Ian Ellis: ​At 100, Kissinger is welcomed in China as an old friend

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, attend a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China July 20, 2023. China Daily via REUTERSChinese President Xi Jinping and Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, attend a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China July 20, 2023. China Daily via REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, attend a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China July 20, 2023. China Daily via REUTERS
​In typically witty fashion, Oscar Wilde observed: “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone”.

On my bookshelves I have a 1,216-page volume containing the complete works of Wilde and he is rightly accredited with many witticisms revealing a particularly dry sense of humour.

Asked by an American customs official if he had anything to declare, with somewhat conceited yet undeniable wit he famously replied, “nothing... except my genius”.

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On the other hand, succinctness being part of wit, Wilde was able to convey his very clear, and surely true, insight that “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”.

On the matter of age and wisdom, perhaps if advancing age does make individuals wiser it is because their accumulated experience of life enables them, very often, to have a more nuanced view of things, so that they are much less inclined to jump to conclusions.

Experience of life does teach one that there are always different perspectives to be borne in mind when considering whatever issue.

On this subject, one piece of news has surely been quite remarkable.

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At the age of 100, Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State (1973-1977), has recently visited Beijing, holding talks with senior officials and with President Xi Jinping himself.

Apparently, considerable excitement was stirred on Chinese social media, with "Kissinger is 100 years old but is still able to fly to Beijing for a work trip" reportedly becoming a hit trending topic on China's Weibo network.

People naturally have different views on Dr Kissinger, but he certainly has massive experience of international affairs and, no doubt, has more than his fair share of wisdom.

He was instrumental in normalising US-China relations in the 1970s, a time when China emerged from relative isolation and began its exponential economic growth.

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He has paid over one hundred visits to China, a point made by President Xi in his public comments seated with him across a small table for tea, adding that there is an old Chinese saying that “great virtues come with longevity”.

Sky News reported President Xi as describing Dr Kissinger as among China's “old friends”, pointing out that his efforts had brought a “turning point” in China-US relations, adding: “The Chinese people never forget their old friends and Sino-US relations will always be linked with the name of Henry Kissinger."

The BBC quoted Dr Kissinger as saying during his Beijing visit that he is a "friend of China", and that "neither the United States nor China can afford to treat the other as an adversary", adding that their relations would be "central to the peace in the world and to the progress of our society".

President Xi indeed extended a particularly warm welcome to his centenarian visitor.

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At the same time, Voice of America reported China’s ambassador to the US, Xie Feng, as commenting: “This is, frankly speaking, a difficult time for China-US relations".

There is no doubt that there are considerable, current tensions between the two countries, in multiple areas, but the Kissinger-Xi meeting in particular, even though the former was not officially representing the US government, brought a sense of goodwill between the two superpowers.

Indeed, Dr Kissinger's visit came in the immediate wake of a series of top-level US officials' visits to China – Anthony Blinken, the current US Secretary of State; Janet Yellen, US Treasury Secretary; and John Kerry, the US government's international climate envoy.

Also, Elon Musk and Bill Gates were recent private visitors to Beijing.

It is heartening to see such communication taking place.

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One may well hope that Dr Kissinger's cordial visit to the Chinese capital will help towards a less difficult era of US-China relations.

His senior age and experience certainly lent immense gravitas to his presence, however unofficial the visit was.

It is sometimes said that US President Joe Biden, who is 81 years of age, is too elderly to be the next US president.

However, it is worth recalling that West Germany's first post-World War II chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who reached the age of 90 in 1966, was politically active into his 90s.

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There is another aspect of this matter of age, of a religious nature.

No doubt in ancient times, life expectancy was very limited compared to today, with only a relative few reaching what we nowadays would regard as old age.

For that reason, and in the absence of both many written records and a widespread ability to read and write, they generally were seen as the source of much knowledge and wisdom.

Indeed, the New Testament refers to the leadership position of “elders” in the church.

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Yet, it is important to avoid an ageist attitude, taking a view of people as necessarily being wiser or more foolish simply because of their age.

The recent election of the 25-year-old Keir Mather as a Labour MP reportedly led to criticism of him on account his youth, with his mother robustly defending him as having “good political acumen”.

Nonetheless, older age can indeed bring its own kind of wisdom and, indeed, its virtues.

Yet the contribution people can make in whatever sphere of endeavour is ultimately a question of ability and character, not age.

Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette