Open Sources and Information Laundering

At the end of 2011, a study by the  at Georgetown University on China’s nuclear forces attracted a great deal of attention, including a  in The Washington Post.  The project documented the construction of networks of tunnels by the Second Artillery, the PLA’s strategic rocket forces, and suggested that China might have as many as 3,000 nuclear warheads – a figure roughly ten times higher than the current estimates of the U.S. government and independent research organizations such as the .

Experts and analysts quickly challenged many of the study’s most provocative claims about  and .  Questions were also raised about  that formed the basis of the study’s conclusions. A key source for the study’s claim about the number of warheads was .  To track down the original source for this claim, Greg Kulacki from the Union of Concerned Scientists, traveled to several libraries, including one in Hong Kong.  He learned that  was an article by a junior American naval officer published in 1986 whose data was reprinted in a 1995 Chinese-language magazine published in Hong Kong,  and subsequently recycled through online discussion forums for the next decade or so.

The Georgetown team trumpeted their use of open or unclassified Chinese-language sources of information as a new resource for the study of China’s military.  As other scholars and I , a veritable explosion of open-source information from China about military affairs has occurred, much of it online.  These sources include the PLA’s official publications such as newspapers, journals, and books, as well as unofficial sources, including popular magazines, online discussion forums, and unofficial websites.

Still, as Kulacki’s leg-work demonstrates, the proliferation of such open sources is a mixed blessing for scholars and analysts of the PLA.  On the one hand, more information is now accessible, which should improve the quality of research.  On the other hand, more information than any one individual can digest is now available – and mostly only in Chinese.

The volume of Chinese-language information now available places a premium on verifying the accuracy and authoritativeness of data from unofficial sources, especially blogs and online discussion forums.  Otherwise, the Internet becomes a convenient tool, unwittingly or not, for “information laundering” defined as concealing or masking the origins of a piece of data.

The seriousness of information laundering is evident throughout the Georgetown study.  Glancing through the slides of the presentation, one claim caught my eye: that the Second Artillery had 12 launch brigades facing India, including eight in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  This was curious for two reasons.  First, the Second Artillery has only about thirty brigades, the majority of which are located in either China’s hinterland or coastal provinces, not near India.  Second, there are no confirmed reports of Second Artillery brigades inside Tibet.

The sources for this claim in the Georgetown study demonstrates how easily information can be laundered online.  The first source was a segment from a military news show from the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV network. The second source was a post from a now defunct blog,  (that only appeared to be online for the month of November 2010 according to this ).  The blog post was redundant, as it only contained a crude machine translation of the transcript of the television segment.

The , however, was based not on information from China, but instead from India.  The segment was entitled “The Indian media states that the PLA has deployed 12 missile brigades on the border aimed at India” (??????????12????????). The source for the segment was reportedly an essay in the Times of India by a former Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army.   Yet a search of the Times of India’s website as well as the news database Lexis-Nexis couldn’t locate this essay.  As a result, the claim in the Georgetown study about Chinese missile brigades in Tibet was thoroughly laundered.  The original source for the claim can’t even be identified, much less verified.

Open-source information holds great promise for the study of China’s rapidly changing military.  But they must be used with great care, especially if the data comes from unofficial outlets such as blog posts and online forums.  Just because a piece of information about the PLA is available on the Internet in Chinese doesn’t endow it with authoritativeness in the absence of verification and corroboration.

UPDATE (10 January 2012): Through excellent sleuthing on the web, Time magazine’s Beijing correspondent has found what appears to be the Indian source of the Phoenix television segment.  It comes from , who served as Chief of the Army Staff in the late 1990s.  The op-ed, however, appeared in the Asian Age, not the Times of Indiaas Phoenix television reported.  It provides no source for the claim that the Second Artillery has launch brigades in Tibet.

[This post originally appeared on  as “”]

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