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Top US Analyst: We Made 5 Dangerously Wrong Assumptions about China
Members of the Chinese Army honor guard march at an arrival ceremony at Bayi Building January 10, 2011 in Beijing, China. (Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images)

Top US Analyst: We Made 5 Dangerously Wrong Assumptions about China

Michael Pillsbury

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.

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.

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. The idea that the seeds of democracy have been sown at the village level became the conventional wisdom among many China watchers in America.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

Two decades later, Nathan Leites, who was renowned for his psychoanalytical cultural studies, observed:

Chinese literature on strategy from Sun Tzu through Mao Tse-tung has emphasized deception more than many military doctrines. Chinese deception is oriented mainly toward inducing the enemy to act inexpediently and less toward protecting the integrity of one’s own plans.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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 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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