An audience of 500 guests packed the Cavalla Room on Oct. 30 to welcome Michael Pillsbury, director of the Center on Chinese Strategy, advisor to President Donald Trump on Chinese trade policy and author of “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America As the Global Superpower,” for a discussion about China’s growing economic development. 

Sponsored by alumni Mike and Patti Hennessy, ‘82, Pillsbury’s event was part of the 2019 Hennessy Family Lecture on Capitalism. 

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, expressed his appreciation to Mike and Patti Hennessy for bringing prominent conservative voices to Rider because he said it allows the institute to offer a broader set of perspectives to the community. 

“I am grateful to have been able to work with Mike Hennessy and Patti Hennessy in bringing Dr. Pillsbury to campus,” he said. “The Hennessy Family Lecture has a strong following and is eagerly anticipated by many people every year.”

Pillsbury began his lecture by making jokes and interacting with the crowd. However, the tone quickly changed when Pillsbury began to discuss the current and rapidly growing economic state of China. 

“How did China do this? How did China go from being one of the poorest countries in the world, just terrible, abject poverty for the vast majority of the people, to the number two country in the world economically, and some Chinese, and the World Bank say, China’s already number one,” Pillsbury said. 

Pillsbury said that throughout history, economists made several arguments as to why China would never become a large economic power. Among some of these that Pillsbury said were overlooked: Chinese characters could never be programmed into computers, no skilled, intelligent workers could never arise from the disease-ridden Chinese labor force and China could never be a leader in science or technology. 

According to Pillsbury, economists who argued these points from 1949 to about 1979 were right — “China was hopeless,” he said. However, Pillsbury said, something gradually changed. 

“Whatever happened, it was brilliant, it was creative, it was new, parts of it were kept secret and as it was happening, the Chinese did something very interesting,” Pillsbury said. “Through this whole 40-year period, the Chinese, essentially, bad-mouthed themselves.” 

Pillsbury said that a part of China’s secret strategy was to downplay its success and become a rising global economic player. 

According to Pillsbury, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was the “number one pioneer” of the work taking place between 1979 and 1989 to advance China’s economic goals. 

Pillsbury also discussed “the collapse theory,” which he said is still the “most dominant school of thought” regarding China’s economic future. He explained that this theory predicts that China’s growth levels are unsustainable, and eventually, will collapse. 

Rasmussen said that what impressed him the most about Pillsbury’s discussion was the bipartisan part of his message. 

“He has advised every president since Nixon, and he now believes the United States got a lot wrong about China. He was certainly a hawk on China, but not a particularly partisan one.  In fact, he highlighted Chuck Schumer’s support for tariffs on China,” he said. 

Although Pillsbury, with a smile, said his main point was to “please buy my book and read it,” he said his real message was to “upset” the crowd with the reality of the state of China today.  

“We got it wrong, and I personally, am sorry,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily provide the solution, just to know that you got it so badly wrong.”