In reflecting on relations between the United States and China, Henry Kissinger in his 2011 book, "On China," notes that since he and Richard Nixon ventured to Beijing more than 40 years ago, "Eight American presidents and four generations of Chinese leaders have managed this delicate relationship in an astonishingly consistent manner, considering the difference in starting points."
Kissinger diplomatically avoids saying that almost every presidential candidate over the years has campaigned against the Nixon-Kissinger policy and is perhaps taking pride in the fact that every president has continued it. Forty-plus years is a long time for a democracy to have maintained the same controversial policy.
Too long a time, says one of those elite Americans who has managed that policy in both Republican and Democratic administrations, for the policy is based on false premises and could lead to disasters a generation from now. That's the message of Michael Pillsbury, in his new book, "The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower."
This represents something of a conversion experience for Pillsbury, who not only subscribed but contributed to the dominant policy of "constructive engagement" with China for many years. He, like many others, assumed that increased economic ties with the West and the resultant greater prosperity would move China inevitably toward capitalism, human rights and democracy. That has been the hope of the last eight presidents, from Kissinger's boss Richard Nixon on to President Obama today.
But it doesn't seem to have worked out in practice. China's economy, Pillsbury argues, is still very much controlled by and directed toward the interests of its state-owned enterprises. Capitalism maybe, but not free market capitalism.
As for democracy, Pillsbury mocks former colleagues who have hailed China's local government elections. They're a sham, he argues. Control is still in the hands of Communist party leaders in Beijing and with the shadowy hardliners, especially in the military, behind them.
He doesn't doubt that the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 sought real democratic advances. But they were mowed down by the hundreds or thousands on the orders of Deng Xiaoping, and there have been no such risings since. More than twice as much time has passed since Tiananmen until now (25 years) as between Deng's initial economic reforms and the massacre (11 years).
Hopes that China would become a cooperative force in the world have also faded. Instead, China is threatening its neighbors over islets in the East and South China Sea and adapting U.S. technology to build asymmetric weapons to render U.S. forces ineffective.
Americans like to believe others think and act as we would. But China's leaders think like Chinese, Pillsbury says, and their models for statecraft come from China's Warring States period (475-221 Before the Common Era).
Chinese strategists prize, in Kissinger's words, "subtlety, indirection and the patient accumulation of relative advantage." Chinese leaders have been pursuing what Pillsbury calls a "hundred-year marathon," patiently trudging toward a goal of replacing the United States as the world's dominant power — "hegemon" — by 2049, 100 years after Mao Zedong's victory in the Chinese Civil War. So far, 65 years down, 35 to go.
In the meantime, "we don't know we are losing the game." In 2049, he says, China could have an economy three times the size of ours, could suppress dissent and squelch democracy not only in China but abroad, could export pollution and proliferate weapons without serious opposition.
Pillsbury doesn't address the arguments that China's rise may slow; that with an aging population it may get old before it gets rich; that with a smaller and more expensive work force it may sink into a static and deflationary economy like Japan's. Nor does he grapple with predictions that China's difficult language and subtle culture may prove less attractive than America's more accessible English and popular culture.
He would presumably argue that it's foolish to rely on such contingencies. Better, he says, to try to encourage China's potential reformers and hope they overcome the ying pai hardliners who seem today even more dominant under Xi Jinping.
How to do that? Develop a competitive strategy and quit supporting China in acquiring technology. Support Chinese dissidents as Soviet and Eastern Bloc dissidents were supported in the Reagan years. Target Chinese corruption, censorship and pollution.
Most important, recognize that China's leaders want not only to surpass but to suppress us and our way of life. A warning to take seriously.