When Henry Kissinger talks about China, Mitt Romney and President Obama ought to listen — and so should the rest of us.

Last Wednesday during a panel at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the 89-year-old former secretary of state used his unique 40-year-experience with Chinese leaders to give a tutorial on how to handle the sensitive relations between Beijing and Washington.

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.”

One other point to remember, Kissinger said, “Mao could give orders. The current leaders have to operate by consensus, at least of the standing committee.”

Historians call China a rising country and the United States a status quo country, but as Kissinger pointed out, “China is a country that is returning to what it believes it has always been, namely the center of Asian affairs.”

As a result, “it’s inevitable that a rising China will impinge on the Unites States,” Kissinger noted. He called a conflict between the two “a disaster for both countries” where “it would be impossible to describe what a victory would look like.”

It was in that context that Kissinger said, “In each country [the U.S. and China] there are domestic pressures that emphasize disagreements that might arise. We see that in our political campaign in which both candidates are using language about China which I think is extremely deplorable.”

Asked about his endorsement of Romney, who has talked about labeling China a currency manipulator, Kissinger replied, “The Romney campaign does not check it, you know, with me. I have stated my general view.”

Kissinger pointed out that stirring things up on the Chinese side were “their strategic centers [military and civilian think tanks], in which their strategic analysts are pushing a very nationalistic line.”

He continued, “When great countries deal with each other there is a balancing element involved, but the balance should be sought in non-military terms to the greatest extent possible.”

That is why Kissinger said he believes there should be consultations about not just grievances, but about objectives on things upon which they can agree. He pointed out that while differences in how Washington should deal with China have arisen in the past, only two presidents tried to reinvent policy. “The maximum period of time it lasted was two years, and then they reversed it because they recognized from experience the necessities of our future,” Kissinger said.

He warned about an American attitude “that we know the answers to all the questions and that it is our mission to make the world exactly over in the American image.” China, he said, “managed to stagger through 3,800 years . . . without assistance from the United States.”

“As a country we have to learn that when you conduct foreign policy, you have to deal with interests as well as values, and you have to reconcile the concerns of other countries with your own concerns. . . . That is a national challenge for the United States, no matter which party is in office,” Kissinger said.

Obama and Romney should take that to heart.