Have you ever played the “What if” history game? A typical question might be, “What if you had been alive before World War II began in Europe?” Would you have been like Churchill? Would you have spent years warning of Nazi aggression? Or would you have said, like many Americans, that Europe’s problems were none of our business? Or would you have been too busy listening to baseball on the radio to have an opinion?
Today a growing number of Americans think we’re in the bottom of the seventh inning with regard to the People’s Republic of China, and while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme, as the saying goes. In the past year, the percentage of Americans who believe the Chinese Communist Party is the United States’ greatest threat has doubled from 22 to 45 percent, according to a Gallup survey. What’s more, a Pew Research Center poll found that 89 percent of Americans feel China is an “enemy” of the United States.
Whether one is a Republican or Democrat, or believes the coronavirus came from a pangolin or a bioweapons lab, the shift in mood is clear and bipartisan. Yet while the Biden Administration opposes many of its predecessor’s policies, its China policy remains equally hard line.
Some may be shocked to learn that during the Ming Dynasty, from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600s, China’s rulers saw their realm as a kingdom to which all other lands must submit. In other words, others had to kowtow. This was a ceremony in which a foreign envoy knelt three times and prostrated himself nine times before the emperor to show complete submission. Chinese history goes back three millennia. Eight of its imperial dynasties spanned periods longer than all of U.S. history to date. As former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping once joked, “China is a great civilization. We’ve just had a few bad centuries lately.” To Beijing’s Communist leaders, nothing could be more natural than a Chinese-led world order in which all others bow before it.
If China poses a mortal threat to Taiwan, America and democracies around the world, why did it take us so long to open our eyes? John F. Kennedy titled his senior thesis at Harvard “Why England Slept.” Today the question is why America slept.
A thorough answer comes in the 2016 book, The Hundred-Year Marathon, whose title refers to China’s long-term strategy of reasserting itself as the world’s preeminent military, political and economic power. Its subtitle leaves nothing to the imagination: “China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.”
“The hard truth,” writes author Michael Pillsbury, “is that China’s leaders see America as an enemy in a global struggle they plan on winning.” During his 50-year career as a top Sinologist, who speaks fluent Mandarin, Pillsbury never kowtowed to the Chinese, but he does confess to having once been what his fellow policymakers call a “panda hugger” who advocated friendly relations with Beijing. In 1969 he presented intelligence to the White House that favored opening relations to China, he’s worked in Congress and in every presidential administration since Nixon’s, and he believes he’s had more access to Chinese military and intelligence leaders in dozens of one-on-one meetings than any other Westerner.
Seeing China in the best-possible, most-benign light was normal for Americans. Pillsbury recalls the political science professors in his doctoral program at Columbia University in the 1960s stressing China’s mistreatment by foreign powers. “This perspective,” he writes, “the desire to help China at all costs, the almost willful blindness to any actions that undercut our view of Chinese goodwill and victimhood — has colored the U.S. government’s approach to dealing with China.”
When Nixon shocked the world by opening relations with China in 1972, American policymakers thought their Chinese counterparts would naturally want to evolve their government into a peaceful, democratic power — to be just like us. It was a fantasy maybe Americans alone would believe. How astonishingly naive to think the heirs of Mao Zedong, who may have murdered as many as 65 million of his own people in death camps and through mass starvation, would be lambs. Today the joke is that rather than exporting our values to China, we’re importing theirs, at least with regard to censorship.
According to Pillsbury, China’s Communist party has engaged in a 50-year assault on the existing world order. Far from a Nazi-style blitzkrieg, China’s is a quicksand campaign. For Americans who, damn the torpedoes, go full speed ahead, this is an unfathomable way of acting. American businesses live by quarterly reports, Pillsbury observes, while China’s leaders “make plans that span generations and set goals that will not be achieved for a half century or more.”
So China has concealed its true intentions. It has engaged in cyberspying, stolen intellectual property, intimidated its neighbors and undercut foreign competition through high tariffs and subsidies of Chinese companies, while Western governments and corporations have turned over technology and intelligence to what was mistakenly presumed to be a humble nation meaning no harm. In a word, we’ve been snookered.
“Americans have been wrong about China again and again, sometimes with profound consequences,” says Pillsbury, who notes China’s unpredicted 1950s invasion of Korea to repel U.S. troops and the savage use of tanks to crush Tiananmen Square democracy protesters in 1989. “Looking back,” Pillsbury writes of his hopes for reform during those demonstrations, “it is painful that I was so gullible.”
He wasn’t alone. The U.S. government has willfully deceived itself. Pillsbury recalls visiting a CIA translation center and asking why Chinese leaders’ anti-American tirades so rarely appeared in its reports. After all, American officials relied on these translations to understand what China’s politburo was thinking. “I have instructions not to translate nationalistic stuff,” one translator told him. Doing so, she’d been warned, “would just inflame both the conservatives and left-wing human rights advocates here in Washington and hurt relations with China.”
Meanwhile, in a perverse mirror-image of America’s errant leadership, Pillsbury writes that Chinese officials actually believe their own propaganda about us. The state propaganda apparatus is vast beyond comprehension, Pillsbury reports, employing some 1,000 people on an annual budget of $12 billion. Another 1,000,000 government employees work to maintain online censorship policies.
Chinese media have long claimed that American presidents going back to the 1840s have sought to oppress China. For example, through the Chinese lens, Lincoln wanted “China to be dominated, or even exploited, in the international community,” Pillsbury writes, whereas “Lincoln hardly had two minutes to think about China, and the treaty negotiated by his emissary was advantageous to the Chinese.”
With tensions rising today over China’s threats to conquer Taiwan and its increasingly frequent military incursions into Taiwanese airspace, Pillsbury fears China might use a “warning strike” to obtain decisive advantage. “While China has historically not used force for territorial conquest, it has instead done so for political motives of a different sort: to achieve psychological shock, reverse a crisis situation, or establish a fait accompli.”
The Chinese, according to Pillsbury, have their own version of the slingshot used by David in the Bible: “the assassin’s mace,” a combination of asymmetric weapons used to bring victory to the underdog. Because China believes the U.S. is overly reliant on technology, strategies include information disruption via cyberwarfare, electromagnetic pulse weapons that could black out huge sections of the continental U.S., cyber-espionage and anti-satellite weapons.
Even if the United States and China do not go to war, the long game hardly leaves “a future worth looking forward to,” Pillsbury writes. “The Sinocentric world will nurture autocracies, many websites will be filled with rewritten history defaming the West and praising China; and pollution will contaminate the air in more countries, as developing nations adopt the Chinese model of ‘grow now, and deal with the environment later.’ . . . Chinese state-owned monopolies and Chinese-controlled economic alliances will dominate the global marketplace, and one of the world’s mightiest military alliances may be controlled by Beijing.”
Luckily, much has changed since Pillsbury published his book. China has lost much of its global goodwill. During the early days of the pandemic, it deliberately allowed international travel out of China while isolating Wuhan. The regime showed its hand — a medieval disregard for human life.
Much has also been learned about China’s internal repression. Pillsbury devotes one brief reference to the Uyghur people, but today it is common knowledge that somewhere between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 Uyghur Muslims are held in concentration camps and used for slave labor. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women have been forced to submit to sterilizations and abortions. Further, Uyghurs and members of other dissident groups such as Christians and Falun Gong are executed by the thousands so their organs can be harvested, a claim affirmed by the China Tribunal, a London-based NGO. The Chinese government denies the allegations.
In response, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act passed the House by a vote of 407-1 and in the Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President Donald Trump last May. The Trump administration’s last major foreign policy act denounced China’s behavior as genocide.
So let’s play “What if”. What question would you ask, and how would you answer? I can tell you the baseball score. We’re rallying, and the game is far from over, though it may not seem that way. As E.B. White wrote in 1942, “Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad.”
George Spencer is a freelance writer who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.