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Society & Culture

Michael Pillsbury’s China Nightmare

Apr 26, 2016
  • Jared McKinney

    PhD student, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

In his new book, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (St Martin’s Griffin Edition: March 2016), Michael Pillsbury, a long-time Pentagon insider, reveals—for the first time ever—China’s historically unprecedented strategy to become an independent, strong, prosperous, and respected global power. Not content to be an undeveloped nation of poor peasants and menial factory workers, the Chinese have a secret plan to make their nation “the greatest power in the world,” Pillsbury explains. No longer willing to passively accept the shame of being a divided nation exploited by its neighbors, China—Pillsbury argues breathtakingly—has a coherent (and secret!) economic, political, and military plan to make China great again.

What is so shocking about this secret plan is that it belies the expectations of the Washington, D.C. intelligentsia. “We believed,” Pillsbury explains, “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.” U.S. engagement with China, which Pillsbury himself helped promote during his many decades as the Defense Department’s go-to China expert, was supposed to bring “complete cooperation” and “permanent” friendship between the two great nations. That was why America was willing to accept rapprochement with China during the Nixon Administration. But gradually Pillsbury, mostly alone among the nation’s China experts, came to see the light: the Chinese “had deceived me and the American government.” China was supposed to meekly rise into someone else’s order. China and America were to “become true allies forever.” Instead, having initiated rapprochement in 1969, China used American scientific, military, and business know-how to craftily strengthen itself for a long-term competition. The Soviet Union was only a passing meteor in this struggle for greatness—surpassing the U.S. was always China’s true ambition.

Pillsbury’s book reveals this mendacious Chinese plot, and points out where America went wrong. Rapprochement with China during the Cold War he rates as tolerably strategic: after all, it was useful to have China on America’s side. Where the U.S. really went wrong was at Tiananmen. It was then that it became clear that “the winds of democracy” had all but ceased to blow, and certainly were not “creating new hope,” as President George Herbert Walker Bush had remarked in February 1989. Instead of preserving its increasingly positive relationship with China after June 4, 1989, the U.S. should have supported “the Chinese exiles in Paris” and forced China to privatize its SOEs, even though (as Pillsbury himself admits) there was simply not enough money in the Chinese economy to purchase these state assets and (again, as Pillsbury admits) all the other Asian Tigers developed their economies initially with state supported enterprises.

But America did not act, in Pillsbury’s telling, and so China’s anti-democratic turn picked up speed. It was after the Tiananmen crackdown that the Chinese patriotic education campaign kicked off, poisoning the minds of Chinese youth and spreading lies about America’s past history. This Chinese “hypernationalism” was activated by China’s leaders in 1999 when the U.S. bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade, killing three. In response, China’s leaders seemed to believe their own propaganda. As the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission declared in 2002, they believed “that the fundamental drive of the United States is to maintain global hegemony by engaging in the shameless pursuit of ‘power politics,’ often disguised as a quest for democratization.” For the Chinese, America had now become, says Pillsbury, “the great Satan.”

This belief, mixed with China’s own “psychological peculiarities,” produced a set of fears in China: namely, that America had a war plan to blockade China (it did not help that a former Japanese naval chief of staff said that the U.S. and Japan would, in a contingency, contain Chinese forces within the First Island Chain), that America would exploit China’s weakness in its near seas, threaten China’s sea lines of communication, and encourage rebels and terrorism inside China. The way for China to deal with the great Satan and these dangerous strategies, Pillsbury explains, is the Assassin’s Mace—a secret weapon called shashoujian in Chinese. This weapon, following the lessons of ancient Chinese strategy, will target America where it is weak by developing asymmetric capabilities that today go by the name A2/AD (Anti-Access Area Denial).

So what if China succeeds? What if it realizes its China Dream 2049? The answer, Pillsbury says, is simple: “many websites will be filled with rewritten history defaming the West and praising China; and pollution will contaminate the air in more countries . . . in a race to the bottom in food safety and environmental standards. . . . species could disappear, ocean levels will rise, and cancer will spread. . . . Chinese state-owned monopolies will dominate the global marketplace, and one of the world’s mightiest military alliances may be controlled by Beijing.” Unless America intervenes and makes China pay a price “for its behavior,” this is the future we all should look forward to.

Nonetheless, in a surprise move, Pillsbury does not call for a new era of Cold-War style containment. “There is no global ideological struggle, no need to create an anti-China alliance akin to the NATO alliance to contain an expanding empire.” Instead, America should revive “the support for democracy and civil society groups within China.” Pillsbury laments that the U.S. spends only $50 million on democracy promotion in China annually, and thinks America should build domestic and international organizations, “a grand coalition” to bring “change to China.” In particular, the U.S. should focus on ending any technical or bureaucratic aid it provides China, fighting “anti-American competitive conduct,” exposing censorship, and seeking to maintain America’s military and economic superiority. The way to avoid the China nightmare of 2049, apparently, is to forge a strategy for competition and match China on its own terms.

Now, if you happen to disagree with Pillsbury’s narrative, it’s probably because you’ve been duped by Chinese propaganda, influenced by the money your institution receives from the Chinese government, or even more basically, you do not understand the lessons of China’s Warring States period. (Happily for Pillsbury, paid employees of the U.S. Defense Department have no such biases.) As a disbeliever, you are members of the “Red Team.” You are a “good assistant” and perform an important public relations role for the Chinese government, but in fact you are perpetuating the deception foisted on America by China’s devious leaders. So please, dear reader, bear this in mind as you weigh the words that follow.

Much could be said of Pillsbury’s arguments, but perhaps it is enough to make four points.

First, in the annals of history you will find nothing particularly Chinese in the desire for a nation to become independent, prosperous, and powerful—in a word, great (or even, the greatest). In the ancient Greek world, polities competed for honor (timē) by telling glorious stories about their past and winning victories in battle. The polity that could do these things the best became the hegemon—the legitimate authority. In East Asia, of course, China historically filled this role, until, that is, civil war and western imperialism led to a hundred years of humiliation. Modern European history has been one of unremitting competition between states, and many historians have viewed it as a constant succession of hegemonies (e.g., Portugal to Holland to Britain to America). The most peaceful period of this history—the long-nineteenth century (1815-1914)—occurred when Europe’s five major powers recognized one another as “great” and limited the competition in important ways. Today Marco Rubio seeks to create a “New American Century.” Donald Trump declares he will “Make America Great Again!” Is it really such a secret that other nations—China, yes, but also Russia and even Brazil—seek greatness as well? The answer of course is no, and that unceremoniously deflates the entire premise of Pillsbury’s book.

Second, the idea that China would become a sort of American lackey, democratic and free—America’s “permanent” friend—would be laughable, except for the fact that Pillsbury and many others in the American policy community seemed to have in fact believed it. Nothing short of ignorance and naiveté can explain such a belief. The Sino-American rapprochement was from the beginning rooted in the interests of both nations, not their identities. China needed rapprochement because of the imminent threat of the Soviet Union; America needed rapprochement in order to end the Vietnam War with some semblance of honor. This was IR 101: two states balancing against a third, which posed a threat to both. But forget academic theories—Pillsbury could have just read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire, in which the Foundation and the independent trading worlds, theretofore rivals, join together to oppose a rising power threatening both of them (“the Mule”). There is no mystery here, and no speculation on China’s supposed culture of deception is necessary to explain the Sino-American alliance. After the USSR collapsed, a benign threat environment, Deng’s societal transformation, and increasing trade and personal contact sustained the relationship. China and America, in this new era, would cooperate where their interests conjoined and compete where they differed. There was no end of history here and no democratic convergence, though these liberal nostrums seem to have deceived Pillsbury and the Washington, D.C. elite.

Third, Pillsbury’s description of his 2049 China Nightmare takes every negative trend and aspect of Chinese society and simply projects it forward thirty years. This is a picture perfect example of the “linear projection fallacy.” Since China is polluted today, it (and its trading partners) will be even worse in the future; since Chinese individuals steal intellectual property (IP) today, they will steal even more in the future; since China has aided “rogue states” in the past, it will do so to an even greater extent in the future, etc. This argument is stunningly irresponsible. Industrialization is a process. Industrializing states (including the U.S.) have historically stolen other nations’ IP, polluted the environment, and permitted terrible working conditions for workers. As states grow richer they begin to care more about IP (because they are creating it), to pay more attention to the environment (once you are not dying from malnourishment, you can start worrying about air quality), to reform their labor and trade policies (because of domestic pressures), and to worry more about global instability (because of close trade dependencies). This process is occurring in China today.

Here’s the proof: in terms of pollution, 2015 was the cleanest year in Beijing since numbers were first recorded in 2008, and pollution fell by around 15 percent in scores of other cities. In fact, today it is not authoritarian China but democratic India that has the world’s most polluted cities, a fact Pillsbury seems blissfully (and conveniently) unaware of. In 2014, the Chinese Government declared “war on pollution” and Premier Li Keqiang pledged to shut down coal-fired factories and power plants. He has kept his promise: in 2016 alone, 1,000 coal mines will be shut down, and coal-burning power generation is projected to drop annually by 2-4 percent. When I lived in Beijing last year, Chinese students regularly told me that the environment was the most important issue to them (“environmental studies” is an increasingly popular degree, unsurprisingly). The government understands this. Cleaning up the environment has become a legitimacy issue for the CCP, and the trend of the future is not coal burning and steel manufacturing but clean solar energy, high-tech infrastructure, and professional services. Similar points could be made about labor reforms and China’s support for global order, but I digress.

Finally, even if you believe everything Pillsbury says about the 2049 China Nightmare, you should recognize that his “solution” is inadequate. If China really is a rising giant that—by just 2030—will have half the per-capita GDP of the U.S. and twice the overall GDP by Justin Yifu Lin’s projections, how will reduced U.S.-China cooperation (which Pillsbury recommends) and increased American competitiveness change anything in the long term? Pillsbury understands the trend of China’s rise, and so instead he places his hope in America’s ability to influence China’s domestic politics. But to “support prodemocracy reformers” as Pillsbury recommends, would reinforce China’s paranoia, not reassure it. As he says himself, Chinese leaders view such interference as aimed at dividing and weakening the Chinese state. The logical response to such U.S. interference is bolstered authoritarianism, the very thing Pillsbury seems to decry. Perhaps, though, this is what he would like to see happen, as increased authoritarianism would hamper Chinese economic growth and intensify popular disquiet. Two can play the game of deception.

All this being said, Pillsbury is right about one point that deserves great emphasis. Though a “hawk” himself, he decries other anti-China hawks who speak loosely about China’s desire to “dominate” its region through offensive military force. There is simply no evidence in Chinese sources for such a view, though this would surprise Filipino president Benigno Aquino: “No serious Chinese scholar advocates the approach to conquest of Hitler or Stalin or Tojo. No ying pai hawk author ever raises a strategy of territorial expansion or global ideological domination.” A bid to become a great power is not the same as a bid to seek “domination” through conquest, a point all too frequently forgotten by China’s critics.

Liu Mingfu has a China Dream. Michael Pillsbury has a China Nightmare. The Dream is for China to become a powerful global leader that assumes its rightful place in the world as a respected and prestigious nation. The Nightmare is that China achieves this and then imposes its values on the world. Pillsbury hopes that as China grows, its values will evolve towards openness, but because he thinks the CCP has already fooled him once in this regard, he thinks America needs to lead a coalition that somehow forces domestic reform in China. The fears and paranoia of Chinese society make such an outcome fanciful. America’s goal should be, above all, to maintain peaceful relations with China. America’s hope should be that peace will grow into trust and trust into friendship. Among great powers in a nuclear world, a friend can pull harder than an enemy can push.

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