Kevin Rudd: Former Prime Minister of Australia

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The Chinese love to say that their country is a difficult place for outsiders to understand. Kevin Rudd, who has spent a lifetime studying China, agrees. Rudd, who twice served as Australia's prime minister, started learning Chinese in the 1970s. When he embarked on his political rise, after stints in the Australian Embassy in Beijing and as a China consultant for the accounting firm KPM@, Rudd kept up his Mandarin and his China contacts. According to a U.S. State Department cable released by Wikileaks, he once described himself as a "brutal realist" when it comes to China. Today, Rudd remains an astute, opinionated observer of Beijing's opaque political system and its knotty international affairs. In December, FOREIGN POLICY spoke with Rudd in New York about Xi Jinping, Henry Kissinger, the importance of language, and the territorial dispute between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Rudd insists there's no "easy fix" to the dispute, which threatens to incite a war: "Anyone who thinks there is a neat negotiating point to bring these guys together on this question is probably smoking something."

There's a long historical toxicity to the Sino-Japanese relationship. The challenge is to stabilize the dispute and create new political ballasts in other domains, like economic and commercial affairs, as well as political and security engagement. The key issue is to get both sides to concur that a status quo is being preserved, so that the relationship can develop in other directions and dimensions.

Likening Chinese President Xi Jinping to former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and Mao Zedong is the product of lazy Western journalism. It's much more complex than that. He's certainly not Gorbachev, because Xi does not have any stated interest in democratization. It's not on the table. In terms of a Mac analogy, people are grasping at straws in the wind. They see some of Xi's behavior, like criticism campaigns, and they say that equals Mac, equals hard left. I think that is shortsighted.

The closest analogy is with Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader for the 1980s and 1990s. …