could undertake to isolate and thus contain China through a rapid and massive escalation of power in East Asia.” Truman sent the Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait, since Taiwan was obviously next. But Eisenhower was recorded worrying at an NSC meeting the next year, “If Red China…should finally get out of North Korea, release our prisoners, and act decently, how in the world could the United States continue to avoid recognizing Communist China?”

Once more much of the rest of the world thought we were nuts. “Viewed through Asiatic eyes,” observed one wise head, a midlevel bureaucrat who didn’t prevail, “Formosa belongs to China.” In the event of war, “we would find…practically all of the Asiatic countries siding with the Chinese Communists and indeed some of the Western European countries.” Other countries also pointed out that China’s incursion into Korea, while lawless, was better explained by Chinese history and normal sphere-of-influence politics than Moscow puppetry; and Acheson blew his stack: “While musical strains issuing from Peiping are Chinese, [the] organist is Russian.” Why didn’t the rest of the world understand?

We all know how this story turns out: By the late 1960s, China and the Soviet Union were almost at nuclear war. Why couldn’t our Wise Men imagine that eventuality? Why were they so stupid?

For Peck, their strange rationales followed a logic that helps explain our determinately myopic China watchers today. The explanation is, fundamentally, materialist. Its raw materials are the secret words sent by diplomatic cable and NSC strategic assessments. As George Kennan wrote in 1948: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern for relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming…. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction.”

Of course, illusion-stripping smoking guns like this are rare in any archive. But they are rare, Peck stresses, not merely because mandarins have wanted to hide the mercenary foundations of our foreign policy from everyone else. They have also deceived themselves. It’s fascinating to see texts meant for no one’s eyes but top officials marked by sentimentality and daydreaming, luxuriating in fantasies of altruism and world benefaction. For instance, Kennan in PPS/51 stresses “the heritage and philosophical concepts which are the inner reasons that we are… not only great but good, and therefore a dynamic force in the mind of the world.” And the preamble to NSC 5602/1: “The genius, strength and promise of America are founded in the dedication of its people and government to the dignity, equality and freedom of the human being under God. These concepts and our institutions which nourish and maintain them with justice are the bulwark of our free society, and are the basis of the respect and leadership which have been accorded our nation by the peoples of the world.”

“Where conviction stops and propaganda starts is all but impossible to sort out in NSC documents of these years,” Peck observes. They propagandized themselves, the better to propagandize the world. “The Achesons, McCloys, Lovetts, and Harrimans were anything but moderates,” Peck points out. “Their triumph, to themselves and others, was the claim [my emphasis] that they actually embodied the [his emphasis] national interest for the presidents they served.” You see the architects of those ideas struggling to make this seem natural and self-evident. Like America’s world-shaping elites today, they resembled a “Community of Faith.” Their attitude was “fervently visionary.”

The vision was of “state power ordering the structures of the global economic order.” That was a tricky faith to proselytize, certainly to the rest of the world–“It is of course clear that we could not expect the support of any other major Western nation for a program of economic warfare against China”–but first and foremost to an American populace that tended to isolationism. Explains Peck: “Anticommunism supplied the mobilizing passion and sense of direction that the economic dimension, on its own, could not.” So did the notion that, in Beijing, there lived yet more horrifying monsters than in Russia.

Peck has a precise set of claims about the economic story. China had to be isolated to hold together an emerging “multilateral global capitalist system in Asia.” In Europe, the crucial geostrategic toehold was West Germany–which could enjoy economic health trading with the free states with which it was contiguous, free from the temptation to make peace with Moscow. Japan could not serve the same role in China: Its prosperity was traditionally built on trade with China. The temptation to form a modus vivendi with Mao was natural. So China had to be quarantined as an international pariah to render that temptation moot. What’s more, the China that provided a role model to nations that wished to make a go of it outside the American-run international order of “free trade” threatened that entire order.

The materialism is a bit overblown. And Peck admits that the bifurcation between “peaceful coexistence” with Russians and the almost comically stringent walling off of China (there really were debates over whether an egg laid in Taiwan by a chicken raised in Beijing could be sold in Hong Kong) had other, less rationalist sources. “No matter what differences in culture and tradition, values or language,” he quotes Eisenhower writing in his memoirs, “the Russian leaders were human beings, and they wanted to remain alive.” He gave a rather different assessment of the Chinese at an NSC meeting: “We are always wrong when we believe that Orientals think logically as we do.” Peck even drills down to materialist bedrock to explain the racism: “Such denigration served to sustain and promote key American global and regional Asian strategic objectives; it was never simply a misperception that distorted American strategy.”

But history works in mysterious ways. Stripping Japan of its traditional trading relationship, our Wise Men balanced this with extraordinary concessions: They were allowed, as nowhere else, to pursue protectionist policies, given special access to US patents and licenses. “Some Washington officials–and none more caustically than Dulles–argued that the Japanese could not produce goods in enough quantity to be of interest to the United States.”

By the turn of the 1970s, Japan’s exports to the rest of the world had more than quadrupled; in the same decade America’s increased by a mere two-thirds. Japan’s trade with the United States doubled from 1965 to 1967 alone. And, of course, the original cold war hawk, Richard Nixon, cobbled together the diplomatic hinge by which China’s role in the survival of the global capitalist order swung around exactly 180 degrees, our commitment to Taiwan a matter of relative indifference. China? Isn’t that where everyone smiles?

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.

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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