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

9781504620093: The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower
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[Read by Malcolm Hillgartner]

For decades, the United States has played an indispensable role helping China build a booming economy, develop its scientific and military capabilities, and take its place on the world stage, in the belief that China's rise will bring us cooperation, diplomacy, and free trade. But what if the ''China Dream'' is to simply replace us? Based on interviews with Chinese defectors and newly declassified national security documents, The Hundred-Year Marathon reveals China's secret strategy to supplant the United States as the world's dominant power, and to do so by 2049, the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

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About the Author:

Michael Pillsbury is the director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute and has served in presidential administrations from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. Educated at Stanford and Columbia Universities, he is a former analyst at the RAND Corporation and research fellow at Harvard and has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and on the staff of four U.S. Senate committees. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Wishful Thinking

"Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean."
-- The Thirty-Six Stratagems

At noon on November 30, 2012, beneath a clear late-autumn sky, Wayne Clough, the white-bearded, affable secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, appeared before a collection of cameras and microphones. As he spoke, a cold wind blew across the National Mall. The audience stood bundled in their overcoats as a representative of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held aloft a mysterious gold medal. The Smithsonian’s honored guest that day was the famed Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang, who had been feted the night before at a tony gala inside the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art--an event cohosted by my wife, Susan. Some four hundred guests, among them House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Princess Michael of Kent, and the seventy-four-year-old widow of the shah of Iran, clinked glasses to celebrate the Chinese-American relationship and to catch a glimpse of Cai, who had won international acclaim for his awe-inspiring fireworks display during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Cai was known to celebrate Chinese symbols with performance art, and had once used lighted fires to extend the Great Wall by ten kilometers so it could be better seen from space. Our evening gala raised more than $1 million for the Smithsonian and made the social pages of various newspapers and magazines.1

The following day, as Cai was introduced, he was dressed in a Western-style suit, gray overcoat, and orange-red scarf. A trim, handsome man with graying hair, he looked out upon the Mall and the subject of his latest piece of performance art, a four-story-tall Christmas tree decorated with two thousand explosive devices.

As Cai twisted a handheld trigger, his audience watched the tree explode before their eyes, with thick black smoke emerging from the branches. Cai twisted the trigger again, and the tree exploded a second time, then a third. The five-minute display sent pine needles across the vast lawn in all directions and dense black smoke--symbolizing China’s invention of gunpowder--billowing up the façade of the Smithsonian’s iconic red sandstone castle.2 It would take two months to clean up the debris and residue left by the explosion.

I don’t know if any of the guests contemplated why they were watching a Chinese artist blow up a symbol of the Christian faith in the middle of the nation’s capital less than a month before Christmas. In that moment, I’m not sure that even I appreciated the subversion of the gesture; I clapped along with the rest of the audience. Perhaps sensing the potential controversy, a museum spokesman told the Washington Post, "The work itself is not necessarily about Christmas."3 Indeed, the museum labeled Cai’s performance simply, "Explosive Event," which, if one thinks about it, is not much more descriptive than what Cai called it on his own website: "Black Christmas Tree."4

Secretary Clinton’s aide waved the gold medal for the press corps to see, as Cai smiled modestly. He had just been given the State Department’s Medal of Arts, the first of its kind, which was presented to the artist by Clinton herself, along with $250,000, courtesy of the American taxpayer. The medal was awarded, she said, for the artist’s "contributions to the advancement of understanding and diplomacy."5 Cai seemed to agree with the sentiment: "All artists are like diplomats," he said. "Sometimes art can do things that politics cannot."6

I was a little suspicious and mentioned Cai the next day during a secret meeting with a senior Chinese government defector. He was incredulous at the award and explosion. We scoured the Internet. I wanted to investigate Cai and his works of art a little more closely. I didn’t bother reading the English articles proclaiming Cai’s genius, but rather what the Chinese were saying on various Mandarin-language websites about one of their most acclaimed citizens.

Cai, it turned out, has quite a large following inside China. He was and remains arguably the most popular artist in the country, with the notable exception of Ai Weiwei. Many of Cai’s fans were nationalists, and applauded him for blowing up Western symbols before a Western audience. China’s nationalists called themselves ying pai, meaning "hawks" or "eagles." Many of these ying pai are generals and admirals and government hard-liners. Few Americans have ever met them. They are the Chinese officials and authors I know the best because since 1973 the U.S. government has instructed me to work with them. Some of my colleagues wrongly dismiss the ying pai as nuts. To me, they represent the real voice of China.7

Cai and the hawks appear to be very supportive of the narrative of the decline of the United States and the rise of a strong China. (By coincidence, his given name, Guo Qiang, means "strong country" in Mandarin.) Cai’s earlier exhibits featured variations on this theme. For instance, while American soldiers were coming under nearly constant assault by IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq, the artist simulated a car bomb explosion to ask "his viewers to appreciate some kind of redeeming beauty in terrorist attacks and warfare."8 The artist raised eyebrows when he said that the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, was a "spectacle" for the world audience, as if it were--in some twisted sense--a work of art. Shortly after the attacks, an Oxford University professor reported that Cai Guo Qiang proclaimed that his favorite book9 was Unrestricted Warfare: War and Strategy in the Globalization Era, a work of military analysis in which two Chinese colonels recommended that Beijing "use asymmetrical warfare, including terrorism, to attack the United States."10 Even now, Chinese bloggers were enjoying the spectacle of their hero destroying a symbol of the Christian faith only a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The joke, it appeared, was very much on us.

Only later did I learn that the U.S. officials responsible for the payment to Cai had not known about his background or his dubious artistic strategy. I couldn’t help but feel that my wife and I had also been caught unawares--happy barbarians gleefully ignorant of the deeply subversive performance taking place before us. This wasn’t much different from U.S. policy toward China as a whole. Chinese leaders have persuaded many in the West to believe that China’s rise will be peaceful and will not come at others’ expense, even while they adhere to a strategy that fundamentally rejects this.

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.11 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, Cai alluded to this idea in remarks he delivered later to an audience at the State Department. "Everyone," he said, "has their little tricks."12

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.

It even has influenced our translations. One of the first things a student of the Chinese language learns is its essential ambiguity. There is no alphabet, and Chinese words aren’t formed by letters. Rather, words are formed by combining smaller words. The word for size combines the character for large with the character for small. The word for length combines the words for short and long. Chinese use dictionaries to organize thousands of characters, which must be filed under approximately two hundred so-called radicals or families, all sorted according to relatedness. Under each category of relatedness, the dozens of characters are again sorted in order of the total number of strokes required to write a character, from a minimum of one to a maximum of seventeen strokes.

Adding to this complexity are the tones and pitches that delineate words. The effect of tones is to give a single word four possible meanings. A classic example is ma. In the first tone, ma means mother. The second tone is a rising tone, so ma then means numb. The third tone for ma means horse, and the fourth tone for ma, which falls sharply, means to scold. The Chinese must talk loudly to make the tonal differences audible. Another ambiguity is how few sounds the Chinese language uses for syllables. The English language uses ten thousand different syllables, but Chinese has only four hundred. Thus, many words sound the same. Puns and misunderstandings abound.

The language’s very complexity is like a secret code. A foreigner has to make important decisions about how to translate Chinese concepts, which can inherently lead to misunderstandings.13 I had to decide how to translate unusual, elliptical Chinese phrases that were used by Deng Xiaoping in 1983 to a Senate delegation in Beijing, then ambiguous comments in 1987 by Zhu Rongji in Washington, then again in 2002 to decipher what Hu Jintao meant to convey during his visit to the Pentagon. My colleagues often share our translation decisions with each other. Unfortunately, the vast majority of so-called China experts in the United States do not speak Chinese beyond a few words--enough to feign competence in the presence of those who do not speak the language fluently. This fact makes it easier for the supposed China "experts" to interpret Chinese messages subjectively in ways that conform to their own beliefs. What we all must do better is to look not just at speeches but also at the context of those speeches, and we need to look for larger hidden meanings. For well over a half century, Americans have failed to do this. Until recently, the sometimes vaguely phrased expressions of the Chinese hawks were obscure references to ancient history, so their input to Chinese strategy was hidden from most foreigners.

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. The constructive engagement crowd, populated by prominent academics, diplomats, and former presidents, has held significant sway over policymakers and journalists covering China. I should know--I was a member of this group for many decades. In fact, I was among the first people to provide intelligence to the White House favoring an overture to China, in 1969. For decades, I played a sometimes prominent role in urging administrations of both parties to provide China with technological and military assistance. I largely accepted the assumptions shared by America’s top diplomats and scholars, which were inculcated repeatedly in American strategic discussions, commentary, and media analysis. 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.14

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.15

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,"16 did not change China’s attitude. Sino-American collaboration on this issue has turned out to be quite limited in scope and s...

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