Henry Kissinger's On China is about another country

The former US diplomat was largely responsible for the opening up of China to the West in the 1970s. That doesn't make him an expert on the China we know and love today.

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As you would expect from a book by one of the world's more notoriously palace-centred diplomats, Henry Kissinger's On China takes the high road in its explication of Chinese politics and policy. Dr Kissinger talks only to the people who matter. All the people who matter talk to Dr Kissinger. And Dr Kissinger is kind enough to build this content into a neat body of theory and anecdote that tells the informed reader all he (or she, but I think it's meant to be a he) needs to know about Chinese history as it pertains to the country's politics and guides its international relations. An alternative title might be "China for Non-dummies".

Here are some of the other things that happened in China while this reviewer was reading On China: on the morning of May 21, a photograph was posted to the Sina Weibo microblog service, China's equivalent of Twitter. It showed three men in the black uniforms of the chengguan - China's much loathed urban management enforcers - standing over an elderly, unlicensed vegetable seller who they had just beaten unconscious. Over the next six hours, the picture was republished 160,000 times by other Sina Weibo users.

The previous day, the Sinosphere was in a rather better mood after hearing the news that Professor Fang Binxing, the man who invented the Great Firewall, had been pelted with shoes and eggs while giving a speech at Wuhan University in central China.

The following Monday, demonstrations broke out across the Inner Mongolia autonomous region following a clash between ethnic Mongolian herdsmen and Han Chinese lorry drivers. The next day, peasants in Xianghe, a rural county 80 kilometres from Beijing, threatened to block the road to the capital in protest against land seizures, and later faced off against local security forces.

To cap it all, on May 26, a 52-year-old man called Qian Mingqi concluded a long dispute with local authorities in the city of Fuzhou, in south-east China's Jiangxi province, by car bombing three government office complexes. He died in the process and injured five other people, according to official reports.

It would obviously be absurd to expect Kissinger to take note of events that happened after his book was completed. And clearly, thuggish chengguan and angry Mongolian herdsmen will probably never form part of the dramatis personae of his China. Still, it's good to hear from them, if only because Kissinger's version of the country is a rather sparsely populated place. It seems to consist of people who welcome him at airports, of the inhabitants of the Zhongnanhai leadership complex in Beijing, and the folk he mixes with in corner offices and hotel suites in his latter-day role as top fixer emeritus on the China consultancy circuit.

On China does contain a number of tributes to the resilience of the Chinese people. In fact, it contains a slightly disturbing number of them. The implication is that you can do anything to these people and they'll bounce back. This is accurate enough on the record, but after a while you begin to wonder why it didn't occur to Kissinger that the Chinese people never seem to have the opportunity to display other virtues.

Yet the ability of the Chinese people to bounce back does play an important role in Kissinger's synoptic view of Chinese political history. It comes into play when China diverts from what he sees as its basic political orientation towards productive, benevolent authoritarianism and strays into either revolutionary enthusiasm or listless, late Manchu-style decadence. It guarantees the existence of Chinese civilisation until the elite gets its Confucian act back together. Then it retires.

This, broadly, is his reading of the high-Maoist years. Mao Zedong starts as an energetic tyrant, new to the job and keen to take his country in exciting new directions. Eventually a learning process sets in and he begins to adopt policies more in keeping with a traditional understanding of Chinese geopolitical reality. This may be right, but it leads to some odd prioritising. In Kissinger's analysis the most important development in China of the Fifties and Sixties was not the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution but the Sino-Soviet split.

In the Kissinger view, this was a triumph of China's permanent interests over the transient ideological affinity between two communist giants. Perhaps most importantly, it paved the way for Kissinger's finest hour: the US-China rapprochement of 1972, for which he did the advance work and whose development he has tried to influence ever since in both public and private capacities. Readers are given a phased analysis of the development of the relationship: from the wary, initial exploration of joint interests in the Nixon years, through the general establishment of China as an accepted diplomatic actor, down to today's massively complex pattern of economic and political interdependency.

As the midwife of this relationship, it's not surprising that he takes a nurturing approach, occasionally taken to extremes. Of the Sino-Vietnamese war he writes: "Something in the almost maniacal Vietnamese nationalism drives other societies to lose their sense of proportion", which is certainly one way of putting it. Those maniacal Vietnamese, unable to take their punishment as a legitimate expression of the strategic imperatives of true great powers. On the other hand, they did show a lot of resilience.

What eventually comes through the last half of On China very strongly is the extent to which not only Kissinger but many senior US politicians and diplomats were committed to working with China. This commitment led them to support the Cambodian resistance to the Vietnamese-supported government that took power after Pol Pot was overthrown. They knew this meant, in turn, providing support for the Khmer Rouge. Three weeks after Tiananmen Square, when the world was still outraged by the massacre of protesting students and citizens, George HW Bush, the US president, sent a friendly personal letter to the paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. It was followed by a top-secret, high-level delegation whose message was, basically: hang on and it will all blow over.

So it did. Deng opened China for business with his famous "tour of the south" in 1992 and the gold rush was on. While the benefits of this arrangement to US and international business are clear enough, they are not sufficient in themselves to explain the remarkable dedication shown by Kissinger and his colleagues to the Sino-US relationship. It may have something to do with their elitist conception of China's political system as outlined in On China. It may be communist in name and Leninist in organisation, but the Communist Party of China (CPC) is nonetheless the political expression of Chinese civilisation itself, conforming to a timeless, even transcendental, conception of governance. Influence the men at the top and you influence one sixth of humanity.

Actual reality is probably more complex. In The Party, Richard McGregor's great book on the inner workings of the CPC, he notes that if you choose to run the affairs of 1.3 billion people in the way that the Communist Party chooses to run China, you don't have much time left for international strategy, traditional or not. The time you do have will be devoted to managing relations in a way that contributes to more effective domestic control. China's strategists think more about Qian Mingqi the car-bomber and how others like him can be stopped than they do about Confucius.

In his epilogue, Kissinger frames the question of whether an emerging China represents a threat to the United States by reference to the Crowe Memorandum. Eyre Crowe was a British diplomat before the First World War who wrote that whatever Germany's professed politics, its simple and in some ways justified desire to rise in the world would inevitably lead to war.

Kissinger doesn't think that China represents the same kind of threat, or necessarily any kind of threat at all, and there is very little about China's actual international behaviour that proves him wrong. It is one of the few countries that has managed to maintain friendly relations, for instance, with every nation in the Middle East.

Even so, there's an issue here. Conforming to international norms promotes domestic freedom of action. China behaves well when it is out in the world because it believes that a stable international order will enable it to acquire the resources to promote - and, when necessary, enforce - stability at home.

Stability here includes a number of factors: greater economic opportunity, wider consumer choice, vibrant popular culture, repression of dissent and casual, everyday abuses of power at all levels. This is why I find Dr Kissinger's China to be a little underpopulated. The people of China may not be actors in Chinese policy, but their shadow is everywhere. And the rest of the world's engagement with the country has real consequences, good and bad, for the Chinese people, consequences that may in time work themselves out on the Chinese political system.

Considered as an account of how China thinks of itself and the world, On China is radically incomplete. On the other hand, it does provide a remarkable insight into the interior world of the man who probably did the most to bring China onto the international stage. To update a genuine Chinese classic, think of it as The Dream of the Realist in the Red Chamber.

Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world.