A Secret Plot by an Ancient Civilization to Take Over the World: Book Review of Michael Pillsbury

A Secret Plot by an Ancient Civilization to Take Over the World

A review of Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, Henry Holt and Co., 2013

Jude Blanchette is the Assistant Director of the 21st Century China Program at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego. He is currently writing a book on the legacy of Mao Zedong in contemporary China.

This is a very bad book. It’s not bad because its thesis is controversial. It’s not bad because the author is telling us something we don’t want to hear. It’s bad simply because its author has written something that is disingenuous, dishonest, lazy or a combination of all three.

Given the long and illustrious career Michel Pillsbury has had as an advisor on China policy to the highest reaches of the US government, the many errors of Hundred-Year Marathon are baffling. He has served at the United Nations, at the RAND Corporation, as the Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, and as the Special Assistant for Asian Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Today he is the Senior Fellow and Director for Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC. Add to this a bachelor’s degree from Stanford and a PhD from Columbia, as well as two books, China Debates the Future Security Environment and Chinese Views of Future Warfare.

The book was five decades in the making, as he writes in the acknowledgments, and it puts forth a bold thesis: China has a secret plan to overtake and supplant the United States as the leader of the global order. Once ensconced in its new position of power, 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. (Pg. 12)

These “frightening plans” (Pg. 12) have been concealed from a gullible United States, which in its misreading of the PRC’s intentions has aided its drive for global control through technology transfers, technical assistance, and economic aid. Yet there’s hope, for while China is on its way to supplanting the United States as the global hegemon, the US can borrow from the Chinese playbook and beat China at its own game by applying the lessons of Chinese strategic culture. (Pg. 214)

Fortunately, Pillsbury offers no evidence of the secret plot for global supremacy. Instead, Pillsbury has written a book so filled with unverified claims, shoddy footnoting, and conceptual blunders as to make it almost unreadable.

The most immediate problem for the reader is that many claims made by Pillsbury rely on private conversations with hawks in the Chinese military, defectors and high-ranking officials in the Chinese government, as well as intelligence officials in the US. These off-the-record talks render his claims unverifiable. To give just a few examples, in discussing the Chinese military program known as “Assassin’s Mace,” Pillsbury writes, “One American expert has concluded that there is a formal program in Beijing tasked with [developing the program].” (Kindle location 2807 of 7630) Yet he offers no indication of who this expert is or where he/she made this conclusion. Did this person tell Pillsbury directly? Or did he publish a paper? Is she an academic or in government?

Or consider a visit the author made to the translation center at the CIA in the 1990s, where he supposedly discovers that the Agency does not translate anti-American tirades by the Chinese leaders. Why? One of the translators tells him, “I have instructions not to translate nationalistic stuff, because The China division at headquarters told me that it would just inflame both the conservatives and left-wing human rights advocates here in Washington and hurt relations with China.” (Pg. 97) Like me, you may be wondering how left-wing human rights advocates get their hands on internal CIA translations. But also like me, you will have to take Pillsbury at his word that the Central Intelligence Agency refuses to convey vital intelligence about the political outlook of China’s leaders for fear of this information making its way to Code Pink.

Yet oddly there are moments when Pillsbury makes it seem as though information that is already public is still secret. For example, he speaks of a long-valued FBI clandestine asset, a woman whom I will call Ms. Green (Pg. 87) who provided information to the US government on China until she was arrested in 2003 for spying for China. Bizarrely, Pillsbury refers to her throughout the book as Ms. Green even though it will be immediately obvious to many that he’s referring to Katrina Leung, whose affair with her FBI handler James J. Smith was splashed all over the newspapers. One of Pillsbury’s footnotes even references her name. So why give the impression to the reader that her identity is still classified?

If the reader can get beyond Pillsbury’s penchant for citing private conversations to bolster his argument, he then mischaracterizes the writings of other authors or makes claims (many shaky at best) based on his authority as a China expert. The reader must trust that Pillsbury knows from whence he speaks. Some digging finds that this is not always so.

Consider on page 72, where he attempts to use Henry Kissinger’s words from his book On China to further his thesis that the US has naively aided China’s rise. Pillsbury writes, “A visit to China by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, Kissinger fumed, marked a further step toward Sino-American cooperation unimaginable only a few years earlier.” [Emphasis added]. Here, we are led to believe that Kissinger was unhappy with Brown’s visit to China.

Yet consider the sentence in its full context, and tell me if you believe “fumed” is the proper adjective?

American ideals had encountered the imperatives of geopolitical reality. It was not cynicism, even less hypocrisy, that forged this attitude: the Carter administration had to choose between strategic necessities and moral conviction. They decided that for their moral convictions to be implemented ultimately they needed first to prevail in the geopolitical struggle. The American leaders faced the dilemma of statesmanship. Leaders cannot choose the options history affords them, even less that they be unambiguous.

The visit of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown marked a further step toward Sino-American cooperation unimaginable only a few years earlier. Deng welcomed him: “Your coming here itself is of major significance,” he noted to Brown, “because you are the Secretary of Defense.” A few veterans of the Ford administration understood this hint about the invitation to Secretary Schlesinger, aborted when Ford dismissed him.

Clearly Kissinger is remarking on the level of US-Sino engagement that would only a few years earlier have been inconceivable, given the high levels of mistrust that permeated both societies. This many seem minor, but the book is replete with instances of Pillsbury guiding the reader in the direction he wants them to go by mischaracterizing the words or writings of others.

Certain Chinese-language books that, not surprising, prove Pillsbury’s thesis that China is more hawkish than we admit or know, are gaining increasing currency in mainland Chinese thought today. Yet we are not told how he knows this. Are they best sellers? Is there increasing media coverage of them? Likewise, the Global Times, a highly nationalist CCP-controlled newspaper is the second or third most popular source of news among the inner circle of China’s new president, Xi Jinping. His proof? He footnotes an article in the South China Morning Post that makes no reference to the reading habits of China’s leaders.

Staying with Pillsbury’s footnotes for a moment, they are filled with errors, misdirection, and puzzling omissions. On page 28, Pillsbury writes of the 2010 Chinese-language book the China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post-American Age (which he incorrectly states was published in 2009) by the PLA Colonel Liu Mingfu. “It was [in Liu’s book] that I first spotted a specific written reference to the ‘Hundred-Year Marathon’,” writes Pillsbury. If you were thinking that the footnote to this sentence would direct you to the section in Liu’s book where the marathon is mentioned, you’d be wrong. Instead, it directs you to a 2013 Wall Street Journal article by Jeremy Page that makes exactly one lone reference to Liu’s marathon.[1] This leaves the reader wondering: did Pillsbury first learn of the marathon strategy in the book by Liu, as he clearly indicates, or through the Wall Street Journal article? If it’s the latter, where Page writes that Liu is predicting a marathon contest for global domination [emphasis added] then this seriously throws into question the veracity of the author’s statement.

In a discussion of the inaccuracies in the 2013 film Gravity, Pillsbury notes that Sandra Bullock’s character could have never found refuge in an empty Chinese space station because “When the Chinese engineers designed the system, they may have deliberately built it so that it could not interface with its American counterparts. They wanted no cooperation between the United States and China in space.” (Kindle location 3764 of 7630) He here footnotes a 2011 article on Space.com by Leonard David on the launch of China’s first space station module, where one would expect to find reference to Chinese intransigence on interstellar cooperation. Yet the piece says no such thing. It notes that Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut emphasized that China’s space station standards and the ISS docking standards do not agree. The unification of standards is the first problem to solve in the effort to carry out future space station cooperation, Yang said, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.[2]

On page 125, Pillsbury writes “As People’s Daily boasted in 2011, Why is China receiving so much attention now? It is because of its ever-increasing power.Today we have a different relationship with the world and the West: we are no longer left to their tender mercies. Instead we have slowly risen and are becoming their equal.” (Pg. 125) Again, one would expect the footnote to take the reader to the article in question, but instead Pillsbury points us to post on a website called www.chinascope.org which offers a very brief summary of the piece and offers four translated sentences, three of which Pillsbury quotes. A link to the original piece on the China Scope website is now dead, but I was able to find it after searching for only a few moments.[3] It’s odd that Pillsbury didn’t seek out the original piece, and if he had, he would have found one that is slightly less menacing in tone.

I would translate the China Scope section as:

Why does the world pay attention to China? It is because our increasing strength. ‘A weak nation can have no  diplomacy, a poor and feeble one can have no standing.’ In 1840 when the Western powers used the Opium war to thrust open the door to China, where was our opportunity to speak of equal relations [with the West]? We had to rely on others for the air we breathed. The shadow of the slogan “sick man of Asia” was to become the collective memory of the Chinese people. Some spoke of China as a “sleeping lion,” yet what many of them meant by this was a sigh of helplessness.

But today we have a new type of relations with the world and with the west: we no longer rely on others for the air we breath, but rather we are slowly standing up and have started to be looked upon as equal with the West.

Translation is a obviously a subjective and subtle art, and ten different people might have ten different renderings of a given passage, but the sentences above does do not strike me as particularly offensive, and it seems that the translators at China Scope (listed only as TGS and AEF) have attempted to give the piece as aggressive a translation as possible. This of course is why someone of Pillsbury’s reputed Chinese level should always endeavor to find the original source material whenever possible. And considering that Pillsbury’s argument rests heavily on the unwillingness or inability of experts in the West to grapple with the Chinese-language debate on these issues, it’s puzzling why he himself relies on so many translations.

Yet the above issues are only a side note to the larger and more conceptual errors.

A main thrust of Pillsbury’s argument is that the truth of Chinese machinations have been hidden in plain sight, obscured only by the inability of Western China experts to decode their writings due to their lack of fluency in Mandarin Chinese. 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.[4]

But Pillsbury apparently does speak Chinese, and he even offers a primer for his monoglot readers.

In Chinese, There is no alphabet, and Chinese words aren’t formed by letters. Rather, words are formed by combining smaller words. (Pg. 5) If, after reading this, you’re wondering how to extract yourself from the paradox of words being formed by words, and what forms the smaller words that can in turn form other words, you’re not alone. I believe what Pillsbury means is that Chinese words are formed by characters, either in the singular (such as 马, which means horse) or in combination (for example 电话, which means telephone, and is a combination of the characters for “electricity: and “speech”).

And as many know, Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that depending on your inflection, one sound can take on several different meanings. Pillsbury states, “The effect of tones is to give a single word four possible meanings.” (Pg. 5) Except, of course, when there are more than four possible meanings. Take for example the sound “cheng.” Depending on the tone (and context), it can mean a city, to name something, honesty, to ladle, a rule or a procedure, to multiply, to prop up or support, an orange tree, to purify, to punish, and a deep shade of red, among many other things.[5]

And if you’ve never been to China and have an aversion to loud noise, stay away, for “The Chinese must talk loudly to make the tonal differences audible.” (Pg. 5) In the 6+ years that I lived in China, it never occurred to me that the Chinese where incapable of whispering.

Even those who know an elementary amount of Chinese will find Pillsbury’s descriptions here laughable. Those who don’t know any Chinese will come away form the book knowing even less than when they started it, for what they now know is incorrect.

These issues might be mere quibbles were it not for the fundamental way that the Chinese language forms the core of Pillsbury’s thesis.

The Chinese, Pillsbury argues, have incorporated the idea of “shi” into the core of their 100-year marathon strategy. He (oddly) does not indicate which Chinese character it is anywhere in the book, and given the multiple definitions he gives, even a Chinese speaker might not immediately guess what character “shi” is.

On page 36, we are told that “two elements of shi are critical components of Chinese strategy: deceiving others into doing your bidding for you, and waiting for the point of maximum opportunity to strike.” Several pages, later he writes “[Shi] cannot be directly translated into English, but Chinese linguists describe it as ‘the alignment of force’ or ‘propensity of things to happen’.” One paragraph later: “A close approximation to shi in American popular culture is “the force” from George Lucas’s Star Wars.” Four pages below: “One of the striking features of Chinese assessments of shi is that the term is used both as a concept of measurement that analysts must examine and also as something that can be created and manipulated by the actions of the commander or national leaders.” And on page 78: “A critical component of shi involves countering the enemy’s attempts at encirclement.”

Shi can “increase” (Pg. 146), be “shifted” (Pg 89), can “tip in one direction or another” (Pg. 44), can see its “strength and polarity can be suddenly reversed” (Pg. 43) and can be described as “flowing” (Pg. 46).

Now, as a test: please define for me what Pillsbury means by shi.

The problems only compound. Pillsbury writes that “A significant component or feature of shi is called wu wei, which means to get other nations to do your work for you.” (Pg. 42) He returns to wu wei nearly 40 pages later when he writes “This is an example of the Warring States concept known as wu wei or, having others do your work.” (Pg. 69-70) Again on page 77 he tells us that wu wei is a “Warring States-era notion.” Later, on page 164, we’re told that wu wei is in fact an “ancient Taoist principle” which he defines as “achieving a great deal by drawing on the strength of others.” (Pg. 164-165).

There are two issues here. The first is definitional: Pillsbury gives us a very unambiguous definition of wu wei as having others do your work  that can only be described as an entrepreneurial understanding of the concept, and one that stands in opposition to its generally understood meaning. Edward Slingerland, in his book Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China (Oxford University Press, 2007), writes “the term wu-wei refers to a metaphorically conceived situation where a subject is no longer having to exert effort in order to act.” That is, wu wei (which means literally “non-doing” or “non-action”), is about more a metaphorical way of thinking about effortlessness. Even Roger Ames, who Pillsbury praises in the book, writes that a ruler who appreciates wu wei “is tranquil and still and, at his deepest level, merged with the Tao [the Way]. This enables him to always act spontaneously and in a timely fashion, to resonate (kan-ying) with the vital energies of heaven and earth and thus exert a numinous transformative influence on the people (shen-hua), to adapt (yin) to the course and natures of things and to comply with their natural guidelines (hsün-li), and to be sincere and benevolent.”[6] According Moss Roberts, Professor of East Asian Studies at NYU, “Translated as under-acting [in the Dao De Jing], wu-wei in other stanzas is translated as ‘under-govern,’ ‘without leading,’  ‘not striving,’ and ‘pursue no end.”[7]

Which is to say that wu wei is a complex philosophical concept that cannot in any way be boiled down to “having others do your work.”

The second problem is his description of wu wei has a “Warring States concept.” (Pg. 42) The period, which lasts roughly from 475 BC until what we now call China was unified under Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC, was typified by political and military fragmentation. Wu wei on the other hand, was first found in the Dao De Jing, the founding text of Daoism. While the popularity of Daoism was certainly spreading during the period of the Warring States, the reputed founder of Doaism and the concept of wu wei, Laozi, was thought to have lived during the 6th century. So while Pillsbury would have been correct in stating that wu wei came into more widespread use during the Warring States period, it is not a “Warring States concept,” and his labeling so distorts the rich and complex history of the idea.

Perhaps more troublingly, Pillsbury casually re-interprets or re-defines well established meanings of Chinese concepts to give them a meaning that is more red in tooth and claw. In describing how the Chinese actually seek a new global hierarchy in which China is alone at the top, Pillsbury writes that the ancient Confucian concept of da tong (大同), which is typically rendered as the “great harmony” and is used to describe a utopian vision of world peace, is to Pillsbury better translated as “an era of unipolar dominance.” (Pg. 39) Why is it better translated in a way that will overthrow a common translation that has been agreed upon since at least the end of the 19th century? Because “Since 2005, Chinese leaders have spoken at the United Nations and other public forums of their supposed vision of this kind of harmonious world.” (Pg, 39) Needless to say he offers no footnote for either the radical re-definition of da tong, nor for the instances of Chinese leaders articulating their supposed vision.

Lastly, what of Pillsbury’s claim that China’s leadership and strategists draw heavily (and some how uniquely) from the lessons of their ancient past, specifically the Warring States period? “The Chinese ying pai hawks do not get lost in their long, complex history; instead, they have sought specific lessons from historical successes and failures that they can use to win the Marathon.”(Pg. 31) “Only recently have some in the US begun to realize that Chinese strategy is, at its core, a product of lessons derived from the Warring States period.” (Pg. 32)

This is all interesting stuff: China, a long-mysterious and ancient civilization, is drawing on its remote past to enact a secret strategy of global supremacy that is unknown to all but a very few outsiders, including Michael Pillsbury.

What if I were to tell you of another country where military leaders and strategists draw on the lessons of the past to shape current policy and tactics. In fact, so important are ancient battles that the training programs and academies for this country’s service men and women require the study a war that took place 2,400 years ago. As one this country’s internal documents stated, “The lessons of this great war between two powerful city-states in the ancient world are still valid after twenty-four centuries.” Even those who will not serve in battle but instead work for the nation’s think tanks and universities and thus help shape global policy also read these core texts. Indeed, an account of this war written by a general who took part in it is essential reading for students of international relations.

The country I’m talking about is the United States, and the great conflict is not one from the Warring States period, but rather the Peloponnesian War. The account of the war written by Thucydides is known to any who have taken an undergraduate class in international relations, or indeed anyone who has enrolled a US military academy. Yet to Pillsbury, the fact that the Chinese leadership and military utilize their own past for current and future strategy is a singular and apparently alarming phenomenon.

What Pillsbury repeatedly attributes China reading from the ancient Warring States playbook is, in fact, just good strategy.

In short, The Hundred Year Marathon is a deeply unserious book written by someone who appears to be a deeply serious China analyst. We need a book that points out the systematic weaknesses in our approach to China, but unfortunately, this is not that book.

[1] The sentence in question reads, “Three years ago, the former professor at its National Defense University wrote a book of the same name, arguing that China should aim to surpass the U.S. as the world’s top military power and predicting a marathon contest for global dominion.” See Jeremy Page, For Xi, a ‘China Dream’ of Military Power,  Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2013

[2] http://www.space.com/12411-china-space-station-tiangong-readied-launch.html

[3]is available at http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2011/02-08/2828427.shtml

[4] He leaves unsaid how one who cannot speak more than a few words can “feign competence” in the presence of someone else who speaks, but not fluently.

[5] The Chinese characters mentioned are, in order:

[6] Roger Ames, The Art of Rulership: A Study of Ancient Chinese Political Thought, SUNY Press, 1994. Pg. X

[7] See his translation of Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way, Laozi, University of California Press, 2001. Pg. 31-32

Photo from Flickr.

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Jude Blanchette is the Assistant Director, 21st Century China Program at IR/PS. A self-described Sinophile , Jude is a graduate from the University of Oxford where he studied Chinese politics and history. After graduating from university Jude worked in China for six years, splitting his time between Shanghai and Beijing. He has been instrumental to many new initiatives at 21st Century China such as the 21CC Briefings and the China Focus Debate.

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