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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Hundred-Year Marathon

China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower

Michael Pillsbury

St. Martin's Griffin




"There cannot be two suns in the sky, nor two emperors on the earth."


As President Xi Jinping took office in March 2013, China watchers in America did not yet know what to make of him. China's hawks admired him, but the prevailing sentiment among Western observers was that Xi, a rather harmless-looking man of sixty with thick black hair and a genial smile, was a Gorbachev-like reformer intent on displacing China's old guard and finally realizing these observers' long-held conviction that China would become the free market-style democracy of their dreams. But Xi soon demonstrated that he had a dream of his own-one of a resurgent China that would reclaim its rightful place atop the global hierarchy. This has been a Communist Party ambition since Mao took power in 1949, the date commonly understood by China's leaders as the beginning of the Hundred-Year Marathon. President Xi had picked up a slogan from the hawks, fuxing zhi lu, which roughly means "the road to renewal." An expression confined to the nationalistic fringe had become the new president's signature issue. It would not be long before the implications became visible.

* * *

On the edge of Beijing's Tiananmen Square stands a ten-story obelisk, built on Mao's orders in 1949. Official tour guides, licensed and monitored by China's government, tend not to take foreigners to it. Even if Westerners do find their way there, they likely won't understand what it depicts, since the site does not offer English translations of the Chinese characters etched in marble and granite. And yet the obelisk spells out the thinking that has governed the Marathon from the beginning.

The mammoth object is described online, rather generically, as a "Monument to the People's Heroes."1 What the monument actually signifies is the airing of China's grievances, which are perceived to be the products of a "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western powers, beginning in 1839 with the First Opium War, when the Royal Navy laid waste to Chinese ports over a trade dispute with the Qing dynasty. The text and carved images on the monument describe the subsequent one hundred years of Chinese history-at least as the Communist government sees it-as a time of popular resistance, Western occupation, and guerrilla warfare that culminated in the triumphant ascension of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949 to end China's humiliations by the West.

American tourists walk by the obelisk every day, often taking pictures from a distance, and yet remain oblivious to the message it conveys-a message directed at them. That the obelisk has become a centerpiece for patriotic demonstrations among the Chinese people sends another signal that we have also missed: China's day of justice is coming. In short, the obelisk is a perfect symbol of the relationship between China and the United States-the former nursing grievances, the latter completely in the dark.

The notion of China's special position in the hierarchy of nations long predates the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.2 In the late nineteenth century, the European powers labeled China "the Sick Man of East Asia," a phrase mirroring the "Sick Man of Europe" moniker given to the decaying Ottoman Empire. To many Chinese intellectuals, the term rankled, justifying a sense of grievance against Western powers and other outsiders. "Foreigners call us the 'Sick Man' of East Asia," the revolutionary Chen Tianhua bitterly wrote in 1903, "a barbaric, inferior race."3 This festering wound could never be healed until China reclaimed its proper place at the top of the global hierarchy.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Chinese writers and intellectuals developed a fascination with the works of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. The Darwinian concepts of competition and survival of the fittest struck a chord as a way to avenge the humiliation that the Chinese felt at the hands of the West. The translator, scholar, and reformer Yan Fu is believed to be the first person to translate Huxley's Evolution and Ethics into Mandarin. But Yan made a key error-translating the phrase natural selection as tao tai, or "elimination," which would come to dominate the Chinese understanding of Darwin's thought.4 Thus, not only would those on the losing end of the competition be considered weaker, but also they would be eliminated from the natural or political world altogether. "The weak are devoured by the strong," Yan Fu wrote, "and the stupid enslaved by the wise, so that, in the end, those who survive ... are most fit for their time, their places, and their human situation."5 He wrote further that the West assumes that "all members of an inferior race must be devoured by a superior one."6 In 1911, China's modern founding father, Sun Yat-sen, based his program explicitly on racial survival. Sun imagined China's struggle against foreign powers as a form of resistance against the threat of "racial extinction" by the white race, which sought to subjugate or even obliterate the yellow race.7

The theme was adopted again in 1949. Mao's writings were filled with Darwinian ideas. One of the two translators who most inspired Mao concluded that only two races, the yellow and the white, formed the future struggle in which the whites "had the upper hand" unless the yellow could change its strategy. Even before they discovered the writings of Karl Marx, Mao and his comrades believed that China's survival would depend on a long-term, radical strategy that highlighted the unique traits of the Chinese people.8 Chinese Communist strategic thought came to be dominated by the idea of struggle for survival in a harshly competitive world.

During Mao's famous Long March-in which his Red Army sought to evade capture by the ruling government in the 1930s-he brought only one book with him, a statecraft manual with lessons from history that have no Western counterpart. The most important component of the book, translated into English as The General Mirror for the Aid of Government, centers on stratagems of the Warring States period in China and includes stories and maxims dating as far back as 4000 BC.9 One in particular, attributed to Confucius, fit nicely with the Darwinian concepts of which the Chinese had become enamored: "There cannot be two suns in the sky."10 The nature of world order is hierarchy. There is always one ruler at the top.

One of the biggest mistakes made by American experts on China was not taking this book seriously. It was never translated into English. Only in 1992 did we learn from Harrison Salisbury, a New York Times reporter, that not only did Mao love this book's lessons in 1935, but also that he read it over and over until his death in 1976.11 Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders read it, too. Chinese high school students even learn to write from a textbook of selections from The General Mirror that includes many of the same lessons from the Warring States era about 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. We missed all this.

"Socialism, in the ideological struggle," Mao said, borrowing a clear Darwinian phrase, "now enjoys all the conditions to triumph as the fittest."12 In the 1950s, Mao and others in the Chinese leadership spoke often of dominating the rest of the world-phrases dismissed by Westerners as mere delusions of grandeur or harmless efforts to stoke nationalist fervor, not unlike exhortations in the United States by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Truman, or Nixon portraying America as the greatest nation on earth. As the Chinese Communist Party issued slogans proclaiming that China would "overtake Britain and catch up with America" during a period known in China as the Great Leap Forward,13 few appreciated the seriousness of the espoused intent.

Throughout Mao's tenure, American intelligence officials succumbed to their own biases and prejudices. Most viewed the Chinese as a reclusive, almost primitive people being led by a collection of radicals. The country's streets were filled with bicycles instead of cars. Chinese manufacturers couldn't build electric fans. There was little foreign investment. Chairman Mao's bizarre nationalist schemes were sources of amusement to the West: he withdrew all of China's ambassadors from overseas. To help farmers, Mao ordered the military to kill all the sparrows that were eating the crops. Yet the Great Leader did not seem to appreciate that the sparrows also kept harmful insects away. As a result, China's crops suffered from widespread infestation.

U.S. intelligence officials had trouble believing the reports that China was not satisfied being the junior partner to the Soviet Union. Americans considered the idea laughable that such a supposedly backward nation might one day rival the Soviet Union, much less the United States. But there was one group of people who weren't laughing-the leaders of the Soviet Union. They saw what China was up to long before the Americans did. The first clues about the Marathon came from Moscow.

* * *

In the 1950s, China publicly deferred to the Soviet Union as the leader of the Communist bloc. The Chinese feigned weakness and sought aid and assistance from the more technologically advanced Russians. But second fiddle was not a role that suited Mao. The Soviets knew this. And as much as they feared and mistrusted China, they feared a Sino-American alliance even more. So they sent the Americans a false message.

At the end of 1961, a man named Anatoliy Golitsyn approached the CIA station chief in Helsinki and expressed his desire to defect from the Soviet Union. The CIA helped him board a flight from Helsinki to Stockholm with his family.14 The Ukrainian-born Golitsyn was a forty-five-year-old KGB major who had worked in the agency's strategic planning division before being dispatched to the Soviet embassy in Finland, under the name Ivan Klinov. From Stockholm he boarded a flight to the United States, carrying with him intelligence files on Soviet operations in the West. Dubbed "the most valuable defector ever to reach the West"15 and later a model for a character in the hit TV series Mission: Impossible, Golitsyn also brought an understanding of the Sino-Soviet relationship that would drastically influence the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence communities for the next several years.

From the outset, American intelligence officials were inclined to trust Golitsyn. He demonstrated his credibility by providing the names of a number of known Soviet spies in the West. His most crucial assistance was to confirm that the British intelligence officer Kim Philby was actually a double agent for the KGB.

Golitsyn was also something of a conspiracy theorist and would later claim that British prime minister Harold Wilson was a KGB informant. One of his conspiracy theories concerned growing rumors of a serious rupture between the Chinese Communists and the Soviet Politburo, each fighting for control of the Communist world. These rumors were unfounded, Golitsyn assured the Americans, a hoax orchestrated by the KGB to deceive the United States so that the Chinese could steal valuable U.S. intelligence. Golitsyn offered an additional warning-at some point, he claimed, another Soviet defector would come to the Americans claiming to have proof of a Chinese-Soviet split. This defector, whenever he arrived, was not to be believed. A little more than two years later, Golitsyn's prophecy came true.

In January 1964, a KGB agent by the name of Yuri Nosenko made contact with a CIA officer in Geneva, and soon thereafter he defected. He had been playing a role with the Soviets as a double agent for the West, and his treachery had been discovered. Nosenko had been recalled to Moscow, where he believed he faced certain imprisonment-and likely worse-so he defected instead to the United States, where he made a number of claims that contradicted much of the received wisdom regarding Sino-Soviet relations. He brought news of a serious Sino-Soviet rift-directly contradicting Golitsyn's assurances that rumors of such an emerging divide were baseless. In fact, this supposed rift was so serious that it had led to border clashes and the threat of full-scale war between the two countries.16 He claimed that it was Golitsyn, not he, who was planted by the KGB and was deliberately feeding misinformation to the United States to stave off a Sino-American alliance-an alliance that China would use to get even more powerful. Perhaps most ominously, he reported that Mao sought dominance not only of the international Communist system, but also of the entire world order.

The competing views of these two informants put the U.S. government into a quandary. On the one hand, the idea of a split between the two powerful Communist nations was almost too irresistible not to explore and, hopefully, exploit. On the other hand, the Americans believed that one Communist country was ideologically bound to support another and that together they would resist any attempt by the West to drive a wedge between them. A consensus slowly developed within the U.S. intelligence community-and, as would often be the case when it came to China over the ensuing decades, it was the wrong one. They decided not to believe Nosenko.

Nosenko was placed in solitary confinement, where he was expected to remain until he recanted his story. After three years of confinement, however, he did not budge in his story or his confidence. Eventually, some American analysts dared to hope that what Nosenko was dangling before them-the tantalizing prospect of a Sino-American alignment against the Soviets-was real. The CIA and the FBI started a global effort to collect intelligence to get to the bottom of the issue. That was where I came in.

* * *

In 1969, there were two things on the U.S. intelligence community's wish list that would resolve the debate. The first was an asset in the KGB's counterintelligence division. The second was an individual with high-level access to members of the Soviet Politburo. Unfortunately, neither was available. So instead, to unboggle the Sino-Soviet conundrum, U.S. intelligence had to settle for what was available. At the time, that was a lowly graduate student who happened to be working at a Soviet-packed organization in New York, the UN Secretariat.

I was twenty-four years old and working as a political affairs officer in the secretary-general's office, having obtained the job with the help of one of my professors at Columbia University. Though in a junior position, I was the only American assigned to any spot in the division. Since I had a security clearance (from a previous government job) and regular access to top UN officials from around the world, I was an obvious target for recruitment by the FBI and the CIA.

At 8:35 a.m. on a slightly overcast Monday in April, I stood on the corner of First Avenue and Forty-Second Street, waiting for traffic to dissipate. Black limos with diplomatic plates lined the entire block, much to the ire of New Yorkers. I had made this trek many times since starting as a political analyst at the UN Secretariat two months earlier. That day, however, my job had changed. I had agreed to work as a spy for the U.S. government.

My two interlocutors, "Peter" of the CIA and "Agent Smith" of the FBI, were tasked by the U.S. national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, with gathering intelligence from any Soviet sources available on the possibility of a Sino-Soviet rupture. There was little interest in what kind of partner China might turn out to be-reliable, erratic, or even dangerous. The single-minded focus of my American colleagues was on how we might use Beijing as a wedge against Moscow. This whole process was building up to an August 1969 meeting to discuss the future of Asia, to be hosted by President Nixon at the so-called Western White House in San Clemente, California.

If espionage conjured notions in my head of John le Carré thrillers and James Bond films, I soon confronted reality. My code name was not something suave and mysterious like 007.17 On the Sino-Soviet question, the most in-depth reports were lengthy CIA studies called ESAU and POLO.18 Evidence was mixed. Henry Kissinger's NSC staff was evenly divided about whether to try to improve relations with China. Most supported sticking with President Nixon's view, as expressed in a February 1969 conference, that China was a more dangerous threat than the Soviet Union, and so we needed missile defense against China. By November 1969, what is known today as the famous opening to China was still being opposed by Kissinger's advisers in memoranda to him and the president. Kissinger had been told Nixon might try to visit China, and replied, "Fat chance."19

I spent hours reading these reports-and what they said about Chinese ambitions proved astonishing. I learned that from 1960 until 1962, thousands of pages of classified Soviet documents had been secretly photographed with a Minox camera in a series of operations that the CIA called IRON BARK. Incredibly, the documents revealed that Moscow's military leaders already saw China as a military threat as dangerous as the NATO alliance. I also learned that the FBI in New York had been running three espionage operations, code-named SOLO, TOP HAT, and FEDORA, that had demonstrated very reliable and high-level access to the inner workings of the Soviet Politburo.20 But the FBI and the CIA wanted me to amplify this intelligence by asking questions that came from Kissinger and his advisers.

The Secretariat offices occupied the thirty-fifth floor of the UN building. The most impressive Soviet official I encountered there was a plump, white-haired extrovert named Arkady Shevchenko. I got to know him well. Then thirty-nine years old, Shevchenko was a heavy drinker-martinis were his drink of choice-and he would hold forth regularly at a French bistro in Manhattan called La Petite Marmite. I attended many lunches with him, where he joked about the phony protocols at the United Nations, such as those that discouraged employees from giving the appearance of consorting with officials of their home countries. All the Russians employed at the United Nations, he noted with a laugh, came to his office at the Soviet Mission every day to share intelligence and receive instructions.

In April 1969, as I gained his trust and friendship, he told me the details of atrocities committed by the Chinese at two clashes on the Sino-Soviet border that had taken place a month earlier, which were then unknown to most American intelligence officials. China, he said, had deceptively started the fight by ambushing Soviet troops. Shevchenko also told me that the Soviet leadership hated and feared the Chinese, believing that China was planning to take control of the Communist world and eventually assert global dominance. For decades, the Chinese had so skillfully played the part of weaklings dependent on Soviet assistance that the Soviets were shocked that the Chinese would challenge them so directly.

I remember one particular meeting with Shevchenko over coffee in the North Delegates Lounge of the UN headquarters building. I laughed perhaps too loudly at Shevchenko's revealing joke about China's future. In the joke, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev calls President Nixon on the telephone.

"The KGB tells me you have a new supercomputer that can predict events in the year 2000," Brezhnev says.

"Yes," Nixon replies. "We have such a computer."

"Well, Mr. President, could you tell me what the names of our Politburo members will be then?"

There is a long silence on Nixon's end of the line.

"Ha ha!" Brezhnev exclaims to Nixon. "Your computer is not so sophisticated after all."

"No, Mr. General Secretary," Nixon replies, "it answers your questions, but I can't read it."

"Why not?" Brezhnev demands.

"Because it is in Chinese."

The joke was funny because it was so absurd. The idea that the future could belong to a Marxist backwater that couldn't even feed its people seemed ridiculous. But to the shrewd Russians, they saw something that had been lost on us. I also had a number of exchanges with the other Russians in my unit-Yevgeny Kutovoy, Vladimir Petrovski, and Nicholai Fochine-all of whom repeated the same joke to me on different occasions. I thought it was funny, but not for a moment did I consider the serious underlying message being conveyed.

I spent most of my time with Kutovoy, who worked in an office down the hall from me in the Political Affairs Division.21 Petrovski, our boss, would go on to become a Soviet deputy foreign minister. Kutovoy would become the Soviet ambassador to Yugoslavia. Like Shevchenko, they seemed to enjoy answering my questions. Both were then in their thirties. They even jovially tutored and lectured me about the history of Sino-Soviet conflict and the deviousness of the Chinese. Kutovoy told me that the Soviet Union had essentially built the modern Communist Chinese state, with Soviet advisers placed in every key government bureau. Weapons transfers, military training, and technical advice had all been provided in an attempt to modernize the Soviets' Chinese ally. But in 1953, upon the death of Joseph Stalin, the relationship had begun to sour.

Kutovoy said that Soviet leaders now believed that the Chinese had secret dreams of surpassing the Soviet Union, and that they would not just stop there-their next target would be the Americans. China wouldn't play second fiddle. China would follow its own playbook, and that meant doing everything possible to become the dominant actor on the global stage. The United States, Kutovoy warned, was going to get more than it bargained for if it took China's bait. The main Soviet message was that the Chinese were guided by their own historical ambition to restore their position atop the global hierarchy of nations. He and his colleagues told me that lessons learned from Chinese history advised the Chinese to become the most powerful nation and to conceal their intentions until the opportune moment. He warned me that the worst error the United States could make would be to provide military aid to China. He gave me two books by Russian scholars on ancient Chinese history to illustrate his points. A CIA report in 1971 quoted some of my findings, such as my conclusion that the Soviets anticipated that President Nixon would open ties with China and that they would not overreact to purely diplomatic contacts.22 By 1973, Moscow directly warned Nixon that the Soviet Union would use force if the United States went beyond pure diplomacy and actually formed a military relationship with China. Kissinger's team would debate this option, and I argued in favor of direct aid in a memo that Kissinger implemented in great secrecy.23

I liked Kutovoy and found him credible. But it was 1969, and I was just twenty-four years old. He sounded to me like a boyfriend talking about his ex-girlfriend, warning that she'd break my heart like she broke his. At the time, the Chinese economy was languishing at about 10 percent of America's GNP.24 It seemed unrealistic that the Chinese would dare to dream about truly surpassing the United States. All official Washington heard was that China wanted a new dance partner. President Nixon would have to decide whether to cut in. Thus began a relationship with consequences far more profound than any of us at the time dared to consider.

The Chinese planned to use the Americans as they had used the Soviets-as tools for their own advancement, all the while pledging cooperation against a third rival power. This was how the Marathon was conducted throughout most of the Cold War-China using the Soviet Union's rivalry with America to extract Soviet aid and then, when that faltered, shifting to the Americans by offering to help against the Soviets. In doing so, the Chinese were reflecting another ancient stratagem-"kill with a borrowed sword"25-or, in other words, attack using the strength of another.

* * *

Four decades later, shortly after Xi Jinping assumed office as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (a precursor to his becoming president), he provided a greater glimpse of China's underlying intentions. In his maiden speech in his new role, Xi used a phrase that no Chinese leader had ever used in a public speech, qiang zhongguo meng, or "strong nation dream."26

The comment was remarkable. China's leaders are extremely careful with their language, especially in public, far more so than Western politicians. They avoid words such as "dream" or "hopes" in their public remarks. Such emotion-laden sentiments are considered a flaky, Western eccentricity. However, Xi has since made repeated references to the "China dream" in his speeches. According to a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, Xi referred to 2049 as the date the dream will be realized-one hundred years after Mao Zedong's ascension in China and the formation of the Communist state.27

Xi's reference was neither casual nor inadvertent. A veteran of the People's Liberation Army and a former secretary to the defense minister, Xi is closely connected to the nationalist "super hawks" in the Chinese military. As I discovered from my own conversations with some native Chinese speakers in Xi's audience, those educated in the country's universities and members of the military understood Xi's reference to the "strong nation dream" immediately.

By invoking the "strong nation dream," President Xi was referring to a once-obscure book-obscure, that is, in the West-published in China in 2009 called The China Dream. The book was written by a colonel in the People's Liberation Army named Liu Mingfu, then working as a leading scholar at China's National Defense University, which trains future generals of the People's Liberation Army. It was there that I first spotted a specific written reference to "the Hundred-Year Marathon."28

The China Dream became a nationwide best seller. The book, only parts of which have been translated into English, outlined how China will become the world's leading power, surpassing and then replacing the United States. It analyzed how the Soviet Union had failed to supplant the United States, and an entire chapter was devoted to the eight ways China's effort would be different.29 The phrase Liu adopted as his own-"the Hundred-Year Marathon"-held resonance across China, though the word marathon itself is borrowed from English. The concept is more readily referred to in Mandarin as China's "rejuvenation" within a "just" world order or, in keeping with the book's title, "the China Dream." The word for rejuvenation or restoration (fuxing) seems to be synonymous with Marathon, assuming it takes a century counting from 1949. China is both secretive and sensitive about the end state of the Marathon. It has never spelled out exactly what the final fuxing will be like, except to declare it will be a good thing.

Liu's book called for a world-class military to project China's global leadership. "China's grand goal in the 21st century is to become the world's No. 1 power," Liu declared.30 "The competition between China and the United States," he predicted, "will not be like a 'shooting duel' or a 'boxing match' but more like a 'track and field' competition. It will be like a protracted 'Marathon.'" At the end of the Marathon, Liu contended, the ruler finally will be the most virtuous power on the planet-the Chinese.31

When asked in 2010 by an ABC News reporter about his provocative work, Liu held firm on the book's central positions, but stressed that China's competition and ultimate victory over the West would be peaceful. But for those of us able to read his book in the original Mandarin, that is not the tone he adopts there. The colonel alludes to the importance of studying American weaknesses, and preparing to hit the Americans once the West becomes wise to China's true game plan.32 Liu also hints at the existence of an official Marathon strategy among the Chinese leadership, praising Mao Zedong because "he dared to craft a grand plan to surpass America, stating that beating the United States would be China's greatest contribution to humanity."33 As the Wall Street Journal revealed in 2013, The China Dream is featured in the "recommended reading" section of all state-controlled bookstores.34

Liu, in fact, was a latecomer to the "Marathon" notion; the concept had been discussed in notes and articles even earlier. For example, Zhao Tingyang's The Under-Heaven System: The Philosophy of the World Institution was published in 2005 and is gaining increasing currency in mainline Chinese thought today. Zhao's "system" redesigns global structures based on traditional Chinese ideals. That new world is called tianxia,35 which in Mandarin can be translated as "under-heaven," "empire," and "China." The China scholar William A. Callahan translates tianxia as a unified global system with China's "superior" civilization at the top.36 Other civilizations, such as the United States, are part of the "barbarian wilderness." As the center of the civilized world, China would have the responsibility to "improve" all the nations and peoples of the world by "harmonizing" them-spreading Chinese values, language, and culture so they can better fit into under-heaven. This empire "values order over freedom, ethics over law, and elite governance over democracy and human rights."37

I met Zhao Tingyang in Beijing in July 2012, after he had achieved international acclaim. I asked him how the tianxia system would handle disobedience, in case any nations refused to follow the Chinese script. "Easy question," he replied. "The Rites of Zhou prescribed a four-to-one military superiority to enable the emperor to enforce the All-Under-Heaven system." In other words, after China wins the economic Marathon and develops an economy twice as large as America's, China's new status may have to be protected through military force. The world's largest economy will need a force more powerful than any other-one that would eventually render American military might obsolete. America itself had done this between 1860 and 1940. China hawks not only studied American strategy, but also drew lessons from China's ancient past, reaching back many centuries. The warnings the Soviet diplomats at the United Nations had provided in 1969 about Beijing's deceptive tactics and long-term global ambition were now coming true.

Copyright © 2015 by Michael Pillsbury