China’s 100-year marathon to rule the world – Sandipan Deb

Xi hiding behind Mao

Sandipan DebChina started on a 100-year marathon decades ago to become the global hegemon, with an aim to reshape the world according to Chinese values. Its target is 2049, centenary of Mao Zedong’s seizing power. – Sandipan Deb

When, at the recent summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Xi proposed a 100-year plan to rejuvenate China-India relations, I remembered a book I read two years ago, The Hundred-Year Marathon (HYM) by Michael Pillsbury, a leading American China expert. Pillsbury has spent more than 50 years studying China and has worked with the US government, intelligence agencies and think tanks. For decades, he pushed pro-China policies that helped the country rise to be a superpower. Today, he admits that, like many others, from academics to lawmakers to presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, he was fooled by China. His account of how the US continuously (and often secretly) helped China, and how China kept betraying it, is stunning. And, of course, the most interesting part is how a dove turned into a hawk as he dealt more and more closely with China.

Based on immense personal experience (including covert US-China negotiations and interviewing defectors), study of material from ancient to modern texts—some hardly available outside China—and with unprecedented access to Chinese strategists, HYM is an eye-opener. The book presents three central theses. One, China started on a 100-year marathon decades ago to become the global hegemon, with an aim to reshape the world according to Chinese values (which don’t include democracy). Its target is 2049, centenary of Mao Zedong’s seizing power. Two, Chinese leaders draw their strategies from their ancient texts and history, especially the Warring States Period, a two-and-a-half-century stretch that began around 475 BCE and ended with unification under the Qin dynasty (the word China comes from Qin). Three, unless the world wakes up, China will complete the marathon before time.

An additional twist is the complexity and ambiguity of the Chinese language. The actual meaning of a word often depends on tone, context and intent. Thus, translations are often misinterpretations. For instance, the term da tong, which Chinese leaders use regularly at the United Nations and other international fora as the Chinese goal, is usually translated as “an era of harmony”. But, says Pillsbury, a better translation would be “an era of unipolar dominance”

When Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, in his maiden speech, he used a phrase no Chinese leader had ever used publicly, qiang zhong guo meng—“strong nation dream”. Till then, such emotion-laden statements (“Make America great again!”) were seen as a non-Chinese, Western trait. Also, China had never made any ambitious proclamations before the world. But the “Chinese dream” is now an official goal, to be fulfilled by 2049, when China will become “a fully developed nation”. But it could actually imply world domination—economic, military, cultural. Xi obviously thinks shi is with him.

Shi—a word not directly translatable into English—lies at the heart of China’s strategy. The concept is best described as “the alignment of forces”, which a skilled strategist can exploit to ensure victory over a superior opponent. The most able strategist can use shi to turn events to his will and, according to Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, get enemies to act in ways that work to his advantage. All Chinese leaders, from time immemorial, have believed in shi.

Shi had been with Mao when he reached out secretly to US President Nixon in 1969 to offer China as an ally against the Soviets. Deng Xiaoping had shi with him on his charm visit to the US in 1979, triggering off an economic revolution funded by the West, but entirely on China’s terms (exactly as envisioned by Sun Tzu). The West kept helping China’s rise, deluding itself that it would become more democratic, while in reality it became more authoritarian, and Chinese textbooks, museums and domestic propaganda kept painting the West as imperialist thugs.

All the winning principles distilled from the Warring States Period involve deception, which the Chinese have always seen as the most vital aspect of strategy. The most celebrated military victories in Chinese history are based on deception. Cunning heroes are extremely common in the Chinese narrative arts. (I remember watching a Chinese film on Doordarshan in the 1980s, set in some bygone age, and realizing only towards the end that the conniving cheat, whom I had assumed to be the villain, was the hero.) During the two-year course Pillsbury attended in Taiwan as a PhD student to study Chinese culture, he was taught a proverb intended to sum up Chinese history: “On the outside, be benevolent; on the inside, be ruthless.”

The unexpected problem that the “harmony” dream faces is Donald Trump. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Hari Seldon had created a “psychohistory” for his people, based on a statistical analysis of mass behaviour, predicting future crises. Everything went as calculated till the appearance of the Mule, who, being a mutant, could not have been probabilistically predicted. Trump is that unknown variable suddenly inserted into China’s strategic equation. But then, shi, as Henry Kissinger noted in his book On China, is “the art of understanding matters in flux”. Pillsbury is now an adviser to Trump. – LiveMint, 20 October 2019

Sandipan Deb is an author and journalist who serves as the editorial director at Swarajya.

Xi-Trump cartoon


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  1. Dalai Lama

    China says its approval is must for choosing Dalai Lama’s successor – PTI – India Today – Beijing – October 29, 2019

    China on Tuesday said its approval is must for choosing the successor to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, rejecting the US’ assertion that the next-in-line to Tibet’s exiled leader will be selected by the Tibetan people themselves and not by Beijing.

    US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, who met the Dalai Lama in Dharmshala on Monday, hit out at what he called China’s “persecution” of the Tibetan people’s faith and said they have the right to choose their own religious leaders.

    “The role of picking a successor to the Dalai Lama belongs to the Tibetan Buddhist system, the Dalai Lama, and other Tibetan leaders. It does not belong to anybody else, not any government or any entity,” Brownback was quoted as saying by Radio Free Asia (RFA).

    Brownback made the remarks while speaking at a conference hosted by the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts in Dharamshala — the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

    Concerns over the health of 84-year-old Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India following a failed 1959 Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule, have renewed uncertainties over his possible successor after his demise.

    China claims control over the selection, asserting that the successor to the Dalai Lama has to be endorsed by it.

    Asked for his reaction to Brownback’s comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told media here that the envoy’s comments amounted to interference in China’s internal affairs.

    “The 14th Dalai Lama is in political exile who has long been carrying out anti-China activities overseas under the pretext of religion,” Geng said.

    “China firmly opposes any contact with the Dalai Lama by any foreign official. The words and deeds of a certain US official violates US commitment to recognise Tibet as part of China, and not to support Tibetan independence. China firmly opposes such words and deeds,” he said.

    Geng said the present Dalai Lama who is the 14th in the line of top Tibetan spiritual leaders himself has been approved by the Chinese government.

    “The reincarnation of Living Buddhas as a unique institution of succession in Tibetan Buddhism is governed by fixed rituals and conventions,” he said.

    “The Chinese government implements the policy of freedom of religious belief. The reincarnations system is respected and protected by certain legal instruments such as the Regulations on Religious Affairs and the measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas,” he said.

    “The institution of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has been in existence for several hundred years. The 14th (present) Dalai Lama himself was found and recognised following religious rituals and historic conventions, and his succession was approved by the then central government. Therefore, the reincarnation must comply with Chinese laws and regulations, follow religious rituals and historic conventions,” he said.

    “We strongly urge the US to stop contact with the Dalai Lama group, stop uttering irresponsible remarks, stop using Tibet related affairs to interfere in China’s internal affairs, and do more to contribute to mutual trust and cooperation between China and the US,” Geng said.

    Significantly, Brownback also called on the Chinese government to release the Dalai Lama-appointed Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has been replaced by Beijing in 1995. He has since then disappeared and his whereabouts are not known.

    “We call on the (People’s Republic of China) government to release immediately the Tibetan-recognised Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima or share the truth about his fate with the world,” RFA quoted Brownback as saying.

    Panchen Lama is regarded in Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy as second most important after the Dalai Lama. After replacing Nyima, China has appointed a six-year-old boy Bainqen Erdini who continued to remain Panchen Lama since then.

    While whereabouts of Nyima are not known, a Tibetan official said in 2015 that he is receiving education and living normally.

    Brownback said “we stand with the people of Tibet as they seek to preserve their time-honoured traditions including the right to venerate religious leaders of their choosing.”

    “Decisions regarding the selection of Tibetan Buddhist leaders rest with the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leaders, and the people of Tibet. Period!”, he said.

    In recent months, the Trump administration has stepped up pressure on China to relax controls over Tibet. In May this year, China has rejected US envoy to Beijing, Terry Branstad’s call to hold unconditional dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

    Branstad, who was given a rare permission to visit Tibet after US raised objections to the restrictions to its diplomats and journalists to Tibet, during his visit asked the Chinese government to “engage in substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, without preconditions, to seek a settlement that resolves differences.”

    Branstad was the first US envoy to have been permitted to visit Tibet since 2015.

    Beijing’s permission to Branstad came after US early this year passed Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 warning equal and reciprocal measures if Beijing denied access to American citizens, government officials and journalists to Tibet.

    The new US law would impose a visa ban on Chinese officials who deny American citizens, government officials and journalists access to Tibet.


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