China Power

US-China Relations: In the Shadow of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories about their rival’s devious plans have alarmingly large followings in the U.S. and China.

US-China Relations: In the Shadow of Conspiracy Theories
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

It is beyond any doubt that the established policy of the United States since the beginning of this century has been to treat China as its biggest imagined enemy, sparing no effort to disintegrate China so as to make it another former Soviet Union. Planning and implementing this war have enlisted the best and brightest from the Wall Street, the White House, the Pentagon, and hundreds of foundations. This project—unparalleled in human history—is a super strategy that aims to encircle China from five fronts, namely, military, diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural.

This is a paragraph from a lengthy online article sensationally entitled “The Campaign to Defend China: The Ultimate Battle in Human History Is Unfolding!” (“中国保卫战—人类历史的终极对决即将上演!”) The article came out a week ago and immediately went viral on WeChat, the most popular Chinese social media.

The nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula, according to the author, is merely “a seamless collusion between the United States and North Korea.” The author continues: “The United States needs the existence of North Korea, because this troublemaker provides excuses for encircling China; if North Korea is eliminated, then South Korea will unify the Korean peninsula, and China will be the biggest beneficiary.”

The article claims that this U.S. strategy to “annihilate” China has three focuses. The first is to militarily encircle China without fighting a war with it: “instigating the puppet states of the United States to have disputes with China and creating tensions along China’s borders.” The second is economic, “using the U.S. dollar as a lethal weapon to choke China.” The third is a “fifth column…that has infiltrated the various important agencies of the Chinese government.” The article explains: “Supported by U.S. funds…the core members of the fifth column number about 3 million, who—upon hearing the clarion call from the U.S. president—will mobilize 50 million people to participate in anti-government protests, and China will be plunged into unprecedented chaos.”

Regardless of who actually wrote the article—the author used a pseudonym Deep-Water Rock (深海岩石)—its immense popularity illuminates the way that many Chinese view the United States. They seem to believe that the world’s only superpower is determined to prevent the rise of a powerful China, and that it is time for China to fight back before it is too late.

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On the U.S. side, there is no shortage of similar conspiracy theories either. In 2015 Michael Pillsbury, a well-known China expert, published a book, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, which instantly became a bestseller among Americans who are interested in China and the U.S.-China relationship. It is reportedly a “bible” for Republican members of Congress who are highly critical of U.S. China policy.

The “Hundred-Year Marathon,” according to  Pillsbury, “is a plan that has been implemented by the Communist Party leadership from the beginning of its relationship with the United States.” It is called a hundred-year marathon because its advocates “had been advising Chinese leaders, beginning with Mao Zedong, to avenge a century of humiliation and aspired to replace the United States as the economic, military, and political leader of the world by the year 2019 (the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Revolution).”

“The strength of the Hundred-Year Marathon, however, is that it operates through stealth,” Pillsbury wrote. “[T]he first rule of the Marathon is that you do not talk about the Marathon.” He admits that “there is almost certainly no single master plan locked away in a vault in Beijing that outlines the Marathon in detail,” adding that “the Marathon is so well known to China’s leaders that there is no need to risk exposure by writing it down.”

“What is indisputable, even for those who continue to advocate for closer ties between the United States and China,” claimed Pillsbury, “is that not only has China’s rise happened right under our noses, but also the United States, and the West more broadly, have helped the Chinese accomplish their goals from the beginning.” For Pillsbury, Beijing has masterfully used deception to hide its intentions and capabilities, and its deception has been so successful that most U.S. policymakers have willingly helped China to become the biggest threat to the United States. A former ‘panda hugger’ turned vocal critic of U.S. China policy, Pillsbury sent a shrieking wake-up call to Washington: we have been duped by China and it is time to rethink our policies before it is too late.

These conspiracy theories cast a long shadow over the already complicated, controversial, and—increasingly—competitive U.S.-China relationship. They feed on each country’s worst fear of the other. For the United States, that fear appears to grow out of perceived challenges that a rising China poses to prosperity at home and leadership abroad. For China, that fear seems to stem from perceived U.S. attempts to democratize China and to prevent “the China Dream” from becoming true.

Given human nature, it is impossible to prohibit people from conjecturing up or believing in these theories. Given the liberal tradition in America and Chinese leaders’ resolve to adhere to “the China Model,” mutual distrust and fear will persist, despite increasing educational, economic, cultural, and technological ties across the Pacific. The two countries have had to cooperate with each other in the past, and they will almost certainly continue to do so, but such cooperation should not induce complacency or optimism. When both countries are infused with a strong sense of “exceptionalism”—that history will end on my side but not yours—war is never improbable.