SPIEGEL Interview with Henry Kissinger 'Mao Might Consider Modern China to Be Too Materialistic'


Part 2: 'Beijing Wants to Improve Relations with the US'

SPIEGEL: When President Barack Obama took office, he tried to reach out to China. But lately the Chinese-American debate has focused on controversies -- arguments at the World Climate Conference in Copenhagen, fierce debates about the Chinese exchange rate or the cool reception Obama received during his visit to China.

Kissinger: Obama would like to improve relations with China. China also wants to improve relations with the United States. What is not happening is finding a grammar for the dialogue, and part of this is a cultural problem. The Americans look at foreign policy as a series of pragmatic issues, partly because every problem that has been recognized as a problem in America has been soluble. So, we deal with the Chinese on a series of specific issues.

SPIEGEL: And it's different for the Chinese?

Kissinger: The Chinese look at foreign policy as an interrelated series of events. Take the debate about the Chinese exchange rate: We talk about the narrow issue if the Chinese currency has to appreciate. Chinese look at it in terms of the overall economic relationship with the US.

SPIEGEL: And they would only adjust their currency rate if the Americans were willing to reciprocate?

Kissinger: Exactly. There has to be some American adjustment in some other area of significance to the Chinese.

SPIEGEL: So are the Chinese thinking more strategically in terms of foreign policy?

Kissinger: No, just more comprehensively.

SPIEGEL: Do the Chinese currently feel they are finally returning to former glories?

Kissinger: The Chinese are often described as a "rising power." But they do not think of themselves as a rising power because, for 18 of the last 20 centuries, their GDP was the largest in the world. They perceive the past century and a half as an aberration and humiliation.

SPIEGEL: You are describing the mindset of Chinese leadership in great detail, but having visited China more than 70 times, have you ever met ordinary Chinese?

Kissinger: I don't know what you mean by "ordinary Chinese." On most visits, I do what I also do in Germany, which is to meet a cross section of intellectuals and people I can reach.

SPIEGEL: You met dictator Mao Zedong several times in the 1970s. What would he think of modern China?

Kissinger: Mao was interested in his notion of the ideological purification of China more than in an economic recovery of China. In our conversations, he showed next to no interest in economic cooperation with the West. So he might consider current China to be too materialistic. He would probably not like the modern "yuppies" in Beijing or Shanghai.

SPIEGEL: "Purity" -- is that really the ideal you associate with Mao?

Kissinger: Mao's definition of purity was based on different premises than the West's. He inflicted monstrous suffering on the Chinese people. But I am just pointing out that the Chinese attitude is more complex. They appreciate that he united the Chinese people.

SPIEGEL: Are the Chinese beginning to think that perhaps Mao was onto something?

Kissinger: The generation of China's former leader Deng Xiaoping (who ruled in the 1980s and 1990s) considered the Cultural Revolution an unmitigated disaster. I believe it to be a huge disaster, too. But there are now people in China who look at the policies launched by Mao as something that might have had some significance, even as it went too far.

SPIEGEL: American businesses that invest in China complain about massive copyright violations. US officials lament so-called "new Chinese colonialism" in Africa. How do you address these issues, given the Chinese sensitivities you described?

Kissinger: On issues that affect the national interest immediately, you defend it. That is normal when you talk about the impact of a nation across its borders. My view is that in the relationship with China, our interests are better served by creating a sense of co-evolution than by constant confrontation.

SPIEGEL: When China becomes involved in other countries, they seem to only be concerned with business interests or natural resources. Unlike America, Beijing has not yet developed ideological missionary tendencies.

Kissinger: Americans believe that you can alter people by conversion, and that everybody in the world is a potential American. The Chinese also believe that their values are universal, but they do not believe that you can convert to becoming a Chinese unless you are born into it.

SPIEGEL: Will your book be published in China?

Kissinger: I don't know yet. I will not accept abridgments, so it will be interesting to see if it happens or not.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for this conversation.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz and Bernhard Zand

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