The Future of U.S.-China Relations

October 12, 2012
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager



Henry Kissinger recently told an audience at Princeton University that President Obama and candidate Romney “are using language about China which I think is extremely deplorable.” A senior foreign affairs correspondent at a leading U.S. newspaper opened his reporting on the event with an editorial endorsement of the 89 year-old former secretary of state’s remarks. “When Henry Kissinger talks about China ” he wrote, “Mitt Romney and President Obama ought to listen—and so should the rest of us.”

U.S. presidents and most of the U.S. public have been following Kissinger’s lead on China for four decades, ever since he slipped off to Beijing in the summer of 1971 on a secret visit that paved the way for a rapprochement between the government of the United States and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.  Throughout the last eight administrations, a small cadre of U.S. officials, experts and business leaders with personal and professional ties to the Chinese communist elite has defined the U.S. relationship with China. In his talk at Princeton, the aging godfather of these relationships assured his audience that the incoming generation of Chinese leaders are “extraordinarily thoughtful” people who will manage China and its relationship with the United States well.

Kissinger’s call for cooperation and his warnings about the disastrous consequences of conflict between China and the United States are “wise words” that deserve attention. But his ability to judge the character and capabilities of the Chinese communist elite are questionable, despite his experience.

Just last year, at an event celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, Kissinger appeared before a stadium full of neo-Maoists as the honored guest of Bo Xilai, the disgraced Chinese princeling at the center of a murder and corruption scandal that has rocked the political foundations of China’s ruling party. Bo’s biography matches up perfectly with the description of the new generation of Chinese elites Kissinger praised in his remarks at Princeton. Bo is the son of a leading Communist elder (Bo Yibo) who was persecuted by Mao, suffered hardships during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and was brought back with his father by Deng Xiaoping—who Kissinger praises as a “great reformer” who single-handedly possessed “the vision and courage to move China into the international system.”

Washington Post journalist Walter Pincus seems especially impressed by Kissinger’s “perceptive short history of Chinese leadership since the Communist revolution.” Unfortunately, there is a great deal missing from that history, especially concerning the Cultural Revolution, which to this day is officially ignored by Mainland Chinese historians. Kissinger’s claim that the experience is in some way responsible for cultivating what he perceives to be a sense of political maturity in the incoming generation of leaders is doubtful, not only because of what we now know about Bo Xilai, but also because of the little we do know about the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese scholars Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao authored a compelling history of the period that was originally published in Hong Kong in 1986, ten years after the Cultural Revolution ended. It is still banned in Mainland China. Their concluding remarks also deserve U.S. attention.

 “For China, the Cultural Revolution remains a colossal catastrophe in which human rights, democracy, the rule of law and civilization itself were unprecedentedly trampled. Not only was the president persecuted to death, tens of millions of innocent people were also attacked and maltreated. According to a Xinhua News Agency report on the trial of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and others in November 1980, some 34,800 people were persecuted to death. This figure is probably an extremely conservative estimate. Culture was devastated, and the economy almost collapsed, falling 500 billion yuan short of the production plan. For ten years, republican politics based on the People’s Congress system was virtually destroyed; instead an autocratic politics crowned with ‘socialism’ was erected. Mao Zedong controlled the legislative, judicial and administrative powers; his quotations and all his directives had the force of law. Under this politics, some individuals resorted to every conceivable means to gain personal power; some said things and acted against their will and conscience under duress; and some kind and honest people became silent. Those who courageously thought and rationally expressed their opinions were attacked and persecuted, and some were killed. In these irrational years, the whole of China tumbled into insanity.”

The neo-Maoists Kissinger honored with his presence in Chongqing last year look back upon their idol and his era with a tragically misplaced sense of pride and nostalgia. One can excuse the hundred thousand people in the stadium because they’ve been denied access to their own past.  The same cannot be said for Bo Xilai or for Dr. Kissinger.

President Obama and candidate Romney both seem to recognize that the Kissinger era in U.S.-China relations is wearing out its historical welcome. Unfortunately, as the old footings of cooperation crumble, misunderstanding, miscommunication and mistrust are inhibiting the construction of new ones.

One critical source of mistrust is international relations theorists in both countries who argue that conflict between the two nations is historically predetermined. These academicians now hold considerable sway over the public debate and the opinions of our respective leaders. Ironically, these theorists are disciples of the same supposed political “realism” that inspired Kissinger’s initial outreach to Mao.

The path to a peaceful and productive future for U.S.-China relations most likely cannot be constructed on a “realistic” mutual fear of war. The hedging strategy both sides now pursue has not only inspired a high-tech arms race that could end in a nuclear exchange, but it prevents both sides from working together to find solutions to the basic unresolved problems of economic and environmental sustainability: the competition for jobs, resources and prosperity that is an actual source of conflict.

The most promising way forward is to move beyond our reliance on the small circle of elite “old friends” holding the bilateral relationship together. The best way to address the demagoguery we see on the U.S. campaign trail, and in Chinese public debates about the United States, is to foster a broad-based sense of mutual trust in our respective populations. The building blocks of a new bilateral relationship are already present in the massive flows of people, capital and ideas produced by the relationship Kissinger claims as his legacy.


Posted in: China

Tags: China

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security.