A Shaky Case for Chinese Deception


Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (Henry Holt and Company, 2015)


Will a rising China maintain the international order, negotiate adjustments on the margins, or directly challenge the U.S. place in the world? This pressing foreign policy question animates scholars, journalists, and practitioners alike in addressing how Washington should best prepare for each possibility. The latest contribution to the debate, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, will no doubt be controversial because of its vague evidence to support the author’s statement about hostile Chinese intentions and how Beijing has been able to hide its revisionism. Despite the author’s intent to sound a clarion call to American readers that cuts through Chinese deception, the book undermines its purpose through sloppy use of evidence and inadequate policy prescriptions to the challenge the author purports to identify.

Although the book is largely an analysis of Chinese intentions and how Beijing deceived U.S. interlocutors, The Hundred-Year Marathon is also part memoir reflecting on the author’s experience with China inside the Beltway. The author, Michael Pillsbury, is himself no stranger to controversy—being simultaneously lauded as a strategic thinker and vilified as a self-serving leaker—and this book will not settle his reputation. The recounting of meetings and people lends credence to Pillsbury’s description of U.S. government thinking while at the same time raising questions about his actual role.

Pillsbury’s central thesis is that Chinese deception is at the core of repeated U.S. failures to understand China, Chinese leaders, and their objective of replacing the United States on the world stage. Positive feelings from the heyday of Sino-American cooperation lulled Americans into a false sense of understanding their Chinese interlocutors, and preserved their ignorance of Chinese strategic culture. As he writes, “No one I worked with at the CIA or the Pentagon in the 1980s raised the idea that China could deceive the United States or be the cause of a major intelligence failure.”

Underlying this “intelligence failure,” the author explains, are several mistaken assumptions in American thinking on China. First, engaging China will bring complete cooperation on a range of global issues. Second, China is evolving toward democracy. Third, China is a “fragile flower” that could collapse if pushed too hard on human rights, rule of law, and other issues that dilute the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power. Fourth, the Chinese want to be “just like [Americans].” The Chinese interlocutors who praise the United States and express a deep interest in American political and social culture, Pillsbury observes, are following traditional Chinese practices of deception to reinforce American misperceptions.

The final mistaken assumption that U.S. analysts make is in underestimating the influence of China’s hawks. Following China’s “hawks,” according to Pillsbury, is the key to understanding Chinese policymaking, because they have enough political backing, primarily from within the military, to speak freely. If Americans paid attention to these voices, then events and trends, like the Tiananmen crackdown, would not be surprising. Nor would China’s ambitious international agenda to supplant the United States and “avenge or wipe clean past foreign humiliations.” These voices within China “sometimes knew the minds of the leaders better than did the moderates,” the latter of whom U.S. analysts and officials typically meet and cite in their reports.

China’s hawks draw upon lessons from the Warring States period to guide China’s strategy and manipulate the context of U.S.-China competition. Pillsbury urges the reader to accept that China, by way of these hawks, has several guiding principles: induce complacency to avoid alerting your adversary; manipulate your opponent’s advisers; avoid being encircled; employ metrics to evaluate one’s position relative to the adversary; and keep sight of the shi. The concept of shi roughly describes the evolving structure of a situation or the independent momentum of events. As a kind of arc of history, shi can tilt for and against a state quite readily, placing “a premium on the early detection of shifts, and the need for monitoring indicators.” For Chinese hawks, mastering shi in U.S.-China relations means keeping Americans ignorant of Chinese intentions, while extracting aid in the form of market access, political support, technology transfer, and investment.

China’s plan for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is well known, but Pillsbury’s thesis goes further in asserting this rejuvenation includes replacing the United States internationally. Beijing has publicized the state’s modernization objectives, which go uncited in this book, known as the “Two Centenary Goals”: achieving a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021 and doubling the level of 2010 GDP per capita by 2049. Pillsbury’s principal pieces of evidence are Chinese military researchers and their writings that seek inspiration in the Warring States period to identify the means through which to topple hegemonic powers. From these sources, Pillsbury concludes “Chinese leaders are playing a long game, aiming to build up their deterrent capability quietly,” in ways that provide Beijing the opportunity to defeat the United States without creating the visible force that would alert U.S. policymakers and lead to preventive war.

Pillsbury believes “Seven Fears” inform China’s long-term intentions and its focus on manipulating U.S. policy: America is planning for a blockade of China; Washington “supports plundering China’s maritime resources”; Washington “may choke off China’s sea lines of communication”; the United States seeks China’s territorial dismemberment; America may assist Chinese rebels; and the United States may conduct air strikes in mainland China. With the exception of U.S.-supported rebels, Beijing lacks the military-technical capability to deal handily with these potential U.S. challenges. The best Chinese option is to maneuver and manipulate the United States away from considering those options as a response to China’s rise.

At a superficial level, Pillsbury’s points appear reasonable if not self-evident, but his argumentation and evidence leaves much to be desired. The author’s carelessness leads to distortions that are more likely to discredit his propositions than to convert the undecided.

Nowhere is Pillsbury more dangerously overreaching than in his revisionist account of the U.S.-China rapprochement, where he contends, “…it was not Nixon who went to China, but China that went to Nixon.” Pillsbury’s assertion of Mao Zedong’s manipulation of shi to bring Nixon and Kissinger closer to China offers a one-sided account of the opening. In this account, Beijing sent the welcoming signals by instigating its 1969 border clashes with the Soviet Union and testing two nuclear bombs near the Soviet border, as well as Mao’s invitation delivered via CCP sympathizer and journalist Edgar Snow at the October 1, 1970 National Day parade. Pillsbury also writes, “During their first months in office, [Nixon and Kissinger’s] focus was on improving relations with the Soviet Union. They had no desire to provoke the Soviets’ ire by dallying with China.”

The holes in this account, however, are easily exposed by going to the official record. Richard Nixon first signaled he would welcome a new U.S.-China relationship in his 1967 Foreign Affairs article “Asia After Viet Nam,” where he argued “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.” This precedes Pillsbury’s timeline of China’s signals by two years. Among Washington’s many signals, the U.S. administration also provided overtures through Pakistan and China’s friends in the communist world as well as responses to media questions about China. The possibility of an opening was also considered from the administration’s early days, evidenced by Nixon’s memo of February 1, 1969 in which he wrote “I think we should give every encouragement to the attitude that this Administration is ‘exploring possibilities of rapprochement with the Chinese.’” In National Security Study Memorandum 14 on February 5, the president directed a reassessment of U.S. China policy that considered, among other issues, “alternative U.S. approaches on China and their costs and risks.” As for the nuclear tests, this reviewer finds it difficult to appreciate how U.S. policymakers could have interpreted the tests as welcoming signals, because they took place at Lop Nur, China’s only nuclear testing site.

Did China exploit U.S. eagerness for rapprochement in order to gain additional benefits through a mixture of cajoling, flattery, standoffishness, and other tactics of negotiation? Probably. But this argument cannot ignore U.S. initiative, which took place prior to Beijing’s subtle signaling, and should be based on the record of the U.S.-China opening.

Pillsbury’s misuse of evidence was also on display in his case study of two Chinese sources, the pseudonymous “Mr. White” and “Ms. Green.” Both are called “defectors” and Pillsbury uses this moniker to set the two off against each other. “Mr. White” appears to be a former Chinese security official who could identify classified Chinese documents, sensitive facilities, and Chinese spies in the United States, in contrast to “Ms. Green,” who could not. Moreover, “Mr. White” feared for his life and had modest demands in exchange for his intelligence. “Ms. Green,” by contrast, demanded payment and was willing to travel regularly back to China to elicit more information. According to Pillsbury, these differences should have led U.S. intelligence officials to dismiss “Ms. Green” in favor of “Mr. White,” but the former’s promise of continued access to senior Chinese officials lured Americans into a damaging deception about China’s intention to pursue genuine political reform.

The shadowy nature of intelligence encourages the reader to accept Pillsbury’s assertions at face value; however, just a little bit of digging suggests the author distorts this episode to fit his thesis. Pillsbury provided enough information, including the approximate amount of money the U.S. government paid her ($1.7 million) and the arrest date (April 9, 2003), to identify “Ms. Green” as Katrina Leung, based on details released by the FBI. Ms. Leung was a U.S. permanent resident from 1972 onward, coming to New York as a teenager to build a life in the United States. Whatever else she was, Leung was not a defector. She did not flee China to provide intelligence and was never an official, so why should she be able to authenticate government documents? The FBI ran her for more than 18 years, despite a number of red flags that she was working for Chinese intelligence. In addition to exploiting her FBI handler to pass secrets back to China, she provided what Pillsbury describes as reassuring messages “that Beijing posed no threat to America and that we needed the communist leadership as a check against more radical, dangerous Chinese political elements.” Pillsbury omits an important part of the story: who was persuaded by “Ms. Green”? The all-source analysts at CIA, DIA, and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research would be unlikely to make a judgment based on FBI reporting. There is a need for further explanation of how Leung’s reporting shaped U.S. perceptions.

Concerns with Pillsbury’s use of evidence aside, The Hundred-Year Marathon is unlikely to have an impact on policymakers. Like other critical works on China, ranging from Stefan Halper’s Beijing Consensus to Aaron Friedberg’s Contest for Supremacy, its policy recommendations for an alternative approach to China do not demand sufficiently meaningful departures from existing policy to generate action. For example, Pillsbury argues for a “vertical coalition of nations,” suggesting that “even the threat of such a coalition…might give Beijing pause and temper its bellicosity.” The last two U.S. administrations have attempted such coalition building, but Washington’s actions seem to have fallen short of either tempering China’s challenge or assuaging regional insecurities.

The most important of Pillsbury’s recommendations are to “support pro-democracy reformers” and “monitor and influence debates between China’s hawks and reformers.” Apart from more intelligence effort, Pillsbury does not explain how to overcome the difficulties in countering Chinese deception that he claims has warped American perspectives on China.

Pillsbury attempts to alert Americans to the systematic ways in which Beijing hides its intentions to replace U.S. hegemony, so that they will no longer be surprised by China’s internal crackdowns and international assertiveness. The Hundred-Year Marathon, however, is more likely to shrink the public space for critical discourse on China than it is to generate a much-needed discussion about U.S.-China relations, regardless of how sensible Pillsbury’s overarching concerns remain. Pessimists about China’s future already accept many of the arguments presented in the book, but those who believe the U.S.-China relationship will decide the future of the 21st Century probably will not be persuaded.


Peter Mattis is a Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a visiting scholar at the Institute of International Relations at the National Cheng-chi University in Taipei.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff