The passing of Henry Kissinger signifies the end of an extraordinary era in world politics and the closing of a momentous chapter in U.S. foreign policy. His life and legacy are being remembered in many countries, but perhaps nowhere as poignantly as China.
China has reacted to Kissinger’s passing with a tidal wave of glowing tributes from current officials, former officials, academics as well as ordinary people. While in the United States views are decidedly mixed regarding the central role Kissinger played in U.S. foreign policy—first as a key actor, and then as prolific memorialist, pithy commentator and venerated advisor to multiple generations of U.S. officials—in China he is universally revered and respected.
What can one glean about contemporary China from this outpouring of glowing tributes? Three insights come to mind. First, these tributes are a manifestation of the tremendous nostalgia for what many Chinese see as a golden era in U.S.-China relations. Second, the flood of effusive reminiscences represents genuine mourning over the loss of an old friend and trusted intermediary. Third, this nostalgia and mourning also reflects wistfulness about the demise of a model of “great man” diplomacy much preferred by Chinese leaders.
Nostalgia for a Bygone Era in U.S.-China Relations
For the Chinese, Kissinger is inseparable from what is widely viewed as a golden era in U.S.-China relations. He is credited with being both the visionary and architect of rapprochement between Washington and Beijing as well as the statesman who realized it. To be sure, the late president Richard Nixon is also widely respected in China, and it was Nixon’s high-profile trip to Beijing in February 1972 that was celebrated as “the week that changed the world.” Yet in Chinese eyes, Kissinger enjoys greater adulation because it was his clandestine visit to China in July 1971 — as Nixon’s personal emissary — that demonstrated to Chinese leaders that the United States was serious about wanting to improve relations with the People’s Republic of China after decades of animosity. Kissinger’s mid-1971 meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were the first ever face-to-face sessions between top-level officials from both countries.
For China, Kissinger represented an important link to a positive past and a strong thread of continuity across five decades of U.S.-China relations. The current sorry state of bilateral relations invites nostalgia for a more contented time.
Mourning the Loss of a China-Centric Washington Insider
For Chinese leaders, Kissinger was an “old friend” of China who they believed had an abiding personal and professional stake in maintaining a strong bilateral relationship. Kissinger reportedly made more than 100 trips to China over his lifetime—most of these visits were undertaken when he was a private citizen after he departed public office in 1977. Kissinger’s most recent trip to China was in July 2023 where he was feted by top Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping. The Chinese president told Kissinger: “The Chinese people never forget their old friends, and Sino-U.S. relations will always be linked with the name of Henry Kissinger.”
Chinese leaders believed that Kissinger had unparalleled access to the corridors of power in Washington and to the boardrooms of Wall Street in New York City. As such they listened dutifully to his prognostications on U.S. politics and assessments of U.S. economic trends. Moreover, they trusted him to serve as a good-faith intermediary passing unadulterated messages from Chinese leaders to their U.S. counterparts.
Wistfulness over the Demise of China’s Preferred Model of Diplomacy
For Chinese leaders, Kissinger’s passing is also a lament about the end of a yesteryear model of “great man” diplomacy — one much preferred by Chinese leaders. Kissinger’s diplomatic style closely comports with how China’s communist rulers like to conduct foreign relations: two top-echelon national leaders cloistered in elegant state rooms flanked by a small coterie of trusted aides hammering out between them in broad brush strokes the trajectory and parameters of the relationship. Of course, this is precisely how the United States and China launched their diplomatic breakthrough, and successive sets of leaders managed the bilateral relationship during the 1970s and on into the 1980s.
This largely realpolitik style of diplomacy, conducted away from the glare of television cameras and out of earshot of journalists, was focused on safeguarding each side’s vital interests and cooperating on matters of overlapping interest. During the 1970s and 1980s, the geostrategic logic of the relationship was cooperation to counter the Soviet threat. This meant that issues such as defense and trade were viewed positively, and differences over ideology and human rights were conveniently set aside. For China, Kissinger personified the practice of hardcore realism where hard-power calculations — especially windfalls of bilateral trade to U.S. corporations — took priority over standing up to the brutal repression by the Chinese Communist Party of its own people. It is noteworthy that Kissinger opposed the imposition of economic sanctions on China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
By the 1990s, U.S.-China diplomacy was no longer the exclusive purview of the senior most leaders on both sides and had moved well beyond an almost exclusive focus on geopolitical factors. Bilateral relations became far more “democratic” with many more participants not just in the political realm but also in the spheres of business, education and beyond. Moreover, over the decades, the relationship became more multifaceted and complex, encompassing burgeoning economic ties, robust educational exchanges and voluminous people-to-people interactions. Additionally, in recent decades both sets of leaders could not afford to overlook public opinion in their respective countries. No longer can two top leaders and/or their personal emissaries negotiate a deal and then assume the matter is closed.
Requiem for a Man and an Era
In short, China’s nostalgia for and mourning over Kissinger is not simply genuine grief over the death of a high-profile foreign friend. It represents much more to Chinese leaders and the Chinese public—the sadness over the loss of a simpler and more predictable time in which U.S.-China relations were mostly cordial and certainly far more stable.