Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Nobel laureate and former U.S. Secretary of State addresses U.S.-China relations, answers his critics who say he could be more vocal about human rights in China and discusses his new book, On China.

Called "a bit of a rockstar in world affairs," Henry Kissinger was a foreign policy adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations and a formal or informal adviser to every president since. He pioneered the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and orchestrated the opening of relations with the People's Republic of China. Born in Germany, Kissinger graduated from and taught at Harvard, as well as at Georgetown. The Nobel laureate is the author of numerous books and draws on his extensive personal experience with four generations of Chinese leaders in examining key foreign affairs episodes in his new text, On China.


Tavis: Dr. Henry Kissinger’s long career as a public servant and diplomat includes his time as U.S. secretary of State, during which, of course, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Forty years ago this year, in fact, he made an historic trip to China which ushered in a new era of relations between the U.S. and China – a relationship that continues to grow in both importance and complexity. His new text, already a “New York Times” best seller. It’s called “On China.” He joins us tonight from New York. Dr. Kissinger, thank you for your time, sir.

Henry Kissinger: Pleasure to be here.

Tavis: Let me start with some basics, and then, uh, perhaps we’ll submerge a little bit more deeply. How much of the way we view China and how they do business has to do with this, uh, huge gap between the sheer numbers of people, 300 million Americans, 1.3 billion Chinese people. How much of the way we see things differently has to do with just sheer number of citizens?

Kissinger: Of course, China is unique in always having had a huge population compared to any other comparable country. Uh, and governing 1.3 billion people, it’s a, uh, it’s a huge task.

So some of the problems have to do with the difference in numbers. Some of it has to do with a difference in history, that American history is relatively brief; Chinese history is uninterrupted for 4,000 years. So the perspective of the two societies is different, too.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not the relationship that we have with China right now, to your mind, is on the right track, moving in the right direction or wrong direction at the moment?

Kissinger: The governments on both sides have asserted that they want a partnership and even a strategic partnership. But in practice, a whole series of issues keep coming up, like for example the South China Sea issue, the Korean issue, some economic issues that indicate that the solution of specific problems has not yet caught up with the vision that the leaders have put forward.

Tavis: China has any number of issues, and you traverse many of them, cover many of them in this book. I just got back from almost two weeks in China, and there are a number of things I’ve been anxious to ask you, so I’m delighted to have you on tonight. Let me start with this.

Kissinger: Thank you.

Tavis: It appears to me that the issue of poverty and wealth inequality in China is a form, uh, of instability, potentially, in the future. Poverty and wealth inequality are a form of instability into the future. You buy that argument?

Kissinger: I agree with this, that, uh, there are a number of economic issues. Wealth inequality is an emerging one. Another one is the migration of millions of people from the country side to the cities every year, and the process of urbanization that results from a situation in which there are about 150 million people that are essentially on the road all the time, looking for work.

Tavis: We talk about China all the time, Dr. Kissinger, in terms of how much money China has. We talk about the economy, we talk about the rich and the super-rich and the new rich, when in truth, as you well know and talk about in the text, with 1.3 billion people the overwhelming majority of Chinese people are not wealthy. Indeed, they are poor, overwhelmingly.

So what happens in a country when the sheer numbers of people who get sick and tired of being in poverty start to raise their voices?

Kissinger: Well, in the last decades the standard of living has risen enormously from a very low level to a higher level, but the higher level, it’s still, by American standards, very low. There are many different calculations by how you measure poverty, but on any calculation anywhere from 10 to 40 million people are below what the United Nations would describe as, as the poverty line.

Now, as long as the economy keeps growing, the general opinion is that the Chinese political system will not be threatened for reasons of poverty. But if there’s an economic crisis then a new situation will arise.

Tavis: One might argue that that crisis that you just spoke of might very well be connected to the environment. As we sit here and talk tonight, there’s flooding in China, as you know, on the one hand; on the other hand, China is manufacturing and making goods and services and the economy is booming at a fast pace, as you mentioned a moment ago.

But they’re doing that at the expense of their environment. Is it fair to say that if the environment collapses, the economy collapses?

Kissinger: Well, if the environment collapses, the economy will be severely affected, and up to now the Chinese have been giving priority to growth and they’ve been taking the position that the West advanced its industrialization without great regard for the environment, but it is now that – the issue has reached a point where the Chinese have become conscious of the environmental issue. How rapidly they can deal with it is the big question.

Tavis: When you go to China, and you’ve been there many, many more times than I’ve been there, and you get a chance to talk to the Chinese people, there are obviously certain things they can say on the record, certain things they say off the record. But when you talk to everyday people, what I heard, and I’ve been there a few times, is that people are concerned about corruption in government. So I ask you, to what degree, to your thinking, is corruption another potential form of instability or an impediment to the progress and the future that you speak of?

Kissinger: Even the Chinese prime minister has pointed out on a number of occasions that corruption is one of the big challenges to Chinese stability, and it’s certainly true that when you have such a vast country that corruption is one of their big challenges.

Tavis: Your critics, since this book first came out, have raised the issue repeatedly that you have not been as aggressive, as thoughtful, as forceful as you might be on the issue of human rights in China. To those critics, you say what?

Kissinger: Critics have to criticize. I grew up as a discriminated minority in a dictatorship, so obviously the issue of human rights is a matter of concern for me. People forget today when the opening to China was undertaken in the early 1970s the general conviction, unassailed by anybody, was that China should be brought into the international system even with the government that it had.

Afterwards, a reform movement developed in China and market economics developed. I have been in the unusual position that I have had access to Chinese leaders and I have therefore exercised my views on human rights through a policy of engagement rather than through confrontation.

Tavis: I hear your point about a policy of engagement, but I’m trying to get an understanding because I couldn’t find it in the text, to my read, what you’re saying, what you have been saying, what you are saying today. Liu Xiao Bo still sits in prison after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

On issues of contemporary importance and concern, what say you to the Chinese people about human rights, abuses (unintelligible)?

Kissinger: Well, I have actually spoken, made a statement on behalf of Liu Xiao Bo.

Tavis: I guess what I’m asking is more broadly how important on the (unintelligible) –

Kissinger: Look, my general position has been that on a number of occasions I have interceded with the Chinese authorities about individual cases. I have thought that my impact would be greater in this manner than by people who make public declarations.

I have always expressed respect for those people who make public declarations, but I have chosen a different road in many cases, which has not been ineffective.

Tavis: Do you think that strategy, long-term, is going to be useful or helpful?

Kissinger: It depends on whom you are talking about. I believe in general that as relations between China and the United States improve, and as the two countries become in some degree more dependent on each other, the influence of American voices will increase.

Tavis: When you suggest in the future that we’re going to become more dependent upon each other, unpack that for me. What do you mean by that, specifically, Dr. Kissinger?

Kissinger: I believe that there is a whole set of issues in the world – environment, proliferation, energy, cyberspace – that can only be dealt with on a global basis. The traditional patterns of national rivalry and national competition are not suitable for those cases. So what is needed is to develop a sense that joint activities are necessary in a whole range of problems, and in those problems the United States will of course express its views on human rights.

If you read my book carefully, you will know that on a number of places I have said in the book that human rights are an essential aspect of the American way of thinking about the organization of government, and that these views cannot be contained by national frontiers. I think that’s a practically direct quote.

Tavis: When you think about the future of China with specific regard to the one-child policy, what’s your sense of how that’s going to impact their growth into the future?

Kissinger: Well, the one-child family has had a revolutionary impact on Chinese culture in the sense the Chinese society historically, it was based on large families, and of large family groups taking care of the older generation. Now with the one-child family, it’s four grandparents are competing for the attention of a single child.

At the same time, the responsibility for taking care of the older generation is leading to a shrinking of the base which can do that. In 2005, 9.2 working people took care of a retired person. This will shrink at some point in the next 30 years to two-point-something taking care of older people.

So both in the distribution of resources and in the attention that is paid to older people, it’s an enormous change in Chinese tradition. It was not done for that; the one-child family was not done for that reason. It was originated because the growth of the population seemed to be unmanageable. But it has had consequences out of proportion to any of the original intentions.

Tavis: What do you say about the control that the Chinese government maintains so aggressively over social media? With what we saw happening over the last few months in Egypt and Tunisia and in Libya and even Iran over the last couple of years, how much longer can the government control social media for this generation of young people in China?

Kissinger: Look, I have taken the position that somebody who has had a special view, a position in the origination of the relationship, that I would limit my public criticisms and concentrate on my personal contacts. I believe in freedom of expression, and I believe that societies thrive when they permit freedom of expression. As a general, that is my view.

Tavis: How important do you think the issue of China is going to be in our presidential election? John Huntsman, former ambassador to China, a Republican, of course, appointed by a Democrat, Barack Obama, to be ambassador, is set apparently to announce as early as tomorrow that he is officially in the race.

So here you have a former Chinese ambassador in the race, but even beyond that, how important do you expect these issues raised in your text to be in the presidential election year next year?

Kissinger: Well, first of all, one has to say that since the opening to China in 1971, eight American presidents have pursued essentially a relationship of working for cooperation with China. There were slight changes from time to time, but they always came back to the same theme.

When Ambassador Huntsman was in China, he did a distinguished job and he followed along that same line. Now, will this be an issue between the parties? I hope not, because the national interest of the United States is not a partisan issue. It is something that goes on for decades and centuries.

So there may be differences of opinion on specific topics, but I don’t expect this to be a defining issue in the campaign.

Tavis: It may not be a defining issue, but given the last election, that is to say the midterm elections, to my mind and to my eye, to my ear, I saw an increasing amount of anti-China rhetoric for the purpose of getting votes.

You didn’t notice that last time and you don’t expect any of that this time around?

Kissinger: I expect that the responsible leaders of both parties will recognize the importance of the relationship between China and the United States. Neither side will be able to control every expression of every partisan participant in the debate, but I would hope that the main lines of our foreign policy, especially with respect to China, will be, will be not done on a partisan basis.

Tavis: A few moments ago you suggested that eight presidents since we opened relations to China, thanks to you and Richard Nixon, President Nixon, you mentioned that eight presidents since then have continued on a policy that’s pretty much the same, slight deviations here and there.

But eight presidents – to my mind, that means both Republicans and Democrats haven’t altered very much their policy with China. How do the American people read that kind of statement or that kind of policy?

Kissinger: No, I think eight American presidents have come to the same conclusions about the general direction. Of course, over a period of 40 years, different problems arise, and so the content of the issues varies from time to time. The American people, I hope, have enough confidence that first of all their presidents, whatever party they are, are trying to serve the national interest.

Secondly, that if presidents as diverse as the ones represented in this group of eight come to a certain set of conclusions, that they must reflect the realities and the necessities of the situation and that they will respect this.

Of course, there’ll be people that have different views, and that should be debated.

Tavis: To your point now, what is, to your mind, most important in terms of protection our national interest vis-à-vis our relationship with China at the moment?

Kissinger: Let me put it another way. The United States is a great country which has played an indispensible international role ever since the end of the Second World War. China, in its history, has also been a very influential country, but it is, in these last decades, emerging on the international scene.

So it is inevitable that we sometimes encounter difficulties and obstacles. Now, I’m a student of history, and I’m very much struck by the fact that the seminal event in European history that destroyed the European states as we knew them, in a way, was the First World War, and I’ve often asked myself would the leaders who knew what the world – had the leaders who went to war in 1914 known what the world would look like in 1919 when it was over, would they ever have done it, and I doubt it.

So what I have urged is that both China and the United States take a look at where they interact, where they compete, and to see that the rivalry, such as where it exists, is conducted in a manner that does not lead to a global catastrophe.

That is the key issue before us. Of course there’ll be disagreements, and of course we are going to have different points of view. And I’d like to make another point. If the United States does not do what it needs to do to remain competitive in the world, then no abstract theory of cooperation is going to help us.

We have to be competitive, we have to be purposeful and from that base we have to be willing to cooperate.

Tavis: Your comments about Europe now, Dr. Kissinger, raise a whole series of questions I don’t have time to get into tonight, but I was just re-reading a couple of nights ago your dissertation on Metternich. We’ll come back to that maybe in another conversation at another time in another place.

But in the time that I have left tonight, the economic crisis that we have been enduring and for that matter are still going through at the moment, how much a blow to Chinese confidence do you think our crisis has been?

Kissinger: It has been a huge blow to Chinese confidence, and even more to Chinese perception of us. The Chinese have held the view that even when we had political differences that in the economic and financial field we knew how to run things and that they could learn from us.

They have now seen a major collapse of American financial institutions from which we are just beginning to recover, and it has – and many Chinese who used to rely on the United States in that field have become more dubious about it and it is certainly one of the challenges we need to deal with.

Tavis: Let me offer this, then, as the exit question, Dr. Kissinger. What, then, all of this conversation tonight said, what makes you hopeful about the relationship between the U.S. and China in the future?

Kissinger: Well, I’m hopeful first of all because the view that I’ve developed here is not peculiar to me. It is a view that you really have to come to when you examine the situation. Secondly, I know the leaders on both sides and I have had chances to talk with them and sometimes to mediate between them.

I believe that most of the time they realize that this is necessary, but in the modern world, the urgent sometimes replaces the important. But I think if the leaders on both sides keep an eye on the important, they will overcome the stresses. And I would like to stress both sides have to do this. It is not enough for the United States to have these intentions. The Chinese have to reciprocate and meet us in the same spirit.

Tavis: The new best-selling book from former secretary of State Dr. Kissinger is called, simply, “On China.” Dr. Kissinger, thanks for your time tonight. I appreciate you sharing your insight, sir.

Kissinger: Thank you for inviting me.

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Last modified: June 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm