februar 23, 2015

About two years ago I was reading up on the debate surrounding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, tao guang yang hui (韬光养晦), commonly translated as «hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time». At the time, Michael Pillsbury’s discussion of the dictum in his China Debates the Future Security Environment was very enlightening, and I have since then turned back to this book for other purposes, always finding it a stimulating read.

So when I recently discovered that he published a new book earlier this year I did not hesitate to look past the speculative title (The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower) and press purchase. Although I have only read the first few chapters it quickly dawned on me that the speculative was not limited to the title, indeed the whole approach of uncovering a «secret plan» to replace America and assert itself on the global stage, relying on ancient stratagems and a sneakiness matched by no other state, reminds me of the writings of authors such as Steven Mosher and Chuck DeVore (see for instance their «special report» for The Human Events Group, «Growing Chinese Power – to What End?»). (There is also a good portion of self-praise regarding his own Mandarin skills relative to those of his peers, although I guess hubris is hardly unique in the writings of «China experts».)

I started googling around, and found this interesting piece from 2006, well worth the read:

 Panda Slugger The dubious scholarship of Michael Pillsbury, the China hawk with Rumsfeld’s ear. Soyoung Ho.

But the true difference between most experts and Michael Pillsbury appears to lie somewhere else: namely, in the scholarship. With the exception of Chinese Views of Future Warfare, which is a straightforward compilation of translated essays, Pillsbury’s work over the past decade has become increasingly speculative and dubious. In particular, a close examination of his writings reveals a troubling approach to evidence and primary sources.

A case in point is Pillsbury’s paper «China’s Military Strategy Toward the U.S.: A View from Open Sources» from November of 2001. The piece names numerous Chinese military writings, including an article entitled «Twenty-first Century Naval Warfare» by Naval Captain Shen Zhongchang, Naval Lieutenant Commander Zhang Haiying, and Naval Lieutenant Zhou Xinsheng of the Chinese Navy Research Institute. According to Pillsbury, the article is written to show «how China could adopt several asymmetrical approaches to defeating a larger and more powerful navy,» and one of them «will be for China to attack American naval command and information systems.» (Underlined boldface Pillsbury’s.)

But Pillsbury’s footnotes lead to an essay that never discusses how China fits into future naval warfare, much less any sort of hypothetical attack on the United States. (The essay even appears in Pillsbury’s 1997 book, translated into English.)

Later in his report, Pillsbury takes on another essay by the same authors and does something similar:

In an article entitled «The Military Revolution in Naval Warfare,» Captain Shen Zhongchang and his co-authors list new technologies that will contribute to the defeat of the United States…. The American system may not be so safe from attack.

But the original essay makes no reference to how China might defeat the United States. China, in fact, is never mentioned once in the essay, nor is the concept of defeating the United States.

Asked about these characterizations, Pillsbury said that, in China, «There seems to be a taboo from directly saying the United States. And these people use euphemism.» If that’s the inference, then why doesn’t the paper explain this? «Because sometimes when I turn in my first draft, somebody will say, ‘Be specific. Say what you mean.'»

Pillsbury also takes dramatic liberties with his translations. At one point in China Debates the Future Security Environment, for example, Pillsbury refers to an essay by one General Pan Junfeng that discusses the significance of the IT revolution for future warfare. He cites three sentences, placing them in direct quotation marks: «We can make the enemy’s command centers not work by changing their data system. We can cause the enemy’s headquarters to make incorrect judgments by sending disinformation. We can dominate the enemy’s banking system and even its entire social order.»

But Pan’s piece is worded quite differently. The original sentences–there are actually four, not three–appear in a section discussing the limitations of technological superiority, and they’re introduced by a topic sentence discussing how using computers to wage war might allow one side to cause the opposing side (no nationalities are named) «to sink into an information disaster.» Two Chinese speakers translating directly from a summer 1996 issue of China Military Science came up with nearly identical translations that read as follows:

For example, altering relevant data in the enemy’s computer system can cause his command centers and weapons systems to be flooded with mistaken information and thereby unable to function normally. Pouring false intelligence into the enemy’s computer network can cause his command office to make mistaken decisions, thereby bringing about faults in strategic policy. Issuing false orders to the enemy’s army through the enemy’s computer system can cause the enemy army to take orders from oneself and military movements to sink into confusion. Using the computer system to destroy the enemy country’s bank accounts can sow confusion in the enemy country’s financial and economic order, causing social unrest, and so forth.

Looking back at Pillsbury’s version of the above passage, then, it’s apparent that he’s taken Pan’s original sentences and added a non-existent «we,» thereby ascribing implicit nationalities to the parties where none is named, and has truncated the original sentences beyond normal conventions of translation.

Shown the different translations, Pillsbury, responding in an email, said, «I do not ascribe nationalities to the parties. [A]nd I remind you that it is a photo caption. I had no editorial control over the photo captions.» But the photo caption is taken directly from a passage in the body of the book. Pillsbury also claimed to have met personally with General Pan and to have been told «how to interpret his article.» But Pillsbury did not explain why he chose to write his interpretation directly into passages that appear in quotation marks.

The «photo caption» of General Pan, meanwhile, did not go unnoticed by the press. It was quoted, for instance, in a Washington Times article, «Pentagon Study Finds China Preparing for War with U.S.,» which used it to show that «China also plans electronic attacks on computer networks.»

And what about the «Assassin’s Mace,» one of Pillsbury’s major preoccupations? Here, Pillsbury appears to have taken a common Chinese term, shashoujian, and decided, based on his own unfamiliarity with it («I first saw this unusual term in…1995,» he writes in a 2003 article) that it indicates what he calls a «secret project.» In fact, though, the term has been around for centuries and has been revived in contemporary Chinese pop culture, a slangy phrase that appears in articles about everything from soccer to romance. Pillsbury cites public speeches by Chinese leaders and articles in Chinese newspapers that speak of developing «shashoujian» weapons, but he never explains how this adds up to evidence of a secret program. It’s as if a Chinese researcher, hearing a U.S. official speaking of a need for «kick-ass weapons,» were to become confused by the term «kick-ass» and conclude that there must be a secret «kick-ass weapons» program. In short, Pillsbury has identified a secret program that, by all indications, is literally no more than a figure of speech.


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