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Kissinger’s secret passion for Beijing’s Temple of Heaven

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling
Kissinger was last in Beijing in November 2019 – where he also met with President Xi Jinping.

To gain a better understanding of China, Beijing prefers foreign politicians to visit its provinces instead of short trips to the capital city. German chancellors followed this advice. Helmut Schmidt went to Xinjiang on his inaugural visit in 1975, and Helmut Kohl was the first head of government to visit Tibet in 1987. Angela Merkel has been the most active. Most recently, the chancellor toured the central Chinese city of Wuhan in September 2019. Since taking office, she has visited China a total of twelve times and spent time in around 40 percent of all Chinese provinces.

However, German politicians have got nothing on Henry Kissinger. He made nearly 100 trips to the People’s Republic after his first secret visit to Beijing 50 years ago on July 9, 1971 – a trip that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Last week, Vice President Wang Qishan praised him for it. Joined online, 98-year-old Kissinger recalled in his 15-minute video message how he succeeded in making China “part of the international diplomatic system. He called on the U.S. and China to engage in dialogue to keep it that way, and advised that both nations should each choose an emissary who “has the trust of their presidents to guide this discussion.”

The thought that Washington and Beijing are sliding into a hostile confrontation and forcing other countries under their wing in the process keeps him up at night. As a historian, he worries whether the Middle Kingdom’s rise will inexorably turn it into a rival to the Western order and detaches itself from the international system in the process.

During one of his many China travels, Kissinger discovered a place where he could reflect. It was the Tiantan (天坛) in southern Beijing, also known as the Temple of Heaven. I learned about it when I once interviewed the caretakers of the Ming-era temple complex. They proudly told me how fond Kissinger was of their park. He had visited it fifteen times, and in June 2013, at the age of 90, he even brought his grandson with him.

What fascinated him about the complex, which was built between 1406 and 1420 and served as an altar for the emperor to implore heaven for good harvests? As the “son of heaven”, the emperor presided over the annual sacrificial ceremony in the three-story rotunda with a roof of blue-glazed tiles. Its ingenious wooden construction did not require nails. The round temple situated on a square space embodied heaven above earth and also the hierarchical world order “Tian Xia” (天下) – Everything under China’s Heaven.

Kissinger praised the Tiantan as a “masterpiece of classical architecture” and was especially fond of the adjacent cypress forest with its old trees. The “ancient Chinese” ambiance also captivated him for another reason. It was the time when he contemplated the mystery of China. He published his findings in two books, “China: Between Tradition and Challenge” in 2011 and “World Order” in 2014. His initial question on traditional diplomacy was “how to balance rival forces and thus balance the interests of states and the clash of nationalism.” He found his answer in the pacts of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1815). Europe thus succeeded in “redefining the international order.”

Kissinger first visited Tiantan Park in October 1971, three months after his coup of July 9. He was back in Beijing to pre-negotiate with China on the draft of a Joint Communiqué, which was to be released during Richard Nixon’s visit in February 1972. His negotiating partner was Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua (乔冠华), who had earned his doctorate in 1937 in Germany at the University of Tübingen on the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. Biographer Luo Yingsheng describes that after two days, both negotiators were bogged down in the question of finding an acceptable arrangement on the Taiwan issue. Qiao suggested to Kissinger a half-day break to accompany him through the Temple of Heaven. There, the two continued to argue. But Qiao’s calculation worked out: “Some things can only be addressed directly during a walk.” Kissinger had relented.

Kissinger and Qiao also arranged to meet again for a walk through Tiantan Park in 1973 after a negotiation impasse. Qiao showed him the oval stone enclosure around the frontal sacrificial temple, which had been completed in the 18th century and was called the Echo Wall by the locals because its construction transmitted sound. Standing 60 meters apart, the two could still hear and understand each other. Kissinger called it the world’s first “cordless wall telephone.” If Beijing allowed him to take a few bricks, he would have the first “hotline to China”.

Kissinger and all other US presidents, from Nixon to Bush to Obama, stayed the course of continued efforts to integrate China into the international order of the West-Westphalian concept, even after their initial mutual interest of warding off the Soviet threat was no longer relevant. For this reason, Beijing’s World Trade Organization membership was an important next step.

Kissinger planted “the seeds of a policy of engagement that became the operating system for U.S.-China relations,” wrote U.S.-China scholar Orville Schell in his brilliant essay. Things went well “until China, under Xi Jinping, began to adopt an aggressive and belligerent stance.” Schell then quotes Kurt Campell, the leading specialist on Asia in Biden’s National Security Council. He officially declared in May what everyone already knew at that point: “This endeavor is over.” There is “a growing bipartisan consensus in the United States to move on from Kissinger’s engagement policy to a strategy of strategic competition, including intensified confrontational measures to compete with Beijing,” Schell concludes.

Recently, Kissinger came forward with increasingly strong words of warning. He wondered whether the current development will lead to a major conflict, as inevitable as the First World War once was. He no longer finds the answers to this question in the Temple of Heaven.


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