Cecil Bohanon and John Horowitz: Henry Kissinger’s legacy can be seen in China

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Henry Kissinger, who passed away Nov. 29, is rightfully regarded as the most influential American diplomat of our age. His diplomacy led to President Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China and, in 1979, to the United States recognizing the PRC rather than Taiwan’s Republic of China as the official Chinese government. In May, just before his 100th birthday, Kissinger gave an eight-hour interview to The Economist magazine. “In his view, the fate of humanity depends on whether America and China can get along,” the magazine reported.

In 1972, the ordinary citizens of mainland China were overwhelmingly poor and sick. In 1972, mainland China’s per capita GDP in 2015 dollars was $299. Overall life expectancy was 58.4 years. The infant mortality rate was 72.1 per 1,000 births. Less than 50% of the male population lived to 65 years of age. As recently as 1990, 72% of China’s population survived on less than $2.15 a day (in 2017 dollars)—the level the World Bank considers living in absolute poverty.

What has occurred since 1972 can only be described as one of history’s most rapid and widespread improvements in living standards. In 2022, per capita GDP in 2015 dollars was $11,560—a 38-fold increase in real terms over those 50 years. Life expectancy rose to 78.9 years, and infant mortality plunged to 5.1 per 1,000 live births. Over 80% of men now live to age 65, and the percentage of the population living in absolute poverty fell from 72% to 0.1%.

What caused China’s improvement in living standards? The Chinese government moved from a closed state-controlled economy to a relatively open, free-market economy. Trade with the rest of the world accounted for 5.8% of China’s output in 1972; in 2022, it was 38.1%. In 1972, 17.2% of mainland China’s population lived in cities; in 2022, the figure was 63.6%.

However, the communist regime in Beijing has also used much of its newly derived wealth to bolster its military prowess. China’s naval power is now on par with that of the United States.

Although the United States long ago abandoned its diplomatic recognition of the Taiwan regime, it is still committed to the island’s defense, and therein lies the hazard. In his April interview, Kissinger said, “It is not a simple matter for the United States to abandon Taiwan without undermining its position elsewhere.” Kissinger knew the world he helped create is still fraught with danger. We will miss his insights and wisdom.•

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Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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