On China by Henry Kissinger (2011)

Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

— Sun Tzu, Art of War

As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass, and we’ll get to work producing more babies than ever before.

— Mao Zedong, 1957 (p. 167)

(Author’s note: I read this book and wrote the majority of this review/summary in 2019. I wanted to summarize China, but that is like trying to summarize America. Here, I give context for why I’m interested in China, then highlight what I found most interesting in the book.)

I do not want the United States to go to war with China.

I bought On China because I was embarrassed by how little I knew about China. I wanted a primer on the country (mission accomplished) and thought a book on it, written by former Secretary of State and one of history’s most popular diplomats, Henry Kissinger, would be a good return-on-time investment.

However, it sat on my shelf for six years before I read it because it was not urgent. No one was texting me, “Hey, forget the Venmo, did you finish that On China book yet?” My views on the urgency changed when I read the final chapter: The New Millennium.

The collapse of American and European financial markets in 2007 and 2008 — and the spectacle of Western disarray and miscalculation contrasted with Chinese success — seriously undermined the mystique of Western economic prowess. It prompted a new tide of opinion in China.

— Henry Kissinger, On China (p. 501)

…they needed each other because both were too large to be dominated, too special to be transformed, and too necessary to each other to be able to afford isolation.

— Henry Kissinger, On China (p. 487)

Your intuition tells you that China is important and will likely continue to be for the rest of our lives. In fact, if there was a United States Book Club (Oprah’s does not count), this book would be on it.

If you live in the US, you may know that in each year since 1975, collectively, we have bought more things from China than they have bought from us. It is likely you have been reminded of this “trade deficit” and the developing trade war every time you see the news (in 2022, it’s interesting to consider what the media’s focus is currently because this was a massive theme in 2018-2019).

To understand why we are in a Trade War, you could point to the paragraph above and simply say, the US is the world’s biggest buyer and China is the world’s biggest seller. Both are self-interested and want more value in exchange for what they are giving up. This is everyone’s reason for trading anything.

This carries an intrinsic tension, but if the topic was US trade with Aruba, we would only care if it affected our beach vacation. So, why is the relationship between the US and China special? Oh that’s right, America has the world’s dominant military…and China wants to have the world’s dominant military. And, the country’s most influential leader in the 20th century said he was cool with 300 million people dying.

When two countries want to be number one, conflict is inevitable. The question is: How do you manage it? First, it helps to understand each side.

Perhaps Sun Tzu’s most important insight was that in a military or strategic contest, everything is relevant and connected: weather, terrain, diplomacy, the reports of spies and double agents, supplies and logistics, the balance of forces, historic perceptions, the intangibles of surprise and morale. Each factor influences the others, giving rise to subtle shifts in momentum and relative advantage. There are no isolated events.

— Henry Kissinger, On China (p. 30)


Henry Kissinger is a diplomat, most famously serving as Secretary of State under Nixon and National Security Adviser under Gerald Ford. At 608 pages, the book actually goes by fast, carefully balancing attention spans and thoroughness.

This book, and others like it, makes you wonder about the importance of any one person. You see American presidents come and go. Yet the conversation continues.

Most Interesting Passage of the Book

One of the obstacles to continuity in America’s foreign policy is the sweeping nature of its periodic changes of government. As a result of term limits, every presidential appointment down to the level of Deputy Assistant Secretary is replaced at least every eight years — a change of personnel involving as many as five thousand key positions.

The successors have to undergo a prolonged vetting process. In practice, a vacuum exists for the first nine months or so of the incoming administration, in which it is obliged to act by improvisation or on the recommendations of holdover personnel, as it gradually adjusts to exercising its own authority.

The inevitable learning period is complicated by the desire of the new administration to legitimize its rise to office by alleging that all inherited problems are the policy faults of its predecessor and not inherent problems; they are deemed soluble and in a finite time. Continuity of policy becomes a secondary consideration if not an invidious claim.

Since new Presidents have just won an election campaign, they may also overestimate the range of flexibility that objective circumstances permit or rely excessively on their persuasive power. For countries relying on American policy, the perpetual psychodrama of democratic transitions is a constant invitation to hedge their bets.

— Henry Kissinger, On China (p. 377)

Great point. I am unsupportive of a dictatorship, though. Power will be a perennial topic at extra guac.

In our book review on the story of lululemon, we talked about building a brand and how making enemies of certain groups can strengthen the loyalty of your group.

The ultimate brand is a country.

Countries are also like scaled versions of a person. A country can be cocky. For example, the US sending two battle ships through the Taiwan Strait.

People also have relationships with many people. In the US, we tend to be ethnocentric because our economy affects almost every other economy and we may forget that China has relationships that don’t involve us at all. Imagine China as being in one big Asian Homeowners Association with Russia, Japan, and India. High school drama at the country level.

My research process includes listening to rap music.

By listening to rap music, I learned that America has given weapons to Afghanistan. Given the events of 9/11, it sounds like weird corruption and we should get our pitchforks, UNTIL you learn that in the 1980s, the Soviet Union was trying to take control of Afghanistan (presumably for the oil, not the tourism). Then you remember that the Soviet Union was really the only meaningful threat to the U.S. in the world, so you can kind of see how it would make sense to give Afghanistan weapons. If it’s between us and Russia getting Afghanistan’s oil, we clearly want it for ourselves.

This is why diplomats make the big bucks (or maybe it was from speaking engagements, or maybe they got a cut from the guns sold to Afghanistan). Henry Kissinger is a little more polished than rapper Killer Mike. Kissinger sounds so innocent and quaint when he says the U.S. backed an effort to “…sponsor and train an armed resistance.”

Kissinger knows important Russian and Chinese people will read his book. So, we have to take that into account. Having said that, he makes Russia seem weak (this 2010 view is prescient given Russia’s current struggle in the Ukraine War going on now). If it was as weak as he implies, I doubt the Cold War would have received the attention it did.

The benefit to studying a country longitudinally for decades, as Kissinger did, is to know the depth of the lessons. For instance, Mao refused to be pressured into doing anything. So did the guy after him, and after him, and so on. Therefore, it is invaluable to know that pressuring the Chinese into doing something is not going to work.

The strategy game “Go” apparently explains how the country’s leaders make decisions.

In chess, the goal is total victory. In “Go,” you aim for a relative advantage.

These are two of many subtleties that a politician would have to understand to be effective in negotiating with the Chinese.

This was the first 600-page book I read that felt like it barely scratched the surface of a topic.

I had twenty-four tabs open on my browser, with Google searches and Wikipedia entries including, balance of power theory, propaganda, Opium War, Taiwan, Mao. Kissinger says two popular books have a massive influence on the Chinese way of thinking:

  • China Is Unhappy: The Great Era, the Grand Goal, and Our Internal Anxieties and External Challenges(2009)
  • China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (2010)

20 million people starving to death.

…Mao had set a challenge so far outside the realm of objective reality that even the Chinese people fell short of its achievement. The Great Leap Forward’s production goals were exorbitant, and the prospect of dissent or failure was so terrifying that local cadres took to falsifying their output figures and reporting inflated totals to Beijing. Taking these reports literally, Beijing continued to export grain to the Soviet Union in exchange for heavy industry and weaponry.

From 1959 to 1962, China experienced one of the worst famines in human history, leading to the deaths of over twenty million people.

Henry Kissinger, On China (p. 183-184)

This is one of the saddest things that has ever happened. Recent estimates put the number closer to 50 million. Imagine if 1 out of every 7 people in the US died from starvation.

When people say history rhymes, it is because this lesson of being afraid to report bad numbers has not been solved. Look at America’s public companies. Many frauds begin with a fear of reporting bad numbers.


A long “Summary” of the Taiwan-China situation can be found here.

If you use an iPhone, you care about Taiwan. That’s where all of the chips are made (NYSE: TSM).

Basically, in 1949 the Communists overthrew the Chinese government. The government left and went to Taiwan. So, Taiwan thinks it’s the “real” China. China thinks it’s the real China.

The tension has been building for 70 years.

Mainland China is the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan is the Republic of China.

Beijing and Taipei proclaimed what amounted to two competing versions of the same Chinese national identity.

In the Nationalist view, Taiwan was not an independent state: it was the home of the Republic of China’s government-in-exile, which had been temporarily displaced by Communist usurpers, but which — as Nationalist propaganda insistently proclaimed — would return to assume its rightful place on the mainland.

In Beijing’s conception, Taiwan was a renegade province whose separation from the mainland and alliance with foreign powers represented the last vestige of China’s “century of humiliation.”

Both Chinese sides agreed that Taiwan and the mainland were part of the same political entity. The disagreement was about which Chinese government as the rightful ruler.

— Henry Kissinger, On China (p. 151)

Around page 200, Kissinger converts from historian observer to participant and first-person narrator.

Mao, ever carrying ideas to their ultimate conclusion, sometimes ascribed to the US a dialectical strategy as he might have practiced it. He argued that America might think of solving the problem of Communism once and for all by applying the lesson of Vietnam: that involvement in local wars drains the big power participant. 

— Henry Kissinger, On China(p. 291)

It makes you wonder: Why did the United States fail to apply the lesson of Vietnam to the Middle East?

Word choice is interesting because you can see how a diplomat frames a situation. For those who prize clear talking and thinking, you realize that if you are too clear, you may ruin relationships with another country (hint: it’s China).

Vantage point is important. For [Baby] Boomers, China may seem like a developing country. For millennials and younger, we view it as the other Superpower.

China is a superpower today because of Deng Xiaoping.

Things started to get confusing after Mao died.

Supposedly Deng Xiaoping was in “exile” multiple times and somehow resurfaces in the top spots in the government and military. That makes no sense to me and deserves a little more explaining. Someone has to let you back into the game.

Kissinger has a unique perspective on the entire U.S. relationship with China. It is both a strength and a weakness because it includes the important nuance that cannot be captured in any other way than real experience, but it also provides him a remarkable amount of power in shaping the story we read.

How are we going to fact-check a secret meeting Kissinger had in 1971?

This is the same reason I get a weird feeling watching movies based on a true story. More people watch the movie than read the book. And even fewer do the fact-checking, so the majority of people are walking around with a semi-true story in their head. Do we know which parts are true and which parts aren’t? That may be inconsequential for the movie The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock, but the stakes go up a bit when you are talking about two heavily-armed countries.

If you had to summarize the theme of the late 1900s: The main reason China liked America for so long is that they needed it to help protect it from the Soviet Union.

Communism & Economics

  • In a centrally planned economy, goods and services are allocated by bureaucratic decision. Over time, prices established by administrative fiat lose their relationship to costs. The pricing system becomes a means of extorting resources from the population and establishing political priorities. 
  • Reform Communism proved unable to abolish the laws of economics. Somebody had to pay for real costs. The penalty of central planning and subsidized pricing was poor maintenance, lack of innovation, and over-employment — in other words, stagnation and falling per capita income. 
  • Above all, the centrally planned state, far from creating a classless society, ended up enshrining class stratification. Where goods were allocated rather than bought, the real rewards were perquisites of office: special stores, hospitals, educational opportunities for cadres. 

Kissinger assumes we know what the Politburo is. Well, I didn’t. It’s a group of 25 people who oversee the Communist Party in China.

The bibliography is STACKED. We have years of reading material.

We don’t need to know everything about China. But, we should know a little because we have to pass-the-torch, so to speak, of our collective knowledge.

I wonder what Kissinger’s intent and motive is with the book: Educational reflections? Memorializing his place in history? A strategic document that he knows will be read by Soviets and Chinese officials?

Regardless of one’s view of Henry Kissinger, he has a lot of valuable information in his head. He put some of it in this book.

See also:

Thanks to James Bunch for reading drafts of this.

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