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China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower: Excerpt from 'The Hundred-Year Marathon'

By    |   Monday, 09 Feb 2015 03:14 PM

Excerpted from the book THE HUNDRED-YEAR MARATON: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower by Michael Pillsbury

We Americans still don’t see China the way it sees us — a condition that has persisted for decades. Why else would the Smithsonian Institution and the State Department pay a famous Chinese artist $250,000 to blow up a Christmas tree on the National Mall? The answer lies, at least in part, in an ancient proverb that says, “Cross the sea in full view” or, in more practical terms, “Hide in plain sight.” It is one of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, an essay from ancient Chinese folklore. All of these stratagems are designed to defeat a more powerful opponent by using the opponent’s own strength against him, without his knowing he is even in a contest. Perhaps unwittingly,

It is generally understood among those of us calling ourselves China experts that our life’s work is devoted to reducing misunderstandings between the United States and China. We have our work cut out for us. Americans have been wrong about China again and again, sometimes with profound consequences. In 1950, the Chinese leadership believed that it had given a clear warning to the United States that its troops should not come too close to the Chinese border during the Korean War, or China would be forced to respond in kind. No one in Washington got that message, and in November of that year Chinese troops surged across the Yalu River into North Korea, engaging U.S. troops in numerous battles before the war was halted by an armistice in 1953, after more than thirty thousand American soldiers had died. The United States also misunderstood China’s relationship with the Soviet Union, the reasons for its overtures to the Nixon administration in the 1970s, its intentions regarding student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, its decision to treat an accidental U.S. bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999 as an act that Chinese leaders equated with the atrocities of Hitler, and more.

Many of us who study China have been taught to view the country as a helpless victim of Western imperialists--a notion that China’s leaders not only believe, but also actively encourage. When I was studying for my PhD at Columbia University in 1967, my political science professors emphasized how the West and Japan had mistreated China, with the implication that my generation needed somehow to atone for this. Many of our textbooks contained similar arguments.

This perspective — the desire to help China at all costs, the almost willful blindness to any actions that undercut our views of Chinese goodwill and victimhood — has colored the U.S. government’s approach to dealing with China. It has affected the advice that China experts offer to U.S. presidents and other leaders.

Ever since President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1971, U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic has largely been governed by those seeking “constructive engagement” with China to aid its rise. This policy has remained in effect, with only marginal changes, for decades, across eight U.S. presidential administrations. Democratic and Republican presidents have had different foreign policy visions, but all agreed on the importance of engaging with China and facilitating its rise... We believed that American aid to a fragile China whose leaders thought like us would help China become a democratic and peaceful power without ambitions of regional or even global dominance. We underestimated the influence of China’s hawks. Every one of the assumptions behind that belief was wrong — dangerously so. The error of those assumptions is becoming clearer by the day, by what China does and, equally important, by what China does not do.

False Assumption #1:
Engagement Brings Complete Cooperation


For four decades now, my colleagues and I believed that “engagement” with the Chinese would induce China to cooperate with the West on a wide range of policy problems. It hasn’t. Trade and technology were supposed to lead to a convergence of Chinese and Western views on questions of regional and global order. They haven’t. In short, China has failed to meet nearly all of our rosy expectations.

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From thwarting reconstruction efforts and economic development in war-ravaged Afghanistan to offering lifelines to embattled anti-Western governments in Sudan and North Korea, China has opposed the actions and goals of the U.S. government. Indeed, China is building its own relationships with America’s allies and enemies that contradict any peaceful or productive intentions of Beijing.

Take, for example, weapons of mass destruction. No security threat poses a greater danger to the United States and our allies than their proliferation. But China has been less than helpful--to put it mildly--in checking the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

In the aftermath of 9/11, some commentators expressed the belief that America and China would henceforth be united by the threat of terrorism, much as they had once been drawn together by the specter of the Soviet Union. These high hopes of cooperating to confront the “common danger” of terrorism, as President George W. Bush described it in his January 2002 State of the Union address, by speaking of “erasing old rivalries,” did not change China’s attitude. Sino-American collaboration on this issue has turned out to be quite limited in scope and significance.

False Assumption #2:
China Is on the Road to Democracy


China has certainly changed in the past thirty years, but its political system has not evolved in the ways that we advocates of engagement had hoped and predicted. A growing minority of China experts is beginning to appreciate this. Rather than the emergence of an American-style free market economy, scholars are increasingly noting the emergence of a system termed “authoritarian capitalism.” Nonetheless, the idea that the seeds of democracy have been sown at the village level became the conventional wisdom among many China watchers in America. With patience but no pressure from the United States, the argument went, local elections in Chinese cities and towns would eventually be followed by regional and national elections.

Like many working in the U.S. government, I had heard the democracy story for decades. I read about it in countless books and articles. I believed in it. I wanted to believe in it.

My faith was first shaken in 1997, when I was among those encouraged to visit China to witness the emergence of “democratic” elections in a village near the industrial town of Dongguan. While visiting, I had a chance to talk in Mandarin with the candidates and see how the elections actually worked. The unwritten rules of the game soon became clear: the candidates were allowed no pubic assemblies, no television ads, and no campaign posters. They were not allowed to criticize any policy implemented by the Communist Party, nor were they free to criticize their opponents on any issue. There would be no American-style debates over taxes or spending or the country’s future. The only thing a candidate could do was to compare his personal qualities to those of his opponent. Violations of these rules were treated as crimes.

One candidate I spoke to asked me if this was how democratic elections worked in the West. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. China’s hawks had already done away with true elections.

False Assumption #3:
China, the Fragile Flower


In 1996, I was part of a U.S. delegation to China that included Robert Ellsworth, the top foreign policy adviser to the Republican presidential nominee, Robert Dole. Shrewdly playing to the possibility that Dole might win the presidential election and tap Ellsworth as secretary of state, the Chinese offered us what appeared to be an unprecedented look at their country’s inner workings and problems.

In what appeared to be a forthright exchange of views with Chinese scholars, we were told that China was in serious economic and political peril--and that the potential for collapse loomed large. These distinguished scholars pointed to China’s serious environmental problems, restless ethnic minorities, and incompetent and corrupt government leaders--as well as to those leaders’ inability to carry out necessary reforms. Considering the well-known secretiveness of the Chinese Politburo, I was astonished by these scholars’ candor and startled by their predictions, which only underscored my support for efforts to provide U.S. aid to a supposedly fragile China.

I later learned that the Chinese were escorting other groups of American academics, business leaders, and policy experts on these purportedly “exclusive” visits, where they too received an identical message about China’s coming decline. Many of them then repeated these “revelations” in articles, books, and commentaries back in the United States. For example, a study published by the influential RAND Corporation listed ten factors that would cause China’s slowdown or even collapse in the imminent future. This trend would continue to characterize the China debate for years afterward. For decades, we have seen such arguments in op-ed pieces, news stories, and books that have dominated our national discourse about China. Yet the hard fact is that China’s already robust GDP is predicted to continue to grow by at least 7 or 8 percent, thereby surpassing that of the United States by 2018 at the earliest, according to economists from the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the United Nations. Unfortunately, China policy experts like me were so wedded to the idea of the “coming collapse of China” that few of us believed these forecasts. While we worried about China’s woes, its economy more than doubled.

False Assumption #4:
China Wants to Be — and Is — Just Like Us

In our hubris, Americans love to believe that the aspiration of every other country is to be just like the United States. In recent years, this has governed our approach to Iraq and Afghanistan. We cling to the same mentality with China.

In the 1940s, an effort was funded by the U.S. government to understand the Chinese mind-set. This culminated in several studies, including one in which 150 Chinese emigrants in New York’s Chinatown were shown Rorschach inkblot cards. The researchers, who included the scholars Nathan Leites, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead, also analyzed the themes of popular Chinese books and films. One conclusion that emerged was that the Chinese did not view strategy the same way Americans did. Whereas Americans tended to favor direct action, those of Chinese ethnic origin were found to favor the indirect over the direct, ambiguity and deception over clarity and transparency. Another conclusion was that Chinese literature and writings on strategy prized deception.

The results of the original 1940s study--the idea that an ethno-national group viewed the world differently--proved controversial and politically incorrect, and they were never published. The sole existing copy rests quietly in the Library of Congress. It would not be until 2000 that I learned from Chinese generals that the study’s conclusions were essentially correct. The Chinese value highly the importance of deception stratagems. They are proud of their cultural uniqueness. Two hawkish generals formed a “Chinese Strategic Culture Promotion Society” to broadcast this view. Their national media influence has risen since I first met them twenty years ago. My colleagues mistakenly ignored them until some of their recommendations recently became Chinese policy.

False Assumption #5:
China’s Hawks Are Weak


In the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration, I was tasked by the Department of Defense and the CIA to conduct an unprecedented examination of China’s capacity to deceive the United States and its actions to date along those lines. Relying on intelligence assets, unpublished documents, interviews with Chinese dissidents and scholars, and Chinese writings that I read in the original Mandarin script, I began to see the secrets that the Chinese had been hiding--in plain sight--from people like me.

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As I assembled clues contradicting the conventional narrative about China that I had always believed, I starting connecting the pieces of an alternative narrative of roughly the past four decades. Over time, I discovered proposals by Chinese hawks (ying pai) to the Chinese leadership to mislead and manipulate American policymakers to obtain intelligence and military, technological, and economic assistance. I learned that these hawks had been advising Chinese leaders, beginning with Mao Zedong, to avenge a century of humiliation and aspired to replace the United States as the economic, military, and political leader of the world by the year 2049 (the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Revolution). This plan became known as “the Hundred-Year Marathon.” It is a plan that has been implemented by the Communist Party leadership from the beginning of its relationship with the United States. The goal is to avenge or “wipe clean” (xi xue) past foreign humiliations. Then China will set up a world order that will be fair to China, a world without American global supremacy, and revise the U.S.-dominated economic and geopolitical world order founded at Bretton Woods and San Francisco at the end of World War II. The hawks assess that China can only succeed in this project through deception, or at least by denial of any frightening plans.

When I presented my findings on the Chinese hawks’ recommendations about China’s ambitions and deception strategy, many U.S. intelligence analysts and officials greeted them initially with disbelief. They had not seen the evidence I found. I can understand my colleagues’ skepticism. The Chinese government had long portrayed itself as a backward nation in need of assistance for its “peaceful rise.” The Chinese have denied any desire to exercise global leadership--or to clash with the United States. Indeed, written into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China is language that prohibits the nation from becoming a hegemon. Chinese leaders routinely reassure other nations that “China will never become a hegemon.” In other words, China will be the most powerful nation, but not dominate anyone or try to change anything. We don’t have a copy of the plan. Indeed, the Chinese say there is no plan. They merely want to restore China to its former global position of three hundred years ago, when it commanded roughly a third of the world economy. That apparently means becoming at least twice as strong as the United States by 2049, the hawks say.

These notions of the more peaceful and less nationalist China have been confirmed by ideological allies in the West who populate academia, think tanks, financial institutions, and government. Advancing the notion of a China that is more interested in economic growth than global dominion serves to advance their self-interest, whether it be a private equity fund manager making investments in Chinese companies or a think tank scholar whose funding, access, and ability to facilitate studies and conferences with her Chinese counterparts depends on advancing the rosy scenario. This predominant school of thought among our foreign policy experts, economists, and businessmen is well meaning and not without evidence. There exist in China moderates and those who genuinely seek cooperation with the United States. Indeed, Chinese government officials usually echo those views and are eager to promote them as the authentic voice of China.

But the more benign view of China held by those derisively called “panda huggers”--a term I wore as a badge of honor for decades--also requires suppressing reams of countervailing evidence and dismissing the many hard-line nationalist voices within China, from the highest levels of politics and military institutions to the conventional wisdom of the masses, as “fringe” and “marginal.” They are hard-liners labeled as “out of touch” and as relics of a past that has been obliterated by globalization and information technology.

Dismissing Chinese nationalism as out of the mainstream is what most Western experts on China have done for decades. The bias of wishful thinking has created a blind spot to what is likely to emerge as America’s thorniest national security challenge in the next twenty-five years. There are moderates and hard-liners in China, doves and hawks, who are locked in a fierce debate over the shape of China’s future within the halls of government in Beijing and in frequent conferences. But increasingly, the more hard-line and nationalist worldview is winning out and indeed has far more influence in the inner circle of China’s new president, Xi Jinping. The hawks’ government-sponsored newspaper Global Times has become the second or third most popular source of news, and its editor, Hu Xijin, makes clear how China’s hawks see the moderate doves: they are “the cancer cells that will lead to the demise of China.”


For the past three decades, as a China expert who has worked in the Congress and in the executive branch for every administration since Richard Nixon’s, I have arguably had more access to China’s military and intelligence establishment than any other Westerner. Representatives from the People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of State Security have opened the doors to their most secretive institutions and given me documents and writings that no other Westerner has read. The hard-liners among them saw me as a useful tool to promote their views, even if I caused discomfort among those in Beijing and Washington who were invested in the image of a peaceful, docile China. In 1998 and 2000, I published two academic books called Chinese Views of Future Warfare35 and China Debates the Future Security Environment, which translated many of the documents I had collected on my visits to Beijing or that had been given to me by Chinese military leaders and defectors. I included documents from both sides of the internal Chinese debate about the nation’s role in the world, what I called the “orthodox” (hard-line) and “revisionist” (moderate) perspectives at the time.

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After decades of studying China closely, I am convinced that these hard-line views are not fringe, but are very much in the mainstream of Chinese geostrategic thought. They are the unvarnished views of senior policymakers who represent hundreds of millions who want to see China rise to global preeminence. Dating back to the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution, there is indisputably also a long line of liberal thinkers who seek integration within the global free market and evolution toward a more democratic system of governance. Just as America has its camps of hawks and doves, its so-called neoconservatives, interventionists, realists, and isolationists, Chinese elites are divided. The difference, of course, is that those debates rarely occur in view of the Chinese public and the Western press. There is no Congress of elected representatives or truly open forums to discuss such matters.

The challenge for Western policymakers, intelligence analysts, and scholars in the coming decade is to penetrate the cloak of secrecy in which these debates occur and to determine the level of influence these different camps have. Until now, it has largely been taken for granted among Western policy and business elites that China seeks a peaceful rise and will gradually evolve to more resemble America. The explosive growth in China of consumer brands such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Apple serves only to reinforce this view. Only recently have there been disturbing signs that a more militaristic China may be ascendant, which has caused some to question the wishful thinking that has prevailed for more than forty years.

What is indisputable, even for those who continue to advocate for closer ties between the United States and China, is that not only has China’s rise happened right under our noses, but also the United States, and the West more broadly, have helped the Chinese accomplish their goals from the beginning. One key source of such assistance was the World Bank. Meeting with Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1983, World Bank executives secretly agreed that a team of economists would study China intensively and, looking ahead twenty years, recommended how China could catch up to the United States. But this wasn’t the only means of assistance. For decades, the U.S. government has freely handed over sensitive information, technology, military know-how, intelligence, and expert advice to the Chinese. Indeed, so much has been provided for so long that Congress complained in 2005 that there is no full accounting. And what we haven’t given the Chinese, they’ve stolen.

The strength of the Hundred-Year Marathon, however, is that it operates through stealth. To borrow from the movie Fight Club, the first rule of the Marathon is that you do not talk about the Marathon. Indeed, there is almost certainly no single master plan locked away in a vault in Beijing that outlines the Marathon in detail. The Marathon is so well known to China’s leaders that there is no need to risk exposure by writing it down. But the Chinese are beginning to talk about the notion more openly--perhaps because they realize it may already be too late for America to keep pace.

I observed a shift in Chinese attitudes during three visits to the country in 2012, 2013, and 2014. As was my usual custom, I met with scholars at the country’s major think tanks, whom I’d come to know well over decades. I directly asked them about a “Chinese-led world order”--a term that only a few years earlier they would have dismissed, or at least would not have dared to say aloud. However, this time many said openly that the new order, or rejuvenation, is coming, even faster than anticipated. When the U.S. economy was battered during the global financial crisis of 2008, the Chinese believed America’s long-anticipated and unrecoverable decline was beginning.

I was told--by the same people who had long assured me of China’s interest in only a modest leadership role within an emerging multipolar world--that the Communist Party is realizing its long-term goal of restoring China to its “proper” place in the world. In effect, they were telling me that they had deceived me and the American government. With perhaps a hint of understated pride, they were revealing the most systematic, significant, and dangerous intelligence failure in American history. And because we have no idea the Marathon is even under way, America is losing.

Excerpted from the book THE HUNDRED-YEAR MARATHON: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower by Michael Pillsbury, published February 10, 2015 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Pillsbury. All rights reserved.

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We Americans still don’t see China the way it sees us--a condition that has persisted for decades. Why else would the Smithsonian Institution and the State Department pay a famous Chinese artist $250,000 to blow up a Christmas tree on the National Mall?
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