Serving in various senior national security positions in the United States government, Michael Pillsbury has been meeting for decades with Chinese military planners and civilian strategists in an effort to figure out what they think.
In the process, Pillsbury says he’s detected a long-term Chinese strategy: First, to acquire Western technology, then to develop a powerful economy, and finally – three to four decades from now – to replace the United States as the world’s superpower. And if Chinese planners get their way, Pillsbury says, China may achieve its ultimate goal without firing a shot.
In his book The Hundred-Year Marathon, Pillsbury argues that successive US administrations have been led to believe that as China develops economically, it will embrace a more open economy and liberal democratic ideas.
But it has become increasingly obvious that under China’s President Xi Jinping, things haven’t worked out that way, and Pillsbury attempts to explain why.
In foreign policy, says Pillsbury, Xi has been promoting a military build-up and pursuing much more nationalist actions than his immediate predecessors, particularly when it comes to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Pillsbury says that Xi’s call for a “strong nation dream” can be traced back to "The China Dream," a book published in China in 2010 and written by an army colonel named Liu Mingfu. The book was a bestseller in China.
It was there that Pillsbury first spotted a reference to “the Hundred-Year Marathon”.
Fluent in Mandarin, Pillsbury is a veteran China analyst who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and on the staff of US Senate committees. In the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration, he was tasked by the Defense Department and CIA to conduct what he describes as “an unprecedented examination of China’s capacity to deceive the United States”.
In the course of his work, Pillsbury says he discovered proposals formulated by Chinese hawks (ying pai), and apparently accepted by China’s leaders, to “mislead and manipulate American policymakers” with the aim of obtaining US intelligence and military, technological, and economic assistance that would contribute to China’s rise.
China’s leaders would thereby avenge what they have long regarded as a century of “past foreign humiliations” by replacing the US as the economic, military, and political leader of the world by the year 2049 – the 100th anniversary of the Communist takeover of China in 1949.
Pillsbury says that a number of assumptions about China that have long been accepted by American diplomats and scholars – and for many years by Pillsbury himself – have turned out to be false.
Making matters worse, he says, the US has “underestimated the influence of China’s hawks,” who in his view are now leading China’s strategic thinking.
As a reporter for The Washington Post in Beijing from 1985 until 1990, I should state upfront that I accepted some of those same assumptions about engagement leading to more openness and cooperation when I first arrived in China.
But any remaining illusions about commerce leading to political change that I had were shattered when the Party used the People’s Liberation Army to repress peaceful pro-democracy protests in the Beijing massacre of early June 1989.
Pillsbury says that his own wake-up call came in 1997 when he was invited to witness a local “democratic” election in a village in southern China. In that village the “unwritten rules of the game soon became clear.” Candidates weren’t allowed to criticize opponents favored by the Communist Party or any policy implemented by the Party.
If Pillsbury is correct in his conclusions, the United States can expect China to keep talking about “win-win” cooperation with the US while covertly undermining US foreign policy goals around the world.
As he sees it, the US should not expect significant help from China in dealing with Iran or North Korea. According to Pillsbury, Beijing will continue to support both regimes as counters to the United States.
China for years has been playing a game that resembles wei qi, the Chinese board game that involves encircling one’s opponent, he says.
In addition to the numerous interviews and meetings that he’s conducted with Chinese military strategists, Pillsbury has had access to US intelligence, defectors, and unpublished Chinese documents.
Citing these documents and interviews, and supporting his analysis with 65 pages of footnotes, he argues that China is drawing on arts of warfare and deception dating from the country’s ancient Warring States period.
Some scholars and former US diplomats are likely to question Pillsbury’s main themes. But it will be difficult to refute his argument entirely. Beijing’s recent arrests of Chinese critics, journalists, and lawyers and its state-controlled media’s demonization of the West point clearly to a failure of constructive engagement.
Through the use of memoirs and oral histories, Pillsbury has also formulated a provocative counterpoint to Henry Kissinger’s version of the origins of President Nixon’s opening to China in 1971. China, and not the United States, drove that opening process, Pillsbury says.
Pillsbury is at his best when he describes China’s military hawks, who have been dismissed by many in the past as a radical fringe group. In the acknowledgments section of his book, Pillsbury thanks 35 Chinese “scholar-generals” for sharing their thoughts and insights even if they didn’t agree with all of his conclusions.
In 2003, Pillsbury heard that anti-Americanism was rife within senior levels of the Chinese government from a female Chinese defector whom he calls Ms. Lee. Lee shared a vignette about the Warring States period with a group of American officials.
Between 490 and 470 BC, the story goes, Goujian, the rising challenger aspiring to rule the Chinese world, operated with stealth and secrecy, making false promises and concealing his motivations until he found the right moment to strike down the ruling hegemon or tyrant.
The heads of those two warring states were like China and America today, she said.
According to Pillsbury, few Westerners know the Goujian allegory, but when he asked Chinese scholars who held it up as valuable guidance, one of them said, “if you want to control the whole world, you better not appear as ambitious…. If you appear as having an agenda you will be revealed”.
This Ms. Lee maintained, was “exactly what China is doing with the West.”
Pillsbury doesn’t go as far as some commentators in contending that China has already won the big power game. Instead, he argues that the US still has time to take 12 practical steps to prevent this from happening.
These steps include, among others, the development of a more effective economic competitiveness strategy and better support for the country’s pro-democracy reformers. Moderates and reformers still exist in China, he says, but they’re keeping their heads down. Many of them have been silenced.
Pillsbury doesn’t call for a new Cold War. And he leaves room for continuing US cooperation with China in a number of areas.
But he does call for more diligence in monitoring the US-China relationship as well as China’s implementation of international agreements.
Despite dealing with a weighty subject, Pillsbury says everything that he wants to say within the 233 pages of this highly readable book. It deserves to be widely read and debated.
Dan Southerland, executive editor of US-government funded Radio Free Asia, is a former Asia correspondent for the Monitor and former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.