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//Henry Kissinger and His Shanghai Story

Henry Kissinger and His Shanghai Story: A Glimpse into the Century-Long Friendship

Henry Kissinger. – Photo credit: Brandon/darthdowney (Flickr) / CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

By Zizhu Wang | 23 November 2023

The recent meeting between the presidents of China and the US has once again put Sino-US relations in the spotlight. Remarkably, among American politicians regarded as the so-called “friends of China,” few names carry as much weight as Henry Kissinger. Celebrating his centennial birthday, Kissinger also embarked on his unofficial visit to China in July. His diplomatic ties with China can be traced back to his first secret visit in 1971, marking over a hundred visits to the country. This short commentary aims to give an overview of Kissinger’s predestination with China especially through his marvelous visit to Shanghai—an enlightened city where I have had the honour of studying and residing.


Coming Across Kissinger


Coincidentally, during my pursuit of a master’s degree in International Relations in 2019, I audited an interpretation class at Shanghai International Studies University. The class happened to cover the historic episode of “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” a pivotal moment in the Nixon-Kissinger administration’s efforts on the détente of Sino-US relations. Surprisingly, many classmates struggled to discern the somewhat challenging name “Kissinger.” Perhaps for the vast Chinese people, Kissinger merely remains a distant celebrity. Yet the question lingers: what is the essence of his renown?


My first encounter with the name “Henry Kissinger” was in my high school English class, where the teacher informed us of the peculiar spelling of his name – a fusion of “kissing” and “-er” that struck me as quite fascinating. At that time, I was unaware that this unusual name was not an American but a German one. On May 27, 1923, little Henry was born in a Jewish middle-class household in Bavaria. Little did he know what awaited him during his upbringing. Following Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, Henry grew up in his childhood filled with uncertainty and hostility. Subsequently, the Kissingers immigrated to the US in 1938. At the age of 15, the young Henry embarked on the challenging journey of Americanization. As the Pacific War erupted in 1941, he began a lengthy military career. All these experiences left him with complex feelings towards the US – a country not his homeland, yet one which sheltered him and his family. This ambivalence later drove him into the realm of American foreign policy.


A Journey to Shanghai


Among Kissinger’s over a hundred visits to China, there was one notable occasion when he, much like the former American president Ronald Reagan, chose to pay a visit to Fudan University in Shanghai. Founded in 1905, this university set up the earliest major for studying relations with Western countries after 1949. Interestingly, this university shares the same birthdate as Kissinger. This visit took place exactly a decade ago, shortly after he celebrated his 90th birthday.


On July 2, 2013, Kissinger visited the Center for American Studies of Fudan University as the former Secretary of State. Parallel, accompanying him was the former Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, incidentally a Fudan alumnus. Kissinger came for an engaging dialogue with students and faculty. “Our gracious hosts keep reminding everyone that I turned 90, as if reaching 90 is a great achievement,” he remarked. “In fact, I’ve come from your age as well.” The auditorium was enlivened by his superbly witty speeches.


Kissinger reminisced that when he first set foot in China during the 1970s, towering skyscrapers were a rarity. The astonishing strides China has made since the era of reform and opening-up are nothing short of miraculous. Indeed, back then, amid the tumultuous flames of the Cultural Revolution, Sino-US relations were far from clear-cut. However, astute leaders from both sides sensed a faint opportunity for reconciliation. As the National Security Advisor, Kissinger proposed to President Nixon that it was time to seize the moment. In July 1971, acting as the vanguard for Nixon, Kissinger made a clandestine visit to China. The following February, Nixon officially visited China, marking Kissinger’s first encounter with Chairman Mao Zedong.


Mao left a profound impression on Kissinger. In Kissinger’s memoir White House Years, he noted:

“Mao, in contrast to all other political leaders I have known, almost never engaged in soliloquies. Not for him were the prepared points most statesmen use, either seemingly extemporaneously or learned from notes. His meaning emerged from a Socratic dialogue that he guided effortlessly and with deceptive casualness.”

In turn, “the swallow flies low, as it is blowing up for rain” — Mao likened Kissinger to a swallow navigating the storm. In the dialogue with Fudan students, Kissinger acknowledged the deep impact that leaders of Mao’s generation had on China and the world.


Sino-US Relations: Where Are We Now?


As far back as his famous book On China in 2011, Kissinger eloquently analogized the differences in Chinese and American strategic thinking to the board games of Go (or Weiqi) and chess. Chess swiftly allows one to grasp the key position, while Go is an art of encirclement, emphasizing the flexibility of strategy. According to Kissinger, if one day China’s GDP growth surpasses that of the US, Americans must learn to adapt.


In the conclusion of On China, Kissinger draws a poignant parallel with Crowe Memorandum to illuminate the state of Sino-US relations at the time. Prior to WWI, Eyre Crowe, a British officer in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, penned an analytical piece on the rising power of Germany. He believed that conflict was an inherent outcome of international relations, asserting that Germany’s strength posed a threat to Britain was fundamentally incompatible. Kissinger wondered could the same hold true for Sino-US relations. The future remained uncertain in 2011. Now, in the present moment, he might have found some answers.


This month, the Shanghai Translation Publishing House released Kissinger’s first and only oral history Kissinger on Kissinger: Reflections on Diplomacy, Grand Strategy, and Leadership. At a time when the world is poised at the crossroads of confrontation, we have witnessed the departure of successive “friends of China” — from the passing of George H.W. Bush in 2018 to Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II in 2022. Suddenly, we realize that “friends of China” have indeed grown old. Though old friends move off, time will preserve their stories; with this recollection, we move on to the next journey to find new friends.

Zizhu Wang is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at University of Sussex. She obtained her master’s degree at Fudan University (China) and Keio University (Japan). Her research interests lie in History of International Thought during the late-modern period, and multilinguistic communication between Western Europe and East Asia. Currently, she is carrying out research on the conceptual history of the term “international.” She is also a Sino-English and Sino-Japanese translator of history and social science works.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.