China, in Control

James Mann's book is a riveting account of Sino-American relations that anyone with money in Asia should read.
Publish date:

James Mann, About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, From Nixon to Clinton, Knopf, 1999, 352 pages (hardcover, $30)

The U.S.' involvement with China is without doubt the strangest, most charged and geopolitically significant relationship on the world stage today.

Anyone with money in Asia simply cannot ignore dealings between both countries: Clashes between them have sent currencies and stock markets in the region reeling. Western exporters closely followed

Bill Clinton's

talks this month in Washington with Chinese premier

Zhu Rongji

over his country's application to join the

World Trade Organization


And recent news accounts of alleged Chinese espionage and apparently illegal Democratic campaign contributions from shady Chinese sources have rocked the Clinton administration.

Clearly, investors would do well to acquire a better understanding of the dynamics between China and the U.S. An excellent place to start is

About Face


Los Angeles Times


James Mann


This account of Sino-American relations since the early '70s is clearsighted, exhaustive and, somewhat surprising for a diplomatic history, riveting. The main conclusion that can be drawn from the book is that the relationship has been decidedly lopsided, with the Americans rarely reaping significant concessions from China.

Mann starts with

Richard Nixon's

rapprochement with China, beginning in 1971. In July of that year, National Security Advisor

Henry Kissinger

feigned a stomachache on a trip to Pakistan and secretly flew to Beijing to forge an entente with a communist government that the U.S. had, till that point, treated as a bandit regime.

It's easy to forget how big a shift this was. Mann recalls that only a few years earlier, the U.S. had seriously considered joint action with Russia to destroy China's nuclear facilities.

Nixon, of course, thought friendlier ties with China would help counterbalance Soviet aggression and facilitate a withdrawal from Vietnam. Just as importantly, he wanted to make up with Beijing before the Democrats did, bagging for himself a historic foreign-policy maneuver.

But it seems that Nixon, and especially Kissinger, got carried away and became interested in the relationship for its own sake. China, for example, showed little interest in pressuring Vietnam into peace.

Mann recounts how Chinese leaders have consistently shown a very keen understanding of U.S. presidents' characters and cravings. On a personal level, premier

Chou Enlai

played Nixon like a fiddle. But this desire to influence and court U.S. leaders perhaps reached a new high with recent allegations that Chinese intelligence provided $300,000 to Democratic fund raiser

Johnny Chung

to help get Clinton re-elected in 1996.

All U.S. presidents since Nixon generally have taken a conciliatory line toward China. To a certain extent, the U.S. did try to stand its ground more under

Ronald Reagan

, who was open to the influence of

Paul Wolfowitz

, a young State Department official who had tired of the Kissingerian compromises. Wolfowitz was soon vindicated when the Chinese finally accepted the U.S. refusal to put a time limit on arms sales to Taiwan.

Reagan left office just before the

Tiananmen Square

massacre, so we'll never know whether he and his hawks would have had more backbone than Bush, who very quickly tried to mend fences with Beijing after the atrocity.

Of course,

About Face

doesn't touch on Clinton's unexpected refusal this month to back China's candidacy for WTO membership. However, Mann's frequent columns on U.S.-China developments can be found on the

Los Angeles Times'

Web site.

Mann has written an accomplished history book. The narrative is tight and studded with amusing anecdotes. What really gives the book its edge, though, is Mann's ability to give the reader the feeling of being a privileged insider. He was able to do so in part because he used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain jealously held state documents and relied on personal interviews with key players. has a revenue-sharing relationship with under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon purchases by customers directed there from selects books for review solely on the basis of merit for its readers.