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How US Intelligence Gets China Wrong

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How US Intelligence Gets China Wrong

Another look at Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred Year Marathon.

How US Intelligence Gets China Wrong
Credit: Tiananmen Square image via ben bryant /

The first time I met Michael Pillsbury was in the 1990s. As fellow researchers at the Atlantic Council, we were participating in a sand-table simulation. The scenario: North Korea wages war on South Korea, dragging China and the United States into the conflict; nuclear confrontation seems imminent. Military experts from the United States, Japan, China, and Taiwan took part in the simulation.

While the conclusion of that simulation slipped out of my memory, I remember Michael Pillsbury as someone who not only knew more about his own country than the other American experts, but seemed to have more information on the behind-the-scenes workings of China than I did – Who are the decision makers in the Ministry of National Defense and the Central Military Commission? How are meetings held at the Central Politburo? I was honestly confounded.

My impression of him then was that he was relatively soft toward China. In fact, he had advised the United States to work together with China against the Soviet Union. However, his book published last year – The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower – established him as a leading American hardliner. In this book, he expresses regret at having encouraged the American government to appease China, and holds the view that Beijing has been secretly deceiving the United States, with the real objective of becoming the next superpower.

As a prominent China expert, Michael Pillsbury can be compared to the American diplomat James Lilley – both served many years for the U.S. defense apparatus; both are scholars on the one hand and intelligence experts on the other. One moment they are the sort of academics you chat up at scholarly functions; the next moment they are analyzing the highest level of intelligence for the Department of Defense and the CIA. Because of this, Pillsbury’s new book and Lilley’s memoir China Hands, although years apart in their publication, share many similarities.

China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia recounts Lilley’s career as a CIA operative and later the United States ambassador to China. One of the most interesting facts of the book is that it alludes to several Chinese officials spying for the CIA, most of whom have defected to the United States. For those of us who follow the news, the identities of the defectors are more or less obvious, with one exception. Lilley is reticent about this person’s identity, but suggests that one informant was still operating among top-level officials in Beijing, with access to highly sensitive information (at least at the time of the book’s publication in 2005). One can only imagine the reaction of the leaders in Beijing.

Pillsbury’s book provides further testimony from several Chinese undercover agents spying for the United States. He maintains that these Chinese officials are already living in the United States, and uses unidentifiable code names such as Mr. White and Ms. Green to refer to them. In his statement on the first page, Pillsbury claims his book was reviewed by the CIA as well as the Department of Defense before publication to prevent the leaking of high-level intelligence; he expresses gratitude to his colleagues for editing out the sensitive information so that the safety of such operations can be protected.

Pillsbury’s statement is not just a sales pitch, since the book contains plenty of material based on his talks with Communist Party of China (CPC) defectors and undercover agents. Generally speaking, American scholars tend to shun the intelligence community, especially information from such a unverifiable sources, but both Pillsbury and Lilley used testimonies from informants to back up their argument. At this point I can’t help but wonder about the identity of these informants as well as the authenticity of the cited material.

Most of the testimonies cited in the book are from the individuals code-named Mr. White and Ms. Green. A CPC defector who escaped to the United States, Mr. White’s demand in return for his information was not overly ambitious – a home, a job, and a fake identity. He told the CIA that China had been conceiving an elaborate, long-term plan to become the next superpower after the Great Britain and the United States. To achieve this, according to Mr. White, the CPC is ready to undergo bitter suffering and humiliation until the very end, while waiting out for the opportunity to “take on” the United States. Peaceful development is only the means; the ultimate objective is to surpass the United States and become the next superpower. Once this is achieved, China will not allow any challenge to its dominance and the United States had better get prepared for it. Mr. White also cold-heartedly sold out several Chinese agents spying for Beijing in the United States.

Ms. Green, who also happened to be working for the CIA at the time, told a rather different story: that leaders in Beijing are honest in their intention to befriend the United States. The so-called hardliners in China are merely a few marginalized, low-level military officers, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Mainstream political forces in the United States must take this opportunity to develop friendship with China, and to lead China toward democracy within an environment of peaceful coexistence. Ms. Green lives in the United States, but is willing to go back to China once or twice a year to collect information for the American intelligence service. Despite her high pitch, Ms. Green never provided any information that could be verified, nor did she reveal the identity of any Chinese agents spying for Beijing in the United States. As a condition for her service, Ms. Green demanded payment of $2 million.

Pillsbury and other China experts in the CIA were torn between the contradictory information and assessments of Mr. White and Ms. Green, but eventually decided to cold-shoulder Mr. White while paying the bill for Ms. Green. This was consistent with their assessment of China up to that point – China will eventually democratize and will not challenge the United States. Ms. Green was later arrested on suspicion of working as a double agent for China, leading Pillsbury to face a difficult question – which was more harmful to the United States – the information Ms. Green gave to Washington, or the information she fed to Beijing?

These two cases of informants working for the United Sates, as related by Pillsbury, reveal a long history of presumptuous self-assurance and naivety toward China on the part of the American intelligence service. Pillsbury frankly admits these mistakes, and from time to time seems to show deep regret. With that being said, scholars should be more careful in using the statements of informants as evidence for their conclusions. The world of espionage is by definition full of deceit, and some defectors tend to exaggerate in order to be seen as relevant.

Another example that appears later in the book seems to be no more than hyperbole in my opinion. By 2005, Pillsbury started to suspect that China’s greater strategy is to defeat the United States and become the new hegemon, and China is not interested in peaceful coexistence. At this point a Ms. Tang defected to the United States and talked with him. Pillsbury says he receives confirmation from Ms. Tang that Beijing indeed has a plan to overtake the United States economically in a piecemeal fashion, and to become a political superpower. To this end, the CPC has been systematically training leaders in the Central Party School, and these doctrines appear in the teaching materials as well.

I cracked up a little when reading this section. Does China really need a secret long-term plan to overtake the United States’ economy? This is discussed almost every day by all the party-endorsed media outlets. And even if China does want to challenge the superpower’s economic dominance, what exactly is wrong with that? More importantly, is economic development really something that can be elaborately planned in this way? Pillsbury seems to have too high an opinion of what the leaders in Beijing are capable of.

Based on these examples, it seems U.S. analysts are drawn to defectors and intelligence sources who tell them what they already think they know – regardless of whether it reflects reality or not.

The piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. You can view the original here