As an avid student of history and geopolitics, I’ve spent much of the holiday reading books on both subjects. One of those books was “The Hundred Year Marathon” by Michael Pillsbury, which fans of my articles, blogs or books will enjoy.

Pillsbury is a rather unique individual who began his career working in the United Nations after receiving his PhD from Columbia. He found his way into an office in which he was the only American surrounded by Russians in 1969, leading to his recruitment by various U.S. intelligence agencies. His initial recruitment led to his ability to collect information about the Russians, but the majority of his work quickly began to focus on China. He learned that China had convinced Russia that it was a poor and backwards country that needed help, so Russia sent money, advisors, military equipment and other aid in an attempt to gain a massive ally to spread communism. The Russians learned quickly that China bears no allegiance to others, and will only offer cooperation while you’re helping them.

As Sino-Russian relations had begun to sour significantly after Stalin’s death, the Russians knew full well that China was now attempting to court America to become their benefactor and spoke to Pillsbury at length on the topic. The Russians spent many a session warning Pillsbury what would happen if America took China’s bait, but apparently nobody listened.

Pillsbury was then sent on a two-year study abroad program in Taiwan to learn Mandarin, Chinese society and history. He developed a better understanding of the true Chinese view of America than most of his counterparts in the U.S. government or intelligence agencies.

This contextual understanding of Mandarin Chinese proved extremely important, as it seems the vast majority of intelligence analysts focused on China had only a cursory understanding of Mandarin, if that. The Chinese language requires significant understanding of context to understand, as the same “word” can have four different meanings based on its intonations.Advertisment

As such, “The Hundred Year Marathon” chronicles how simple mistranslations, misunderstandings and outright blundering have led to our nation’s policies and stance on China being completely naive and inaccurate. Not only are many of the briefings our leaders have received inaccurate in translation, but they’ve missed the context of analogies and strategies even when given in completely overt ways.

The book opens with a story of the author attending a Christmas event in which Hillary Clinton (then with the State Department) awarded a Chinese artist $250,000 and a newly invented medal for his helping “progress the dialogue between the U.S. and China.”

The “artist” then proceeded to display his “art,” which was a Christmas tree laden with explosives that he engulfed in flames at a public event in Washington DC. He was given $250,000 and a medal from Hillary, then returned home and received much praise by the “hawks” of the Chinese right for being brave enough to blow up a national symbol of American holidays right in front of the nation’s leaders.

Much of the book explains different lessons and writings which form the Chinese strategy, some of which were not even translated into English until recently. Some of the most important are:

“Kill with a borrowed sword,” meaning to cause damage to an enemy by getting another to do the deed.
“Loot a burning house,” meaning that a country beset by internal conflicts will be unable to defend itself.
“Watch the fires burning across the river,” meaning to delay entering the field of battle until your enemies have exhausted themselves by fighting each other.
“Never ask the weight of the emperor’s cauldrons,” meaning to never let the enemy know you are a rival until it’s too late for him to stop you.
“There can only be one sun in the sky,” meaning the world works in a hierarchical sense, and there can only be one true leader (which is the opposite of what Chinese leaders have feigned as their intentions to western leaders).

Others include:
“Manipulate your opponent’s advisors.”
“Induce complacency to avoid alerting your opponent.”
“A war is not won in a day, a month, or even a year. True victory often takes a decade or more, so be patient.”
“Military might is not the critical factor for winning a long-term competition.”
“On the outside be benevolent, on the inside be ruthless.”

Pillsbury, a fluent Mandarin speaker and reader, speaks at great length of published works from Chinese military students and leaders outlining their beliefs in these stratagems and plans to “reclaim their true place in the world.”

Many Chinese leaders have used or hinted at the above stratagems even in public settings and speeches, but because of the lack of understanding and false beliefs of China’s intentions, American intelligence agencies and political leaders did not even attempt to understand what they meant. Pillsbury even goes so far as to mention a visit to the CIA translation division, where he discovered they had been instructed to not even translate any nationalistic or far-right speech from Chinese leaders, due to their managers not wanting to “rile up” American politicians on both sides. It is also quite interesting that we now hear of American innovation and technology being stolen by Chinese intelligence, but Pillsbury goes into great detail about past American presidents giving it to them outright.

“The Hundred Year Marathon” is named after the Chinese strategy that began with the ascension of Mao Zedong to power in 1949, and wishes to avenge or wipe clean (xi xue) the atrocities it has been forced to endure in the past at the hands of the West.

This strategy was kept a secret for decades, but even Chinese leaders have begun speaking about it in public. Perhaps, as their lessons teach, they believe it is too late for their rival (us) to stop them.

Robert Patrick Lewis was a Green Beret OIF/OEF combat veteran with 10th SFG(A), is an award winning author of “The Pact” and “Love Me When I’m Gone: the true story of life, love and loss for a Green Beret in post-9/11 war” and the host of “The Green Beret MBA” and “Center Mass with Rob and Silent J” programs on Vets on Media. In addition to its own editorials, Vets on Media publishes diverse opinions from outside writers.