Kai Ryssdal: Forty years ago this summer, Henry Kissinger went to China for the first time. A visit by Richard Nixon and meetings with Chairman Mao followed the next year. Deng Xiao Ping started reforming the Chinese economy in the middle and late 1970s. Today it's growing at 10 percent a year and is the second biggest economy in the world.
For most of that time, Henry Kissinger's been a high-level go-between -- both officially and privately -- as Washington and Beijing try to figure out exactly what their relationship is supposed to be. That shared history is the subject of his new book -- it's called On China. Dr. Kissinger, welcome to the program.
Henry Kissinger: Pleasure to be here.
Ryssdal: I wonder if you could start with a little bit of personal impression. What was it like that day when you got off the plane for the first time in Beijing, coming down those stairs?
Kissinger: I, of course, had never been in China before so I had no particular idea what to expect. Later on I found that the Chinese did not have stairways for the 707 and they had to build one because they didn't want to buy one and admit that they didn't have one. So I stepped on a staircase off the plane that was being used for the first time because there had never been a 707 there.
Ryssdal: This might be putting the cart before the horse a little, but what do you suppose China would be like now if President Nixon hadn't decided to open things up?
Kissinger: Well I suppose that sooner or later the process of reform and globalization would have started, but it would have taken a lot longer. At that time, when it started, we didn't even know on what door to knock to get turned down. We tried many different avenues until we finally hit on one through Pakistan.
Ryssdal: That's an interesting point about not knowing which door to knock on because you say at one point in this book that the relationship benefited in the early days from the ambiguities. You guys intentionally misunderstood each other to let the relationship progress and develop.
Kissinger: I wouldn't say we intentionally misunderstood each other, but we surely misunderstood each other.
Ryssdal: But the question is: Do you think we can afford those kind of ambiguities now?
Kissinger: No. And that's why it's very important that we have a continuous strategic dialogue with China so that we don't slide into misunderstandings that are avoidable.
Ryssdal: It's my experience -- having lived and worked in China for a number of years, and having friends there and having been back a number of times over the past decade -- that their economic rise over the past 20 years is an issue of intense national pride. Do you agree?
Kissinger: Absolutely. Since it started when I first came to China, there were very few consumer goods, not much of an infrastructure, there were no hotels. And they have now developed themselves where the cities along the coast are as advanced -- in some respects, more advanced -- than American cities.
Ryssdal: Well, you know, it's funny. You talk about this tour that Deng Xiaoping took of the southern cities in 1992 -- very important economic development in the history of China. And he said at the time, basically words to this effect. Listen: We need to make sure Chinese people have four things -- a bicycle, a sewing machine, a radio, and a wristwatch. And that was less than 20 years ago.
Kissinger: It was less than 20 years ago. And at that time, it's very good that you raise that because at that time there were very few cars in Beijing and the streets were absolutely jammed with bicycles or motorcycles. A motorcycle was already an advanced form of transportation. Today you see very few bicycles and all the lanes for bicycles have been turned into lanes for cars and naturally there's traffic jams in every city.
Ryssdal: Yeah. I don't know when the last time you were in Beijing was, and if you travel like a regular person, but it's really hard to get around.
Kissinger: I don't always travel as a regular person, but even then it's very hard to get around because the police escort can force the cars -- when they're jammed together, they can't get out of the way even if they want to.
Ryssdal: So this is kind of a loaded question, but I'd love to hear your answer to it anyway: Who was more important to the China of today, of 2011 -- Mao Tse-Tung or Deng Xiaoping?
Kissinger: That's a very good question. A lot of Chinese are debating that. The case you can make for Deng Xiaoping is that the actual economy that now exists was created by him and it was created by him, in a way, over the intentions of Mao. On the other hand, there are also Chinese that I know who argue that Mao unified the country, he brought women into the economy, he abolished the feudal system. And Deng couldn't have done what he did -- even if it was not exactly what Mao would have done -- had Mao not first taken these other measures.
Ryssdal: There is a sense in this country of, fear is kind of a strong word, but unease about China and its developments and its intentions. Is that justified? Is that fear and unease justified, do you think?
Kissinger: Well China is a huge country, which throughout its history has considered the central kingdom of the universe that they knew. I think the present Chinese government certainly asserts that what they want is peaceful cooperation and they mean it. But it is very important that the United States and China remain in dialogue and that they do some cooperative projects together so that the younger generations growing up on both sides develop a sense of joint enterprise because a collision of our country and theirs would have very grave consequences for both sides.
Ryssdal: Henry Kissinger. His most recent book is called, On China. Dr. Kissinger, thanks so much for your time, sir.
Kissinger: Pleasure to be on.
Ryssdal: You can read a chapter of Henry Kissinger's new book. We picked the one where he goes to China for the first time. Check it out here (PDF).