Kissinger’s presentation went far beyond his criticism of Obama’s and Romney’s attacks on China’s economic practices.
He gave a perceptive short history of Chinese leadership since the Communist revolution, an evolution that few Americans appreciate.
“Each generation of Chinese leader . . . reflected the mission and the conditions of his period,” Kissinger said.
He described Mao Zedong as a revolutionary, “a prophet who was consumed by the objectives he had set and who recognized no obstacles in terms of feasibility.”
Using traditional Chinese language, Kissinger said Mao had to find the more distant barbarian to deal with a closer barbarian, referring to getting the United States to balance the Soviet Union.
As his initial negotiator, Mao chose his prime minister for decades, Zhou Enlai, whom Kissinger described as “the most skillful diplomat that I encountered, a man of extraordinary ability to intuit the intangibles of a situation.”
And though Mao wanted a strategic partnership, he did not want China to become dependent on the outside world. Instead, Mao “insisted on maintaining the purity of the communist doctorate,” Kissinger said.
Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, was “a greater reformer,” according to Kissinger, who added, “I certainly met no other Chinese who had the vision and the courage to move China into the international system and . . . in instituting a market system.”
Jiang Zemin, the leader after the Tiananmen Square massacre, was described by Kissinger as someone who spent most of his 12 years “restoring China to the international system.” His successor, Hu Jintao, was “the first leader that actually had to operate China as part of a globalized system.”
The new generation, Kissinger said, faces a “transformation over the next 10 years” of moving “400 million people from the countryside into the cities.” This will involve not just technical infrastructure problems but a change of values and also a change in the role of the Communist party, he said.
Kissinger said he had spoken to Xi Jinping, the expected next Chinese president, and believes he will seek such enormous internal changes that “it’s unlikely that in 10 years the next generation will come into office with exactly the same institutions that exist today.
“This is one reason why I do not believe that great foreign adventures or confrontations with the United States can be on their agenda,” Kissinger said. But because Xi faces the need to make difficult domestic changes, he may be more assertive in responding to foreign critics, he added.
“What we must not demand or expect is that they will follow the mechanisms with which we are more familiar. It will be a Chinese version . . . and it will not be achieved without some domestic difficulties.”