To truly understand the Chinese we must see them through their eyes instead of our own.


May 6th, 2015

Sarah De Geest, Research Assistant

In the past century, most nations fought hard to modernise their economies and participate in an ever more globalised system. Many aspired to evolve towards a liberal ideal set by the United States, or have they? China has seen a spectacular growth and transformation, often using western systems and terminology. It joined the WTO and seemed well on its way to become a part of the United States led international system. Michael Pillsbury critically examines our beliefs and expectations on China and Chinese strategy. In his new book, “The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower”[1], he claims China is gearing up to displace the United States as global superpower. Agreement or disagreement with the proposed thesis aside, for both the United States and Europe it is undeniably important to understand China’s leadership and its greater world view. When Lee Kuan Yew, one of the foremost leading authorities on Asia, founding father of modern day Singapore and driving force behind ASEAN, was asked whether China aims to displace the United States in Asia and the world, he said with total confidence: “Of course, why not?”[2] Mr. Pillsbury dares his readers to make this intellectual exercise and to question our idealistic liberal world views. This shall also be the purpose of this article as a whole.

China’s current president Xi Jinping has consolidated his position since his official inauguration in 2008. Rather than just the president of China, Mr. Xi is also the General Secretary (de facto leader) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) as well as the chairman of the brand new National Security Commission.[3] There is little known on his personal likes and dislikes because he is very much aware of how people could perceive him and is careful to shape that view by not allowing others to read him.[4] To quote Lee Kuan Yew: “…he is a person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In other words, he is impressive.”[5] We know he has significant strategic capabilities and determination from his rise within the party and it is said he has significantly better connections in – and influence on- the military than his predecessor Hu Jintao.[6] Moreover, the early consolidation as Chairman of the CMC following his presidency (Hu Jintao should have been chairman of CMC for another two years) is another sign on the wall. He appears to be the most popular leader since Mao and the propaganda system fully supports their new icon “Big Daddy Xi” – Xi Dada (习大大). Clearly, it would not serve anyone to underestimate the abilities of the current Chinese leadership to achieve its goals, whatever they may be. More so, it should be recognised that being underestimated has furthered Chinese goals significantly over the past decades.

Warring States Strategic Paradigms

This piece of Chinese history and its lessons symbolise a period in which realism and constant competition was rampant and many empires fought for the dominance of greater China. Warring State paradigms assume states are competitive, pursue self-interest and the accompanying perception of the international system is one of a zero-sum game. Generally, in modern western International Relations studies, realism is not a widely accepted world-view. However, in order to level the playing field with China this theory and its impact on Chinese strategy needs to be taken seriously. The international game according to China, says Michael Pillsbury, is a zero-sum game, and its strategy to navigate this (zero-sum) playing field is dubbed the “marathon” by Chinese strategists. Mr. Pillsbury defines the marathon as:

“A plan that has been implemented by the Communist Party leadership from the beginning of its relationship with the United States. The goal is to “wipe clean” (xi xue) past foreign humiliations. Then China will set up a world order that will be fair to China, a world without American global supremacy, and revise the U.S.-dominated economic and geopolitical world order founded at Bretton Woods and San Francisco at the end of World War II.”[7]

Starting from another realist claim that “all this has happened before and it will happen again”, it is no surprise that a significant portion of Mr. Pillsbury’s description of Chinese strategy focuses on an illusive piece of Chinese history: the Warring States period which is often wistfully discarded as barbaric heritage and sometimes as a justification for authoritarian rule.[8] The author claims it is China’s goal replace the United States as a hegemon, avenge historical wrongs and claim its rightful place at the top of the international system. Building on Warring States axioms, he argues that this does not necessarily mean the United States and China will go to war, as the Chinese favour indirect action and deception over confrontation. The way China would see its peaceful rise (which is misleading for those who miss the underlying currents of indirect action) is by applying encirclement and counter encirclement strategies. At no time must China allow itself to become encircled by its “enemies” and it must encircle the “hegemon” or bà (霸), in this case United States. In his book, Mr. Pillsbury analyses 20th century games of wéi qí (围棋), specifically explaining how China prevented encirclement by the Soviet Union during the cold war. For those who are interested in the subject matter, it is a fascinating and thought provoking read. The author however does not go into great detail on present/future case studies, such as how China is currently avoiding encirclement; how, in turn, could it encircle the bà; and what are the weak spots it could manipulate? The unique feature of wéi qí is that it closely geared towards taking as many winning positions as possible. It therefore assumes that the “battle” takes place on many different parts of the playing field. The next part of the article describes such hypothetical encircle- and counter encirclement strategies.


Counter-encirclement strategies, by their very nature, are more visible and easier to identify than encirclement because those would involve a greater degree of deception and secrecy. First and foremost, a wéi qí player must never allow his opponent to encircle him. China has learned to distrust Europe and the United States[9] so it should be no surprise then, that the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was received poorly by the Chinese leadership. Lee Kuan Yew finds that China also worries about losing access to sea lanes[10], as it could potentially constrain its international trade and economy. For example it finds itself encapsulated in the South China Sea, and is dependent on oil-import through the straight of Malacca.[11] To alleviate these weaknesses, China has two options: gain control over the contested areas or find alternative points of access.

When we closely examine China’s strategic behaviour, we find China has applied both strategies. In the case of the South China Sea, China has preventively expanded its area of de facto control and its maritime borders[12], choosing an aggressive posture without provoking serious conflict. Moreover, it approached the Central Asian countries for their oil and recently made a deal with Russia to increase imports from the North.[13] China sees no gain in military confrontation with the United States at this point in time. However this does not mean that China couldn’t do significant damage[14] and as such has leverage over controlled conflicts such as the South China Sea. Chinese leaders can afford to feel out the territory and gauge its opponents’ reaction because of its asymmetric military capabilities.

Another measure to counter encirclement has been the strengthening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Most recently, the organisation has taken some important steps forward, including putting in place the long overdue procedures to further expand its membership, resulting in there being strong rumours claiming India and Pakistan will be invited as full members at the SCO summit in Russia this year.[15] The SCO is the potential Eurasian “counterpart” to NATO, led by Russia and China and so far includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Since its founding in 2001, no official members were added to the group and Western researchers eventually decided there was no realistic military threat to NATO countries. Interestingly, any SCO militarism has been firmly denied by the Global Times, a Chinese state propaganda machine.[16]


Generally, one may find the Chinese actions more clear when approached from the point of view of wéi qí. This clarity should be fully applied by foreign policy officials while guarding their weak points, just like China. These are points that are of interest to China, not necessarily related to action on behalf of China. It serves to approach this category in the double meaning of both geographical weaknesses and ideological weaknesses. While the United States geography leaves it with few immediate enemies, the immigration surge at the southern border has notably been addressed as forming a long-term threat to the United States culture and economy (especially taking into account potential universal healthcare). China’s relations with Mexico are uneventful, however there is some talk of investment problems[17] lately. Still, the Chinese are quite the immigration experts – both within China (towards South-East Russia)[18] and in Mexico (immigration 1900)[19]. Though no factual proof points to intended interference, the problems the United States faces on the Mexico border only advance China’s goals of displacing it in the long run. It is one of the United States main weaknesses and major threat to its ideological and national unity and history. Considering the Chinese views on strategy, this situation could only be described as to add to favourable shì (勢) and should be of great interest to China’s cause and long-term goals. David Lai describes shì as  “part of a strategy China uses to exploit the strategic configuration of power to its advantage and maximise its ability to preserve its national independence and develop its comprehensive national power[20]. Pillsbury adds “two elements of shì are critical to Chinese strategy: deceiving others into doing your bidding for you, and waiting for the point of maximum opportunity to strike.[21]

Moreover, the West (United States and NATO) finds itself entangled in an ongoing credibility crisis. The consequences of this crisis can be felt across the international theatre but the most prominent of them is probably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea. China refused to condemn Russia, to the contrary, it went ahead and signed a billion-dollar gas deal, effectively neutralising any economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia. In doing so they undermine the power of the bà, especially since the United States build its status on managing and minimising international conflict. Another advantage to the ongoing Ukraine crisis (from a Chinese point of view) could be the potential to disrupt or backlog the “pivot to Asia”.


Speculation and hypothesis aside, what do we know about China’s strategy and goals? It has been made abundantly clear that China wants to become a force to be reckoned with. The Chinese leadership is making every possible effort to become the number one economic power and it will continue to pursue growth and influence in Asia and beyond. On the other hand, China knows the West inside and out. Chairman Mao himself installed the first research groups on constitutionalism, which reported on every major constitution and its history.[22] Deng Xiaoping took note of economic theories and strategies and started to apply market driven capitalist policies in his famous Special Economic Zones. Jiang Zemin was undeservedly depicted as a weak leader because of the comparison with Mao and Deng. Though he did not appear as a lone ruler, he likely engineered the party system to its current state of factions and compromise. As its engineer, it is no wonder his political and military influence is still felt on the highest party levels. Jiang brought material improvements to the Chinese people and increased party legitimacy, prolonging and cementing its rule.[23]

However, China has been equally clear it does not wish to be Western and they pursue their own “dream”. Under Hu, China introduced its Chinese characteristics rhetoric, which has been further intensified in the policies set forth by Xi Jinping. They know the West much better than we know them; they have studied our language, our history, culture, political and economic theories; and have applied them very skilfully to advance their national interests. It is important that we do not forget to return the favour. The Chinese are a proud people and they will influence the international order more and more as they continue to grow economically and further modernise their infrastructures. If we want a say in what the world will look like in 100 years, it is pertinent that a deeper understanding of Chinese language, culture and strategy becomes as mainstream as the readings of western economists and the knowledge of English are in China.

Many assume that this application of Western theory, combined with the apparent discarding of Confucian heritage means China wants to be like us and the Chinese leadership has certainly encouraged this view.[24] But to truly understand the Chinese we must see them through their eyes instead of our own. Their history and culture is embedded in their language and knowledge of ancient texts is passed on in early education. As Mr. Pillsbury observed during his Chinese language education at the National University of Taiwan, Chinese students learn from ancient texts (for example Confucian analects), which shape their education and world view. Even if Mr. Pillsbury’s thesis on the marathon is only partially correct, it is time to get realistic about China and its ambitions. If their language represents how they communicate and if wéi qí represents how they strategise, we understand very little of China and the Chinese. Obviously we have been told by the Chinese communist leadership their heritage is irrelevant and we believed them and because the Chinese encouraged learning English we assumed knowing and learning their language wasn’t necessary. We were so very wrong – knowledge of both these areas is absolutely crucial to understand China. And for those who still wonder why we should explore all the possible scenarios on what a world with China as bà would look like, I would simply ask: Why not?

[1] M. Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower, 2015, Kindle Edition.

 [2] Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Belfer Center for Science and  International Affairs, 2013, Kindle, loc. 136.

[3] China appoints Xi to  head national security commission, January 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/24/us-china-politics-xi-idUSBREA0N0LM20140124.

[4] For example, when he was asked: “Would you give yourself a score of a hundred—or a score of ninety?” Neither, Xi said; a high number would look “boastful,” and a low number would reflect “low self- esteem.” – Born Red article.

[5] Lee Kuan Yew, supra 2, loc. 265.

[6] Articles that address this issue http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21618780-most-powerful-and-popular-leader-china-has-had-decades-must-use-these-assets-wisely-xi; http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/CLM40JM.pdf; http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/world/move-over-mao-beloved-papa-xi-awes-china.html?_r=0.

[7] Xi xue 洗雪, see M. Pillsbury, supra 1, loc. 246.

[8] Chinese likes to bring more attention to Confucianism and the lessons on altruism, righteousness and norms of propriety in everyday life.  Which is, of course, another very important piece of Chinese cultural heritage.

[9] This distrust has grown with the colonisation and again when China was denied the Qingdao (青岛市) territory in the Treaty of Versailles see M. Pillsbury.

[10] As has been long evident from China’s development of A2/AD capabilities, both the “pivot to Asia” and TPP aim to strategically counter these efforts, 20 September 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/countering-china’s-a2-ad-challenge-9099.

[11] Lee Kuan Yew, supra 2, loc. 162.

[12] http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/chinas-maritime-disputes/p31345#!/?cid=otr-marketing_use-china_sea_InfoGuide.

[13] Russia signs 30-year gas deal with China, 21 May 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-27503017.

[14] M. Pillsbury, supra 1, loc. 2587, 2639.

[15] The new and improved Shanghai Cooperation Organization, September 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/the-new-improved-shanghai-cooperation-organization/ ; SCO and BRICS summit align this year, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/70346.

[16] M. Pillsbury,  supra 1, loc. 278; SCO poses no military risk to anyone, 15 March 2015, http://globaltimes.cn/content/911614.shtml.

[17] Reuters reports on China investment troubles while Mexico that tries to wean itself off dependence on United States, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/20/mexico-china-idUSL2N0WS2LA20150420

[18] China’s Russian Invasion, 19 February 2010, http://thediplomat.com/2010/02/chinas-russian-invasion/.

[19] “The Chinese invented undocumented immigration from Mexico,” Romero says. “Smuggling with false papers, in boats and in trains, the infrastructure for that was all invented by the Chinese.” – http://globalvoicesonline.org/2015/04/19/head-to-the-us-mexico-border-and-find-a-chinese-food-scene-like-none-other/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter.

[20] David Lai, Learning from the stones: A go approach to mastering China’s strategic concept shi, May 2004, http://fas.org/man/eprint/lai.pdf.

[21] M. Pillsbury, supra 1, loc. 688.

[22] Mao Zedong, “Plan for constitutional drafting work (Xianfa qicao gongzuo jihua)” in Mao Zedong wenji, Vol. 6, 1991, Beijing, Renmin chubanshe.

[23] The era of Jiang Zemin, August 1999, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/55179/lucian-w-pye/the-era-of-jiang-zemin; How China is Ruled, February 2014, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/140344/david-m-lampton/how-china-is-ruled.

[24] Ten years in the WTO: Has China kept its promises?, December 2011, http://www.cecc.gov/events/hearings/ten-years-in-the-wto-has-china-kept-its-promises.

About Sarah De Geest

Sarah De Geest is a Research Assistant in the Global Governance division. She holds two Masters of law with distinction from KULeuven and the School of Oriental and African Studies.