Piecing together the China puzzle

Here's a question for you: what do a Korean pop star, a Hong Kong book seller and land reclamation have in common? According to China expert Michael Pillsbury, and author of the book 'The Hundred Year Marathon', they are all evidence of 'China's secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower'. 

Since Nixon's rapprochement with China in the 1970's and the free market reforms of Deng Xiaoping that followed, the reigning perception in the West has been that China is on the path to becoming more like us. Perhaps never a full blown democracy, of course, but something western-style and western-friendly; democracy with 'Chinese characteristics'. It follows, as the western perception goes, we should be patient with China and that setbacks like Tiananmen Square are an unfortunate evil, just part of the process, as China manages its need for 'stability' against western reforms.

1. Induce complacency to avoid alerting your opponent.
2. Manipulate your opponents advisers
3. Be patient - for decades, or longer - to achieve victory.
4. Steal your opponent’s ideas and technology for strategic purposes.
5. Military might is not the critical factor for winning a long-term competition.
6. Recognize the hegemon will take extreme, even reckless action to retain its dominant position.
7. Never lose sight of ‘shi’ (the delicate balance of circumstances)
8. Establish and employ metrics for measuring your status relative to other potential challengers.
9. Always be vigilant to avoid being encircled or deceive by others.
— Warring States Strategic Lessons

Pillsbury, a fluent Mandarin speaker who has served in senior national security positions in the US government since the days of Nixon and Kissinger, argues forcefully that not only is our perception of China wrong, but perhaps more alarmingly, it is wrong because Beijing wants it to be wrong. China, Pillsbury argues, has been drawing on its long history of statecraft, particularly the Warring States period and its key 'strategic lessons'; actively deceiving the United States about both its ambitions and its strength. That is until 2049, a century after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, when China completes its 'hundred year marathon'.

Although at first I read the book with incredulity, since its being published in February of 2015 there are a number of events that seem to align with Pillsbury's central thesis of an unfriendly and, increasingly assertive, China.

First, China has, since late 2013, been aggressively reclaiming land in the South China Sea despite the recent protests of President Obama. As Pillsbury recounts in his book, in May 2010 China laid claim to the Spratly Islands, rich in energy and fishing resources. Despite attempts to mediate by Secretary Clinton, what followed were months of harassment of Philippine and Vietnamese vessels prompting Benigno S. Aquino III, the President of the Philippines, to liken the situation to that faced by Czechoslovakia in 1938, 'At what point do you say: 'Enough is enough?' Well, the world has to say it - remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II'.

Second, is the news this week that 16-year old Taiwanese pop star Tzuyu Chou, a member of a Korean girl band called TWICE, has apologized for waving a Taiwanese flag on South Korean TV in November of last year. The apology comes after Chou's flag waving had sparked widespread criticism of Chou in mainland China and a backlash that included the Chinese government censoring comments and searches about her on the social media platform Weibo and a cancelled New Year's Eve appearance on Chinese television. Meanwhile, Taiwanese politicians, in the midst of an election, have united to come out in full support of Chou with outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou saying 'She did nothing wrong. This is unjust and unacceptable.' Tsai Ing-wen, the newly elected Taiwanese president, has said 'This has hurt the feelings of all Taiwan's people. A show of patriotism should never be opposed.' This contrasts with the response from the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, which published on its microblog website the statement that, 'Regardless of your public relations efforts, the one-China policy is there, no more, no less, and cannot be challenged'. Since the video upload, the website of TWICE's record label, JYP Entertainment, has been hacked with JYP's founder saying that the 'DDoS attack from unspecified and random IPs that streamed in all at once [meant] it's technically impossibly to know where the attack is from'.

Third, is the report that on 30th December 65 year old Lee Bo, a Hong Kong publisher who specializes in books banned in China, has disappeared. The event follows the disappearance of four of Bo's colleagues, in just the last few months, leading to concerns that this suspected abduction represents, like the events that led to the Umbrella Movement in 2014, yet another erosion of the freedoms supposedly established from the 'one country, two systems' that separated Hong Kong from the rest of China after 1997.

Taken individually, all these events might be quite reasonably dismissed as minor misunderstandings, but as Pillsbury argues, that is a very western way of thinking. The Chinese, in contrast, with their long history of Game of Thrones type backstabbing and subterfuge tend to look for the deeper patterns and hidden meanings. Whether you agree with Pillsbury's analysis or not, there is no doubt that to understand China, it would first help to start thinking like the Chinese.