In 1995, Michael Pillsbury, an expert on China who has worked with every US president since Nixon and has, he writes, “arguably had more access to China’s military and intelligence establishment than any other Westerner,” was reading an article written by “three of China’s preeminent military experts” about “new technologies that would contribute to the defeat of the United States.”

Michael PillsburyWikipedia

It was in this article that Pillsbury first saw the term “Assassin’s Mace,” which refers to a weapon from Chinese folklore that guarantees a small combatant victory over a larger, more powerful opponent.

The article described goals including “electromagnetic combat superiority” that would allow for “naval victory,” and “tactical laser weapons” that would “be used first in anti-missile defense systems.” They also discussed jamming and destroying radar and various communications systems, and the use of computer viruses.

In time, Pillsbury began seeing the term “Assassin’s Mace” with regularity in Chinese documents.

“In the military context,” he writes, “Assassin’s Mace refers to a set of asymmetric weapons that allow an inferior power to defeat a seemingly superior adversary by striking at an enemy’s weakest point.”

An antique Chinese “assasin’s mace”

At first, Pillsbury writes, he considered these statements aspirational. But as US intelligence analysts translated documents over time, he came to see otherwise. The Assassin’s Mace, he came to believe, was part of a cunning and much broader strategy, a 100-year-long effort to overtake the US as the world’s superpower.

The point of Assassin’s Mace — which, Pillsbury learned, the Chinese were already spending billions of dollars to develop — was to “make a generational leap in military capabilities that can trump the conventional forces of Western powers,” but to do so incrementally, so that by the time they achieved their goal, it would be too late for the US to respond to, much less reverse.

China duped us

In a sense, the new book “The Hundred-Year Marathon” is Pillsbury’s mea culpa. He readily admits that, as a key influencer of US government policy toward China for the past four decades, he had long been one of many in the federal government pushing the US toward full cooperation with China, including heavy financial and technological support, under the belief that the country was headed in a more democratic, free-market direction.

“The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower” by Michael Pillsbury (Henry Holt)

“Looking back, it was painful that I was so gullible,” he writes.

Pillsbury notes that he and many other China experts were taught early on to view China as “a helpless victim of Western imperialists” and that as such, assistance should be provided almost unquestioningly.

Now, he says, he has come to consider this view — which he now believes came about as a result of intentional deception and misdirection on the part of the Chinese — as “the most systemic, significant and dangerous intelligence failure in American history.”

“We believed that American aid to a fragile China whose leaders thought like us would help China become a democratic and peaceful power without ambitions of . . . global dominance,” he writes.

“We underestimated the influence of China’s hawks. Every one of the assumptions behind that belief was wrong — dangerously so.”

“For decades,” Pillsbury adds, “the US government has freely handed over sensitive information, technology, military know-how, intelligence and expert advice to the Chinese. Indeed, so much has been provided for so long that . . . there is no full accounting. And what we haven’t given the Chinese, they’ve stolen.”

A superpower by 2049

“The General Mirror for the Aid of Government”

Part of what Pillsbury sees as America’s naiveté on the issue derived from fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of Chinese culture.

Pillsbury now believes that since the time of Mao Zedong, China has been engaged in an effort to establish China as the world’s premier superpower by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Communist Revolution.

The reason this has been so little known, he says, is that the Chinese consider physical battles just one minor aspect of warfare. China’s main weapon, he says, is deception — the constant appearance of achieving less than they really have and needing our help more than they actually do.

Pillsbury believes this philosophy’s origins derive from a book — the title of which translates to “The General Mirror for the Aid of Government” — that Mao brought with him on his long march in the 1930s. Described as “a statecraft manual with lessons from history that have no Western counterpart,” one section of the book “centers on stratagems of the Warring States period in China, and includes stories and maxims dating as far back as 4000 BC.”

A Chinese military policeman stands guard outside the portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square.Getty Images

Included in these are lessons on “how to use deception, how to avoid encirclement by opponents and how a rising power should induce complacency in the old hegemon until the right moment.”

Mao, it turned out, read this book many times while ruling China, as did subsequent leaders. Chinese students even use passages from it in their writing lessons.

Pillsbury believes that China’s actions since just after World War II are derived from this book and that they’re working just as intended.

“One of the biggest mistakes made by American experts on China was not taking this book seriously,” Pillsbury writes, noting that “it was never translated into English,” and that the US didn’t begin grasping its possible importance until the 1990s.

Pillsbury believes China has strategically positioned itself as a nation in great need of our help since the 1960s, noting that contrary to popular belief, President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the ’70s was initiated by China, not the US.

During early meetings between Mao and Nixon, Mao pushed for the two countries to work together against the Soviet threat, with Mao urging the US to “create an anti-Soviet axis that would include Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Japan.”

“A counterencirclement of the Soviet hegemon was a classic Warring States approach,” Pillsbury writes. “What the Americans missed was that it was not a permanent Chinese policy preference, but only expedient cooperation among two Warring States.”

Demonizing America

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, on a billboard in Shenzhen, China.Getty Images

As Deng Xiaoping came to greater power in China in the late 1970s, America rejoiced, believing him a reform-minded moderate. Pillsbury, though, says that behind the scenes, he was far more hard-line.

Believing that China had erred in following the Soviet economic model and that the country had “failed to extract all they could” from the Soviet relationship, “Deng would not make the same mistake with the Americans.”

“He saw that the real way for China to make progress in the Marathon was to obtain knowledge and skills from the United States,” Pillsbury writes. “In other words, China would come from behind and win the marathon by stealthily drawing most of its energy from the complacent American front-runner.”

In the decades to come, Pillsbury believes, America helped build China’s economy and military while unknowingly following the Warring States script. (He admits that it was he, in a 1975 article in Foreign Policy, who first “advocated military ties between the United States and China,” and that the idea had been proposed to him by officers in the Chinese military.)

Following a Warring States philosophy of tricking your opponent into doing your work for you, Deng knew that technology would be the driver for building the Chinese economy and “believed that the only way China could pass the United States as an economic power was through massive scientific and technological development. An essential shortcut would be to take what the Americans already had.”

Meeting with President Jimmy Carter in 1978, Deng arranged for what would become 19,000 Chinese science students to study here, and Deng and Carter reached an agreement for the US to provide China with “the greatest outpouring of American scientific and technological expertise in history.”

Under President Ronald Reagan, for whom Pillsbury served as a foreign policy adviser, the Pentagon agreed to “sell advanced air, ground, naval and missile technology to the Chinese to transform the People’s Liberation Army into a world-class fighting force,” later including “nuclear cooperation and development . . . to expand China’s military and civilian nuclear programs.” Reagan also assisted in China’s development of industries such as “intelligent robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, lasers, supercomputers, space technology and manned spaceflight.”

“Before long,” Pillsbury writes, “the Chinese had made significant progress on more than 10,000 projects, all heavily dependent on Western assistance and all crucial to China’s Marathon strategy.” Similar assistance has continued to this day.

All along, Pillsbury writes, China secretly continued to view us as a tyrant, so much so that “starting in 1990, Chinese textbooks were rewritten to depict the United States as a hegemon that, for more than 150 years, had tried to stifle China’s rise and destroy the soul of Chinese civilization.”

In time, Pillsbury would come to believe that, despite a great amount of American assistance to China over the years, the Chinese people never saw or read anything positive about America.

Two days after 9/11, Pillsbury writes, “two [Chinese] colonels were interviewed for a Chinese Communist Party newspaper and said of the attacks that they could be ‘favorable to China’ and were proof that America was vulnerable to attack through nontraditional methods.”

Looking ahead, Pillsbury quotes a RAND Corporation study as saying that China will have “more than $1 trillion” to spend on their military through 2030. This “paints a picture of near parity, if not outright Chinese military superiority, by mid-century.”

Baring their teeth


The Warring States strategy advises the underdog to keep its intentions secret until sufficient power against the hegemon is both strong and irreversible. Then it should show its teeth.

Pillsbury says that China’s rapid economic rise has led to the beginnings of this stage. He cites how in 2009, when President Barack Obama attended a climate change summit in Copenhagen, there was “a significant shift in the public tone of Chinese officials” that included “uncharacteristic rudeness,” including the organization of a secret meeting with other countries about blocking US initiatives that excluded the president. (He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pillsbury says, crashed the meeting.)

During visits to the country over the past three years, Pillsbury says, he has seen a stark shift in China’s attitude toward the US. Chinese scholars he’s known for decades, he says, have long denied any sort of “Chinese-led world order.” Now they are showing a sudden brash willingness to admit to what Pillsbury believes is China’s true intent. “The hard truth,” Pillsbury writes, “is that China’s leaders see America as an enemy in a global struggle they plan on winning.”