Friday, May 11, 2007

Nixon and Mao: A Good Read!

Ah, the old days!! Anyone who worked around China in the early 1980s remembers "the way it used to be." Not at all like today; a world of real mystery, and, not coincidentally, intrigue as well. And, of course, we were all so young; modern China included. All of this is vividly brought back to life in Margaret Macmillan's new book Nixon and Mao which describes not only [in the book's subtitle] "the week that changed the world," but much of the background leading up to that week as well. Especially fascinating for an American audience [authored by a well-known Canadian academic], it's a well-written read for anyone interested in China, and really does recall the way things used to be. In addition, however, there are some real take-aways worth noting:

  • The sheer audacity of it all! I mean, what Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou and Mao did was unthinkable; great politics, grand theatre, and we are all beneficiaries of it, still today;

  • The book reminds us that we have forgotten, all too easily, the carnage of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and that China was just coming out of it only thirty some-odd years ago;

  • The principal characters are fascinating: Mao comes across in the book as someone who could cut quickly to the core of a problem, and then had the unchallenged power to solve it, as well as being a master of the grand gesture. His unique mixture of acute perceptions, high-intellect and peasant-ways is vividly portrayed;

  • Zhou Enlai remains an enigma for me. Loved by so many Chinese people, and admired by all of the foreigners who dealt with him, he still eludes an easly definition of who he was and what he stood for.

  • Lest anybody doubt the role of Taiwan in China's national conciousness, this book establishes quite clearly the centrality and emotion in China's political mindset over the renegade island province;

  • Kissinger comes across less worldly than I would have expected. Was he really so taken with "the mystery of the Orient"?

  • Nixon is as mysterious as ever; seemingly careening from moment of being high-minded and strategic to moments of being manipulative and petty.

  • Finally, I'm struck by a comment of Zhou Enlai to Kissinger [page 213] which could be applied in many corporate strategic conversations today: "This awakening consciousness of the people is promoting changes in the world, or we might call it turmoil. ... Shall this generation of peace be based on hopes for the future, or on old friends?"

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