Home inFocus Asia (Summer 2015) The Hundred-Year Marathon

The Hundred-Year Marathon

China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower

Book by: Michael Pillsbury
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Summer 2015

China’s Context and America’s

You want to root for a book written as a mea culpa for forty years of government service in which the author provided what he now considers bad advice. You particularly want to root for it when it provides something of a corrective for that advice. And even more when it is well written enough to engage non-professional readers as well as government experts.

Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower gets you to that point, but no farther.

Now with the Hudson Institute, Pillsbury was a RAND Corporation analyst, research fellow at Harvard, and senior staff member of both the Defense Department and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also served as a CIA agent, which he reveals early in the book. He speaks and reads Chinese. His numerous visits to China and the deep and even sometimes honest conversations he had with Chinese officials at the highest levels give him the authority to speak and write about a country most Americans know little about.

But when he spoke and when he wrote until now, he says, he drew all the wrong conclusions. Long known as a “panda hugger,” one who believed in the most benign interpretation of China’s behavior since the 1970s, Pillsbury has become a “China hawk.”

Chinese plans to overcome the military and economic power of the United States through their concepts of deception, manipulation, and asymmetric attacks are the heart of The Hundred-Year Marathon.

Chinese Concepts

Americans are familiar with the Chinese concept of fung shui—harmonizing people with their environment; it shows up often on HGTV. Pillsbury introduces readers to other concepts. Shi, for example, “deceiving others into doing your bidding” and “then waiting for the point of maximum opportunity to strike.” Also there is the board game wei qi—in which one avoids encirclement by the enemy by deceiving him and avoiding being deceived. And ying pai, a form of Chinese martial arts. He warns against “asking the weight of the Emperor’s pots,” lest one give away the fact that one wishes to own those pots. And he quotes heavily from Stratagems of the Warring States, “a collection of fables that has never been translated into English. Were it translated, more Americans might better understand Chinese elders and their intentions when they speak in ways inspired from that turbulent period in China’s history.”

Everyone who is anyone in China is not only familiar with these concepts and stories, but has assimilated their lessons. Very well. Well enough to be scary. Very scary. According to Pillsbury.

The Threat

Michael Pillsbury

The strongest sections of The Hundred-Year Marathon detail China’s military buildup, including plan­—and current activities—for cyber warfare and cyber terrorism. Recognition that the U.S. government is funding and providing vast amounts of technology, including weapons technology, to China should make Americans march in protest on Washington. Recognition that the Chinese are stealing even more than they’re buying should make Americans furious! And knowledge that the Chinese government is buying whole departments of Chinese history in American universities and dictating the terms of the material taught—well, actually, that should remind Americans of what Qatar and Saudi Arabia have done for years.

The chapter on China’s internal media manipulation is more than interesting. The idea that 1.35 billion people read, hear and learn only what their government wants them to, and it isn’t MTV or Jon Stewart, is astonishing, but there is a flaw in the underlying assumption. Most of the 1.35 billion Chinese are not of interest to the government except insofar as they stay quiet and run the factory lines. Those of interest—the upper classes, the chosen, the Party—are those sent abroad, including tens of thousands to the United States. And when they are in the U.S. to study and spy, they are subject to different messages; keep that in mind.

Pillsbury encourages his readers (Americans) to understand China’s policies from China’s point of view. There’s always something to be said for the other guy’s shoes, but as he describes Chinese efforts to see America from the American point of view, they are ludicrous. The Chinese view of American strategy, in his view, is nothing more than a reflection of their own paranoia. There are seven “Chinese fears.”

  • The U.S. will blockade China
  • The U.S. supports plundering China’s maritime resources
  • The U.S. may choke off China’s sea lines of communications
  • The U.S. seeks China’s territorial dismemberment
  • The U.S. may assist rebels inside China
  • The U.S. may foment riots, civil war, or terrorism inside China
  • The U.S. threatens aircraft carrier strikes

The Chinese also believe in “peak oil,” which they believe will occur this year.

To steel themselves for the battle, the Chinese are teaching themselves to hate the United States, in part by falsifying history and turning the Americans into a colonial power that came to China hundreds of years ago to humiliate and colonize China. Um… that would be the British. (Or the Japanese; the Rape of Nanking appears to receive amazingly short shrift in current Chinese thinking.) The replacement of Britain as the world’s leading economic, industrial, colonial, and military power by the United States in the 19th century appears to make us heir to all of its faults – white people, apparently, being interchangeable.

Which is another thing­—the Chinese government may believe it is China’s destiny to replace the U.S. as the world’s hegemon, and the people may be learning lies about the United States at home. But, it is inconceivable that hundred of thousands of Chinese who have lived and earned in the U.S. all return to China without having absorbed anything that clashes with their earlier views—that would be very un-shi—and equally inconceivable that none of them like or appreciate what they learn while here.

Context: Ours and Theirs

In Korea today, the Jewish Talmud is a best seller. Parents send their children to Talmud classes and businessmen read it at work. Why? Because the Koreans believe that hidden in the Talmud is the secret to long-term Jewish success – not in the nasty, European, anti-Semitic sense that “Jews rule the world,” but in the Asian historical sense that Jews are an ancient people with values and a family structure similar to their own and the success which they want to emulate. It is a compliment as evidenced by the enthusiastic relationship between democratic and high-tech South Korea and Israel.

But the Koreans are missing something. It isn’t the book that carries the “secrets of the Jews”, but rather the method of teaching and learning—endless questioning and arguing; endless variations on the theme (if you haven’t studied 40 interpretations of each verse of the Bible, you aren’t there yet); the ability—no, the absolute requirement—that students challenge teachers and teachers respond to those challenges. It is accepting the risk of being wrong in front of one’s teachers and peers—Jews still study Shammai, even though Hillel won most of the big arguments. It is, in short, the context in which the Talmud lives and that context is not Korean. The Koreans won’t find the “secret” because a) there is no secret and b) the thousands of years of Jewish pushing, shoving, asking, and answering have no parallel in Korean culture.

So too, and perhaps less benignly, the Chinese. There are old Chinese concepts and they are valid in the Chinese context. But Americans have concepts and context as well: freedom of speech, equality before the law and the shareholders (if you make a profitable product, the shareholders don’t care who your parents were), innovative thinking, the private sector, government accountability (some concepts are honored more in the breach), and the acceptability of failure (Milton Hershey went bankrupt five times before hitting on the Hershey Bar). The appeal of those concepts is, perhaps, not universal, but it has brought—and continues to bring—immigrants from everywhere to our shores to participate in our version of pushing and shoving, asking, and answering. This is the secular Talmud of the United States for which the Chinese government has no domestic context, and which, perhaps, is the bedrock of the affinity between Americans and Israelis.

And, perhaps, Chinese people and American people. The Chinese government (and Pillsbury?) may believe the automatons return to Beijing having looked at American culture and society and want to destroy it, but it is a stretch. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that China, with more than 147,000 people arriving in the U.S. and planning to stay in 2013, has widely surpassed Mexico as the biggest source of recent immigrants.

Two themes run through The Hundred-Year Marathon: a) Pillsbury’s earlier mistakes and b) how clever the Chinese are. Government officials are crafty, thorough, cunning, and smarter-than-your-average (or even above average) American. They are well versed in Chinese history, folklore and military strategy. They speak in code. They have absolute control of their people and the messaging the people hear. They have a plan; no one deviates. And they will overtake us. Americans have no idea who the Chinese are, how they think, what they think or how crafty, thorough, and cunning the Chinese are.

Unless they listen to Pillsbury, or maybe because they listened to Pillsbury in his earlier incarnation. After providing faulty information to the highest levels of the U.S. government for 40 years its hard to complain because they believed you.

That doesn’t mean Pilsbury 2.0 is wrong, which is why the book should be bought and read.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Magazine.