U.S. politician Henry Kissinger dies 1:12
Hong Kong (CNN) -- China's Foreign Ministry on Thursday praised the former U.S. secretary of state as a "pioneer and architect of China-U.S. relations" for his central role in establishing bilateral ties.
Paying tribute to the late statesman during a regular press briefing, ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that "the Chinese people will remember Dr. Kissinger's sincere devotion and his important contributions to China-U.S. relations."
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Chinese leader Xi Jinping had sent his condolences to President Joe Biden, Wang added.
Kissinger's death was also mourned on Chinese social media on Thursday, where his passing became the top topical topic on the heavily moderated microblogging site Weibo, with more than 400 million views.
"Farewell, old friend of the Chinese people," read one comment with thousands of likes.
"The person who started a period of history has finally become history," read another comment.
Considered a highly influential but controversial figure in the United States and around the world, Kissinger is highly regarded in China for his role in laying the groundwork for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington, a crucial and far-reaching step in the resumption of the country's relations with the world.
In July 1971, Kissinger became the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit Communist China. His secret meeting with Chinese leaders paved the way for then-President Richard Nixon's pivotal trip the following year.
That visit, in turn, opened the door to 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 when it comes to U.S.-China relations, he has left an indelible mark," said Scott Kennedy, senior adviser on Chinese economics and business at the think tank at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Long after Kissinger left office, Beijing saw this well-connected diplomat as a potential help in circumventing Washington's increasingly belligerent stances toward China. Amid strained relations in recent years, Chinese state-controlled media have celebrated the former diplomat in an apparent sign of their discontent with the tougher stance taken by U.S. administrations.
In a statement released Thursday, China's ambassador to the United States, Xie Feng, said he was "deeply shocked and saddened" by the news of Kissinger's passing.
"History will remember what the centenary contributed to China-U.S. relations, and will always remain alive in the hearts of the Chinese people as a precious old friend," Xie said on the X social network.
Chinese state media highlighted Kissinger's friendship with China, noting that he visited the country more than 100 times over the course of half a century. State broadcaster CCTV called it a "living fossil" that witnessed the development of relations between China and the United States.
Many state media reproduced a laudatory quote from an interview by Kissinger with the official Xinhua news agency in 2011. "China is the country with which I have the longest and deepest contacts. China has become a very important part of my life. Chinese friends have extraordinary meaning to me," the U.S. diplomat said.
And even amid rising tensions — as recent U.S. administrations have become increasingly alarmed by China's aggressive foreign policy and domestic authoritarianism — Kissinger remained a strong advocate of positive dialogue to avoid conflict.
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Kissinger last traveled to China in July, when the Biden administration sent his Cabinet officials to the Chinese capital in an attempt to restore fractured communications ahead of a possible visit by Xi to the United States earlier this month.
Bilateral relations had then fallen to a new low following the fallout from an alleged Chinese spy balloon and a high-level U.S. visit to Taiwan last summer.
On his surprise visit to Beijing, Kissinger met with Xi, who greeted him as an "old friend." That set him apart from U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who traveled there separately later that month and met only with their counterparts.
Kissinger also met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who told him that "U.S. policies toward China require Kissinger-style diplomatic wisdom and Nixon-style political courage."
On that trip, Chinese state media held up Kissinger as an example of "old-friend 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 singling out international figures who have contributed to positive and stable relations between his country and China.
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"The Chinese media tried very clearly to paint the picture that 'this is good diplomacy,' and Kissinger has farsightedness and goodwill to defuse tensions between two countries, and other current diplomats are not like Kissinger," Wu said, adding that Beijing did not actually claim to be a "close friend" of the U.S. in its own diplomacy.
"Kissinger, the Flying Tigers, they are all part of the story of the 'golden model' or the 'good old days' of U.S.-China relations that Xi Jinping wants to promote," Wu said, referring to the U.S. pilots who helped China fight Japan during World War II, who were recently highlighted in state media coverage ahead of Xi's visit to the U.S.
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 was unprincipled when it came to China's political realities, Wu added.
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Kissinger's covert visit to China in 1971 as Nixon's national security adviser came after more than two decades of hostility and almost no contact between the two countries.
That trip, in which he met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and a second visit later that year, paved the way for Nixon's decisive trip in February of the following year and the signing of the carefully worded Shanghai Communiqué, in which both sides agreed to work toward normalizing relations.
The tectonic shift in U.S.-China relations that was formalized some eight years later opened the door to broad economic engagement beginning in the early 1980s. According to experts, it also shifted the balance of power in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, by deepening the divide between Moscow and Beijing.
But getting there was a major challenge.
"In the 1960s, voices were heard in the United States advocating normalization with China... but it took very careful and wise diplomacy to get the process going," Kennedy said at CSIS in Washington, alluding to the handling of key differences by both sides.
Fifty years later, Kissinger's pragmatism and what experts describe as his efforts to set aside ideological differences for strategic purposes seem to contradict the recent trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship.
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Although Biden and Xi met earlier this month to ease tensions, the friendly gestures in public masked the distrust of both sides, each of which sees the other as trying to use or co-opt the current world order to its advantage.
"It's harder for the U.S. and China to find a pragmatic balance because the domestic politics of both countries have changed radically," Kennedy said.
"It's really hard to think today that the U.S. and other countries would 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."