While in a wheelchair from a leg injury, Michael Pillsbury tossed off breezy replies to every question I raised. He was quick-witted, humorous, enough to throw me off before I could even get to the second question. Among the numerous scholars and politicians I’ve talked to in person, he was a tough one.
That was last summer, five months after China and the United States got locked in a bitter standoff that kicked off with tariff skirmishes. At the time, business confidence worldwide dropped amid fears of a full-blown trade war. While talk of the two economic titans decoupling and the approach of a new Cold War raged on, think tanks on both sides tried to understand each other’s concerns, obtain more reliable sources of information and work out feasible solutions.
Pillsbury, as the director for Chinese Strategy at the conservative Hudson Institute, was invited by the Center for China and Globalization to talk about trade. I’d never expected to get the interview from the China hawk, so his acceptance caught me by surprise.
After calling U.S. President Donald Trump “a very brilliant leader” and justifying his tariff provocations, Pillsbury passed me a copy of the Section 301 Report, going on about the accusations against China’s “unfair trade practices.” Then he told me to convey this message to the Chinese government through CGTN.
At a roundtable discussion with several Chinese scholars thereafter, Pillsbury reiterated the major points in the 301 investigation ranging from “foreign ownership restriction” to “forced technology transfer” to “IP theft” and, facing skeptical voices, he quickly jotted down notes and promised to check the facts upon returning to the United States. He demonstrated the same perspicacity in fielding the numerous questions from the discussion attendees as in our interview.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a proclamation for Made in America Day and Made in America Week he signed during a product showcase in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 17, 2017. /VCG Photo
While those of us at the think tank discussion that day looked forward to positive changes, things were quickly going downhill. Last October at Hudson, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence used an idea from Pillsbury in a bellicose speech that denounced China. That happened days after Trump said in front of reporters, “If you look at Mr. Pillsbury, the leading authority on China… he was saying that China has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.”
Trump’s shout-out prompted many to search on Google for this academician. The U.S. president’s praise isn’t surprising, since Pillsbury is a regular guest on Fox – Trump’s favorite home comfort. The channel goes to him for everything on China, such as having him on to give commentary after the debate between CGTN anchor Liu Xin and Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan on the China-U.S. trade talks.
Who is Michael Pillsbury?
Although the name Pillsbury might invoke ready-to-bake cookies and croissants in the minds of ordinary Americans, the man himself states that he belongs to a different part of the family responsible for the ubiquitous pastry brand. He has also said that his wealth is a “mystery,” implying it’s not from the distant relatives that had built the “doughboy” image.
Pillsbury has certainly proved himself to be of a different ilk. His journey through politics has been rife with controversy, and before his influential role in shaping today’s U.S. policy toward China, he was a divisive figure in Washington.
The Pillsbury Doughboy balloon floats during the 89th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, November 26, 2015. /VCG Photo
After graduating with a doctorate in Chinese studies from Columbia University, the fluent Mandarin speaker worked as an analyst for the policy think tank Rand Corp., formulating his thesis on how the U.S. should engage with a then “ostracized” China in order to balance expanding Soviet influence during the Reagan era.
He descended on Capitol Hill in 1978, joining the Senate Budget Committee, but quickly rankled then U.S. ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield for suggesting that the Asian nation assume greater military responsibilities in the alliance.
Pillsbury enjoyed significant support from conservative senators, with Orrin G. Hatch saying that Pillsbury’s enemies were “intimidated by his intellectual brilliance.”
This support, however, did not save him when he was fired from the Defense Department in the late 1980s for allegedly leaking the U.S. plan to provide missiles to rebels in Angola. Pillsbury denied the leak, but the damage was done. He has even been accused by some of not being truly conservative, but only appearing so to ingratiate himself with those in power in order to advance his career, according to Politico.
In 1990, Pillsbury claimed that he was asked by intelligence agencies to conduct an assessment on China’s capacity to deceive the U.S., giving rise to his taking on a more critical stance regarding the Asian powerhouse.
Fast forward to 2015, when he published the controversial book “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower,” in which he argues that Beijing plans to achieve “global hegemony by 2049” and warned the U.S. to take actions to prevent this from happening.
It is Pillsbury’s transformation from encouraging U.S. engagement with China to a position of suspicion and doubt that has brought about his revival in Washington politics. His critics have dismissed his views as alarmist, but the Trump administration’s bellicose attitude toward China found a companion in Pillsbury.
Trade skeptic Peter Navarro takes Pillsbury as the intellectual counterweight to the White House’s pro-free trade faction. Validation from Navarro, who shaped his entire career on proclaiming the “danger” of China to U.S. economic dominance and is now a close adviser to Trump, speaks to Pillsbury’s influence.
Critics of Pillsbury say he misuses evidence to present his claims about China. Some have questioned his credibility by emphasizing his failure in previous administrations.
In April, I was expecting another interview with Pillsbury at the fifth Annual China and Globalization Forum, where he had been on the guest list. But I was notified one day before the event that he would not come. Days later I read in the New York Times that he said he was not given a visa by China “in an apparent retaliation for American restrictions on visas for visiting Chinese scholars.”
He described the case “a first in decades of visiting the country.” It’s true – the trade war which is spilling into tech and academic arenas is the first in decades, tearing apart the fabric of Beijing-Washington engagement as once exhorted by Mr. Pillsbury.
It’s difficult to discern whether Pillsbury truly believes in his claims that China is engaging in “deception” to dominate the U.S. economically and militarily, or if he’s playing up those claims to ingratiate himself with the Trump administration.
Wherever the truth lies, the ambiguity has once again propelled Pillsbury to foreign policy stardom at a critical moment in history, one that can lead to either maintaining the general peace or a slide into a devastating 21st century rivalry.