Henry Kissinger doesn’t know Chinese history (or maybe just lies about it)

I’ve seen a few blogs point to this new opinion piece by Henry Kissinger, where he conclusively proves that he has absolutely no knowledge of history, and is willing to spout whatever fiction he needs to make his point.

His basic argument is quite simple, that we should stop worrying about China. They are in no way a potential threat, militarily or economically, and people who bring up the possibility of conflict with China are just misguided. Here is some of his logic.

China’s emerging role is often compared to that of imperial Germany at the beginning of the last century, the implication being that a strategic confrontation is inevitable and the United States had best prepare for it. That assumption is as dangerous as it is wrong. Military imperialism is not the Chinese style. China seeks its objectives by careful study, patience and the accumulation of nuances.

It is also unwise to apply to China the policy of military containment of the cold war. The Soviet Union was the heir of an imperialist tradition. The Chinese state in its present dimensions has existed substantially for 2,000 years.

Ok, let’s consider his claim for a second. The comparison is amazingly easy to make. Here is a map of China’s Han dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to 220AD, contrasted with the modern borders of the Chinese and Mongolian states. For those weak at arithmetic I will point out that 2000 years ago is smack in the middle of this period.

han dynasty china

So how do the borders line up? It seems to me that China is about twice as big now as it was then. Let’s note some of the territories controlled the People’s Republic of China that were not part of the Han Dynasty. Well, missing from the map of Han I see:
Tibet
Xinjiang
Manchuria
Mongolia (inner and outer)

And there are also a number of areas that we could consider China proper that weren’t part of the Han state, particilarly the provinces north of the Great Wall, as well as a large region in the south-west near-oh, and of course Taiwan itself!

Oh, but according to Kissinger:

ll major countries have recognized China’s claim that Taiwan is part of China. So have seven American presidents of both parties, none more emphatically than President George W. Bush.

Yes of course. Thank you for the correction. Let’s look at the most recent public statement President Bush has made about Taiwan.

When asked in an interview with the Fox News TV Channel, “Do we [the US] still stand by an agreement, Mr. President, that if Taiwan is ever invaded, we will come to the defense of Taiwan?” Bush said: “Yes, we do. It’s called the Taiwan Relations Act.”

Let’s look at another example of brilliance from Mister Kissinger.

America needs to understand that a hectoring tone evokes in China memories of imperialist condescension and is not appropriate in dealing with a country that has managed 4,000 years of uninterrupted self-government.

Oh yes, China’s 4000 years of uninterrupted self-government. That would include such self-government as the:
Liao Dynasty 907-1125 established in what later became Mongolia by the Khitan tribal leader Abaoji. Liao’s territory included a great deal of Chinese land and people south of the Great Wall region (ancient the Wall itself had crumbled at this point-the modern one was built several centuries later to replace the ancient Han dynasty structure)

Jin Dynasty (1115-1234)-an empire ruled by the Jurchen people, who invaded from the northeast and conquered the entire northern half of the Song dynasty

Ok, so neither Jin nor Liao actually took over all of China, you may be thinking. Well, out of the three final dynasties that ruled China before the Republic of China finally defeated the old Imperial state, twoof them were governments ruled by foreign invaders!


Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368)
- aka the Mongolian empire. Genghis Khan (Timüjin)begins the conquest of north China, and his grandson Kublia Khan finally finishes the job, making the vast Chinese empire only a part of the vast Mongol empire. Under Mongol rule, ethnic Chinese (often called ‘Han’ in memory of their glorious ancient empire) were legally second class citizens in every level of society.

After the Yuan government in China collapsed native Chinese rule was restored by the Ming.

In 1616 the descendants of the earlier Jurchens, who had recently renamed themselves the Manchu tribe, invaded part of north China and established a dynasty called the Later Jin, which in 1636 became the Qing dynasty, that like the earlier Yuan was a so-called conquest What is meant by this term is a dynasty in which an invading minority establishes control over territory, much like colonialists throughout the recent pre-modern history of most of the world.

So why exactly does Kissinger use utterly false information about Chinese history to make his argument? Well, he does admit

Before continuing on this subject, I must point out that the consulting company I chair advises clients with business interests around the world, including China. Also, in early May, I spent a week in China, much of it as a guest of the government.

at least he isn’t concealing his interests. If he had any subtlety about him then his BS might just be a little less transparent.

Thanks to Danwei for pointing out the article.

  1. In regards to the map, I would like to point out that the latter Han dynasty did militarily control much of present day Xinjiang. The map you chose to use is different than many others which show the borders of the Han dynasty extending much further west. A simple google image search for Han dynasty will return 5 maps on the first page. One nearly identical to the one you used, but four others similar but with much more western territory.

    Sucks to be an advocate of Uighur independence I suppose. Han, Tang, Qing, RoC, and PRC have all maintained some semblance of rule over the region.

  2. Ok yes, Han China did control much of modern day Xinjiang, but in fact the Uyghur did not yet live there. The Uygur didn’t settle in Xinjiang for several more centuries, until after the Uyghur Empire in modern day western Mongolia collapsed.

    There was no Chinese control by China over the Xinjiang territory during Song or Ming, and during the Yuan period it was part of the greater Mongol Empire that China was subservient to and not ruled by China itself. Qing China (which was itself ruled by the foreign Manchu) invaded Xinjiang in the mid-eighteenth century and ruled it for most of the period until their fall, but there were several rebellions and it briefly seceeded from China a few times. Under Manchu rule, Uyghur and other non-ethnic Chinese citizens of the empire were actually accorded higher legal status than most ethnic Chinese-rather a far cry from the status of minorities in post-Imperial China.

    Qing was the first Chinese state to rule over the Uyghur, and considering that Qing was a conquest dynasty, the 20th century actually marks the first time that the ethnic Chinese have dominated the Uyghur people.

  3. Hmmm quite right, someone ought to tell those Uighur independence advocates that they are squating on Chinese land and it would be much appreciated if they simply went back to Mongolia.

  4. Perhaps I should mention that the response was tongue-in-cheek. So hard to convey the subtleties of language via text. I was aware of the fact that the Uighurs themselves were migrants to the regionafter the Chinese, the last section was just an off the cuff jape about the desire on the part of some Uighurs and foreigners to see the Chinese out of Xinjiang. I guess if seniority were the bases for contemporary claims of sovereignty, the Tujia or mabye the Ruruan would have first dips.

  5. Sure, right after all those Anglos in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US go back home to England. On second thought, maybe the English should also go back to Normandy or Denmark where they came from and leave the island to the Celts.

    Well, The Brits left Hong Kong a few years back, maybe that’ll get the ball rolling on all the others.

    P.S. Your sarcasm did not go entirely unnoticed. I actually don’t know about the Tujia or Ruruan, I haven’t studied the region THAT far back.

  6. The Han period of rule in modern Xinjiang was relatively brief, just as the Tang period of rule was. A fundamental fact about empires is that their borders were constantly fluid. There are generally uncontested central areas and more fluid border territories were “contested” areas which changed hands frequently. Unfortunately, many people today believe that even a brief period of rule, irregardless of duration or extent (reach) of rule, is dispositive of sovereignty.

  7. Daniel T,

    If you really take your time and read Chinese history, you know you are wrong, the Han had established long term government agencies in the far west and far south, called the Anxi (central Asia) and Annam (Vietnam).

  8. Taiwan Girl,

    So based on my one paragraph you have determined that I don’t know Chinese history? Well, those “agencies” as you call them, are hardly anything new. Many empires in the past established bases in foreign areas, but the simple fact that such things existed is hardly determinative of any claim of sovereignty. What exactly were they, and what degree of actual control did they have in the regions in which they were established? What modern day implications do they have for establishing modern Chinese control over these varying regions?

    The Han for example, established a system of commandaries in what is now modern day northeast Asia. One such commandary, Lelang was established in what is now North Korea. It’s significance to Korean development is still very controversial. Historically it played an important role in trasmitting Han era culture to the early peoples inhabiting the Korean pennisula. But does its very existence (and later destruction) provide sufficient evidence of a claim of modern Chinese sovereignty over Korea?

    What can we say of Vietnam? Although in total, a colony of various Chinese dynasties for around a 1000 years, Chinese control there was( like Anxi and the Han commandaries in northern Korea), never thoroughly established, and was periodic, punctuated by long periods of non-control, and almost constant rebellion. Likewise, despite the heavy influence and displacement of native culture, a native culture did take root which was distinct from China.

    So, while on paper it appears that the Han did set up “agencies” in such areas, would one consider the Chinese presence, characterized by non-systemic, not deeply entrenchd control, indicative of a claim of modern sovereignty? How troublesome would be the universal application of a claim of sovereignty based on such infrequent periods of actual control? How much more troublesome would it be to claim sovereignty based on acts of a past government (fundamentally different from the present government)? How troublesome would it be to base such a claim on acts occuring hudnreds of years ago?

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