Warning against the threat from China has been a staple of national security literature since at least the late 1990s. This genre typically begins by compiling a list of the most alarming statistics related to China’s economic potential, military advancements, and global misdeeds—environmental degradation, cyberattacks, support for rogue regimes, and human rights abuses, to name a few—before informing readers that the United States must act now before it is too late.
In the traditional telling, China is advancing across all measures of national power toward an ominous end-state, never fully defined, that must, somehow, negatively affect the United States and its interests. Many volumes portray China as almost being on autopilot, progressing by leaps and bounds toward superpower status merely because it can—without a larger strategy of how to get there, or what a Chinese-dominated world would look like.
Here, Michael Pillsbury fills in these considerable gaps. He is uniquely qualified to do so: A fluent Mandarin speaker and China hand since the Nixon administration, Pillsbury has decades of experience directly engaging with the ultra-nationalists in China’s military and bureaucracy, who he refers to as the ying pai.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Pillsbury asserts, the ying pai are not just strident voices in Beijing’s bureaucratic wilderness, chest-thumping about using nuclear weapons against Los Angeles but largely inconsequential in internal Communist party debates. Time and again, he demonstrates, it is China’s hawks who have dictated the course of Beijing’s actions and the so-called moderates who have found themselves marginalized and outmaneuvered.
Pillsbury’s scholarship is buttressed by an eye-popping amount of declassified material, including detailed accounts of interviews with high-level defectors. It is this treasure trove of material that forms the basis of Pillsbury’s key claim: that China, under the influence of hardline ying pai since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is methodically undertaking a “hundred-year marathon” strategy to displace the United States as the global hegemon and impose a China-centric world order. If the claim of a “secret strategy” to dominate the world sounds unduly conspiratorial, Pillsbury quickly demonstrates the considerable merit, and deft nuance, of this assertion.
Any armchair student of China can tell you the value of history in Chinese strategic thinking, memorably expressed by Zhou Enlai’s apocryphal comment to Richard Nixon in 1972 that it was still too early to evaluate the impact of the French Revolution. Pillsbury devotes considerable attention to the “Warring States Period” in Chinese history, roughly from 475 b.c. until the Qin dynasty unified China in 221 b.c. In this anarchic period, characterized by persistent competition between rival fiefdoms, many of the lessons inspiring China’s hawks and their approach to America can be found. Pillsbury’s interactions with prominent ying pai,and his willingness to wade through their voluminous writings, reveal a Chinese leadership carefully applying the lessons of ancient history to modern-day interactions with the United States.
China sees the United States as a hegemon in terminal decline, much like Great Britain in the early 20th century. Based on their reading of history, both ancient and modern, the Chinese leadership has determined to tread relatively lightly for the foreseeable future in the hopes of avoiding an outright clash with an America still able to respond forcefully to Beijing’s march toward superpower status. Pillsbury references a Chinese proverb involving a rising power who inquired about “the weight of the Emperor’s cauldrons”—thereby alerting the ruler to the rising power’s desire to overthrow the existing order and, after victory, remove even the emperor’s cauldrons from his palace.
The lesson: It is far better to appear weak and unthreatening while building one’s own strength.
In the meantime, while China continues its ascent, Beijing will content itself with other lessons from the “Warring States” period, such as sowing doubt about its true intentions among the elite of its competitor. Hence, the assiduous courting of Western academics and intellectuals who are considered “pro-China” while vigorously confronting and denying access to those seen as more skeptical of Beijing’s actions. China has grasped that, in a hundred-year marathon, the United States is far less likely to react negatively to its rise if prominent American voices are consistently painting a more benign view of Beijing.
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