Neither the American nor the Chinese media misrepresented that momentous strategic encounter [in 1972, between Nixon and Mao], but they did join hands in utterly concealing the reality of China itself. For example, none of the admiring descriptions of Beijing and its imperial monuments in the New York Times prepared me for the stomach-turning stench that pervaded the city, and reached indoors as one tried to eat in the Beijing Hotel dining room. Throughout the city, human waste was not flushed away but carefully collected as precious “night soil” fertiliser, and then ladled into handcarts that were slowly pulled through the city to the surrounding vegetable fields.
Nor did I read in 1972 about how the crowds in Beijing’s streets trudged from place to place in various states of clinical depression, understandably enough given the deep misery in which they were living — from their one-room-per-family, courtyard houses with no hot water to everyone’s shabby Mao suits and grey faces that evidenced border-line malnutrition. All this stood out even more because of the ubiquitous posters depicting ecstatically happy, rosy-cheeked enthusiasts applauding Mao. …
Paper statecraft tiger:
The smell went away in later years as chemical fertilisers arrived, but many of the misrepresentations of that 1972 trip linger till this day — of which the most important by far is the legend of China’s strategic statecraft, superior by virtue of its very long-range perspective, then personified by Zhou Enlai. Because Kissinger negotiated primarily with Zhou, he elevated that servile toady — who never once tried to save life-long colleagues from Mao’s murderous intrigues — into a statesman of transcendental wisdom, fully endowed in the long-view department.
This was exemplified by Zhou’s answer to Kissinger’s fawning request for his retrospective view of the French Revolution. Indeed, Kissinger never tired of relaying the Great Man’s answer: “Too early to tell”. You see, you see, Kissinger would add, China’s greatest minds look ahead 200 years. Today, authors and publishers still use “playing the long game” in the subtitles of books about China.
They should not. Chas W. Freeman, the interpreter, immediately told Kissinger that Zhou was referring to the 1968 student uprising that overthrew De Gaulle, whose final outcome was indeed still unclear in 1972. But Kissinger refused to give up his two centuries for a mere four years, and continued to repeat the story when gracing the dinner tables of the extremely rich in subsequent decades. It was one of the simpler Kissinger mystifications: by turning Zhou into a great statesman, he qualified himself as one — unnecessarily, it would later transpire, because he had so little competition until Reagan arrived to deflate the balloon of Soviet power.
Kissinger’s lie about Zhou was only the tail of a much bigger rat: the historical falsification that ignores China’s stupendous record of strategic incompetence down the ages, in order to attribute profound strategic wisdom to the Han — a wisdom also embodied in China’s classic strategic manuals, with Sun Tzu’s the most famous.
Paper military tiger:
To believe that legend, the most basic fact about Chinese history had to be ignored: again and again, after the downfall of the Tang — conventionally dated 618 to 907 — the Han were defeated, conquered and long-ruled by much less advanced invaders whom they hugely outnumbered. One can visualise how it went: a few steppe warriors in rags and furs would arrive, the Chinese generals in silks and shiny armour facing them would exchange oh-so-clever Sun Tzu citations, their army would be overrun, the country conquered, and then ruled for decades or centuries.
Over the thousand years down to the fall of the Jurchen-speaking Manchus in 1912, it was only during the Ming dynasty 1368–1644 that the Chinese were ruled by Chinese — very likely because the founder Zhu Yuanzhang started off as a monastery servant and could not have read Sun Tzu or any other of the delusional manuals that reduce warfare to clever tricks. Their uselessness was proved right into the 20th century, when the Japanese became the last of the badly outnumbered foreign conquerors to conquer Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Canton and as much of China’s territory as they wanted, with both Communist and Kuomintang forces equally incapable of fighting them successfully. …
Paper tech tiger:
As for quantum computing and artificial intelligence, only the severely ill-informed think that the Chinese are ahead. As late as 2020, Huawei’s boasts about its supposedly superior Kirin 980 microprocessors were widely believed; they even deceived poor Xi Jinping. Yes, they were indeed quite good but the technology was not Huawei’s — it belonged to the UK and US, which meant that Trump’s National Security Council could and did shut down Kirin production and much of Huawei’s as a whole with a couple of phone calls. …
Geopolitical groupings and Xi’s ego:
G-2 became impossible when Xi Jinping arrived. For him only G-1 is good enough. Not because he is a megalomaniac but the opposite: he thinks, accurately, that unless the Party establishes an unchallenged hegemony, in which its rule is deemed superior to democratic governance, Communist China will collapse just as Soviet rule did. He is right. …
Diplomatic klutzes and bores:
Their reaction was perfectly predictable: since 2010, the PRC has behaved as if it were a cheap wind-up toy car, rolling straight ahead to collide with its neighbours, provoking increasingly adversarial reactions, and persisting regardless.
One example is enough for all: just when the Japanese government was sliding into neutralism, the PRC leadership turned a banal, drunken fishing-boat skipper episode just off the Senkakus (absurdly claimed by China) into an all-out attack on all things Japanese, from embassies and consulates that were besieged by hostile mobs to attacks against Japanese corporate offices, car dealerships, and even against individual Japanese — all provoked by incessant calls for revenge from hysterical officials. The final outcome was the election of Abe Shinzo’s LDP, which squarely took on China as an adversary. …
Now, of course, China presses against all its neighbours, endowing the United States with new alliances, some overt and official, others overt but without any formal treaty, and others emerging — a process destined to continue until Xi Jinping, who, with his talk of “war readiness”, is now in his Mussolini phase, triggers an armed affray serious enough to stop the arrival of tankers and bulk carriers into Chinese ports.
When that happens, malnutrition will not be far behind, because of China’s critical dependence on imported animal feed. In 1976, rice, sorghum, cabbage and rare slivers of chicken were enough. Not today. If Xi Jinping falls, pork prices could be the cause.
However, Chinese communists are truly expert in cheating and bribery. That they have managed to get half the western elite to do their bidding is both awesome and disgraceful.
hat-tip David Archibald