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China mourns Kissinger — ‘a most valued old friend’

The death of Henry Kissinger on Wednesday saw the loss of a diplomat Beijing has long considered a trusted friend, with China’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday hailing the former American secretary of state as “a pioneer and architect of China-US relations” for his central role in the establishment of bilateral ties.

Paying tribute to the late statesman during a regular press briefing, ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said “the Chinese people will remember Dr. Kissinger’s sincere devotion and important contributions to China-US relations.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping had sent his condolences to President Joe Biden, Wang added.

Kissinger’s death was also mourned on Chinese social media Thursday, where his passing became the top trending topic on heavily moderated microblogging site Weibo with more than 400 million views.

“Farewell, old friend of the Chinese people,” said a top comment with thousands of likes.

“The person who started a period of history has finally become history,” another comment said.

Considered a highly influential but controversial figure in the United States and around the world, Kissinger is highly regarded in China for his role laying the groundwork for the formation of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington – a crucial and highly consequential step in the country’s reengagement with the world.

In July 1971, Kissinger became the first high-ranking US official to visit Communist China. His secret meeting with Chinese leaders paved the way for then President Richard Nixon’s breakthrough trip the following year.

That visit, in turn, opened the door for the normalization of ties between the world’s richest country and its most populous in 1979.

“There is no more important diplomat in the 20th century than Henry Kissinger, certainly with regard to US-China relations, he has left an indelible mark,” said Scott Kennedy, senior adviser in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington.

Long after Kissinger left office, Beijing had regarded the well-connected diplomat as a potential helping hand in navigating the increasingly hawkish views towards China in Washington. Amid fraught relations in recent years, Chinese state-controlled media has celebrated former diplomat in an apparent signal of signal their displeasure with the tougher stance taken by US administrations.

In a statement Thursday, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Xie Feng, said he was “deeply shocked and saddened” to learn of Kissinger’s passing.

“History will remember what the centenarian had contributed to China-US relations, and he will always remain alive in the hearts of the Chinese people as a most valued old friend,” Xie said on social media X.

Chinese state media highlighted Kissinger’s friendship with China, noting that he visited the country more than 100 times over half a century. State broadcaster CCTV called him a “living fossil” who witnessed the development of US-China relations.

Many state-run outlets cited a glowing quote from Kissinger’s interview with official news agency Xinhua in 2011. “China is the country with which I have the longest and most in-depth contacts. China has become a very important part of my life. Chinese friends are of extraordinary significance to me,” the American diplomat was quoted as saying. 
And even amid growing tensions – as recent US administrations have grown increasingly alarmed by China’s aggressive foreign policy and authoritarianism at home –– Kissinger remained a strong advocate of positive engagement to avoid conflict.

Final visit

Kissinger last traveled to China in July, when the Biden administration was busy dispatching cabinet officials to the Chinese capital in an attempt to restore fractured communications ahead of a potential visit to the US from Xi, which took place earlier this month.

Bilateral relations had then plunged to a new low following the fallout from an alleged Chinese spy balloon and a high-level US visit to selfTaiwan last summer.

On his surprise visit to Beijing, Kissinger was granted a meeting with Xi who hailed him as an “old friend.” That made him stand out from US climate envoy John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who traveled there on separate trips that same month and only met with their counterparts.

Kissinger also met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who told him “US policies toward China require Kissinger-style diplomatic wisdom and Nixon-style political courage.”

On that trip, Kissinger was held up in Chinese state media as an example of “old friends diplomacy,” according to Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, referring to China’s practice of pointing to international figures who have contributed to positive, stable relations between their country and China.

“Chinese media very clearly tried to paint the picture that ‘this is good diplomacy,’ and Kissinger is forward-looking and has goodwill for mitigating the tensions between two countries — and other current diplomats are not like Kissinger,” said Wu, adding that Beijing was, in reality, not aiming to be a “close friend” of the US in its own diplomacy.

“Kissinger, the Flying Tigers, all are part of the story of the US-China relations ‘golden model’ or ‘good old days’ that Xi Jinping wants to promote,” Wu said, referring to American pilots who helped China fight Japan during World War II, who were recently highlighted in state media coverage ahead of Xi’s US visit.

But among some Chinese intellectuals there are “mixed feelings” about Kissinger’s legacy, with some saying he only tried to promote peace with China, and didn’t have principles when it came to China’s political realities, Wu added.

‘Creative diplomacy’

Kissinger’s covert 1971 visit to China as Nixon’s national security advisor followed more than two decades of hostility and almost no contact between the two countries.

That trip, where he met Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and a second visit that same year, paved the way for Nixon’s own breakthrough trip the following February and the signing of the carefully worded Shanghai Communique, where both sides agreed to work toward normalizing relations.

The tectonic shift in US-China relations that was formalized some eight years later opened the door for extensive economic engagement starting from the early 1980s. It also shifted the balance of power in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, experts say, by deepening a split between Moscow and Beijing.

But getting there was a significant challenge.

“There were a variety of voices in the United States in the 1960s quietly calling for finding a path toward normalization with China … but it took very careful, wise diplomacy to actually implement and get that process rolling,” said Kennedy at CSIS in Washington, pointing to both sides’ management of key differences.

Fifty years later, Kissinger’s brand of pragmatism and what experts describe as his efforts to put aside ideological differences for strategic purposes appears at odds with the recent trajectory of the US-China relationship. 
While Biden and Xi met earlier this month to ease tensions, the friendly public gestures belied the mistrust on both sides, with each seeing the other as seeking to use or co-opt the current world order in their favor.

“It’s more difficult for the US and China to find a pragmatic balance because the domestic politics in both countries … (have) shifted dramatically,” said Kennedy.

“It’s really hard to think today that we would have the US and others engage in that kind of creative diplomacy with China … and (other) countries with which we have the biggest differences,” Kennedy added. “That’s what Kissinger was able to do.”

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