As U.S.-China tensions rise and news and developments regarding the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and U.S.-China relations are never far from the headlines, the interest in and necessity to better understand China and the Chinese government’s perspective continues to increase.
Below, Brookings experts offer recommendations and thoughts on where to find official Chinese government documents, in Chinese and English, as well as reliable information and analysis on Beijing’s perspectives and policies, and what they read to gain insight into contemporary China.
RICHARD C. BUSH
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for East Asia Policy Studies and John L. Thornton China Center, and Former Director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies
My work has focused on China’s policy towards and relations with some of its neighbors — particularly Taiwan but also Hong Kong and Japan. I am most interested in China’s actions, but must also consider the motivations behind those actions.
In documenting China’s actions, I can usually rely on the targets of those actions to expose them, through government statements and local media coverage. For the Chinese public side of the story, as Beijing wants it understood, government agencies (such as the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the official media (like People’s Daily) are usually reliable. The pattern of the actions themselves can reveal a lot about motivations.
Because the PRC regime controls much of the media and also uses the media to justify its actions and shape the perceptions of outsiders, there are obvious limits on its utility. Yet the regime has long institutionalized its approach to messaging. Any official policy statement is the product of a formal decisionmaking process that takes account of changes in the policy environment and uses text to signal policy changes. For example, past Chinese leaders, in talking about what elements of Taiwan’s system would remain after unification, consistently said that Taiwan could keep its armed forces. But President Xi Jinping, in his authoritative speech on Taiwan on January 2, 2019, did not repeat that point. We can be sure that this was not a drafting error; it was the product of a deliberate decision that suggests a significant change in PRC policy.
Similarly, because some PRC media serve a propaganda purpose, changes in subject and content reflect how the regime would like readers to change their understanding of Chinese policy. Moreover, the subjects that do not get covered can be as revealing as those that do.
When it comes to Taiwan (and to Hong Kong to a much lesser extent), there is a unique source of commentary regarding developments in Taiwan, the rationale for PRC policy, and the regime’s aspirations for the future. This is the monthly Hong Kong journal Zhongguo Pinglun (China Review). It is an important outlet for PRC scholars who specialize on Taiwan. It is a place where they can publish their views regularly and with more elaboration than is possible within China itself. It features authors from Beijing, Shanghai, other cities in China, and a few scholars in Taiwan whose views on cross-Strait relations are more friendly to China (or at least not seen as hostile). Of course, the journal serves a propaganda purpose, but it does reveal the permissible range of views on Taiwan matters and is by far the most convenient way to keep up on how the PRC regime wants readers to view Taiwan and Beijing’s policy towards it.
My research focuses on the Chinese economy and China’s economic interactions with other countries, especially the U.S. and China’s Belt and Road Initiative partners. The best source of macroeconomic data on China is the International Monetary Fund (IMF), especially the annual Article IV report and the China section of global reports such as the “World Economic Outlook.” The IMF works from official data, but makes various adjustments and explains certain nuances that are very helpful. For microeconomic data such as measures of inequality and poverty or sectoral output, the World Bank plays a similar role. China’s official data is published on the websites of its main economic ministries, the National Bureau of Statistics, the People’s Bank of China, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Commerce. There are other specialized sources that fill particular niches. The Bank for International Settlement publishes times series of China’s trade-weighted exchange rate and measures of leverage (government debt or corporate debt relative to GDP). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calculates a foreign investment restrictiveness index sector by sector for OECD economies and some major emerging markets such as China. Concerning international trade and investment between China and the U.S., the U.S. Bureau of the Census publishes detailed and up-to-date data. For the activities of the Belt and Road Initiative, there are two useful academic efforts: AidData at William & Mary and the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies collect and publish information on China’s overseas lending and investment.
As competition between the United States and China intensifies, it is becoming all the more important for American policymakers, experts, and the public to accurately understand Beijing’s ambitions, as well as its strengths and weaknesses in pursuit of its goals. This task is becoming more difficult due to COVID-19-induced limits on travel and Chinese government-imposed curbs on civil society, journalists, academics, and experts to conduct in-country research.
I generally am cautious in accepting the findings of American experts who use texts selectively to support their preferred narratives about China. Many speech transcripts, op-eds, and reports published by government agencies or government-affiliated think tanks are in conversation with one another. Different interest groups often use these platforms to push their policy preferences, e.g., taking a more assertive foreign policy posture, strengthening support for specific military programs, or increasing funding for social safety net programs. To view statements around these types of issues in isolation, or to draw only from sources who support a common view on these types of questions, would be to miss critical context for understanding the nature of debate.
Similarly, warning flags fly whenever Western scholars publish research suggesting that all Chinese voices are in accord on a specific policy, goal, or national objective. While it cannot credibly be argued that China’s media environment is a flourishing laboratory of independent ideas, it also often strains credulity to suggest Chinese discourse on charged political issues is monolithic. The truth most often is messier.
With that as context, I try to read a range of commentaries from authoritative Chinese media outlets, including Xinhua, People’s Daily, and Reference News. I also try to follow major announcements, speeches, and trips by monitoring the website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. China’s main TV outlet, CCTV, does a helpful job with its nightly news program of highlighting the most important events that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership wants Chinese people to follow. Major Chinese think tanks (for example, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the China Institute of International Studies, and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations) often release reports about policy issues, which help serve as a guide to issues under debate. I also pay attention to Global Times — which I view as a distant Chinese cousin of Fox News given its enthusiasm for stoking nationalism and outrage — to get a sense of issues that are animating emotions inside China.
When reviewing these sources, omissions occasionally are as important as issues that receive emphasis. Deliberate omissions of elements of the leadership’s policy catechism can signal absence of support for a specific policy direction, for example.
Ultimately, though, the best insights I gain about debates and developments inside China often arise from exchanges with Chinese counterparts, whether in person, via email, or via Zoom. My Chinese counterparts understand the issues and the players involved in debates in ways I never will, just as I understand the nature of public debates in the United States in ways that are not intuitive to them. Not everything my Chinese counterparts tell me about internal developments can be taken at face value, so a dose of skepticism and access to a range of viewpoints often are needed to develop a composite picture. All that said, regularly exchanging perspectives with Chinese counterparts remains crucial to my understanding of how China operates.
JAMIE P. HORSLEY
Visiting Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center
In my China regulatory and legal work, I mainly rely on primary Chinese documents, supplemented by analytic and some academic sources. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and official Chinese state authorities identified in China’s constitution — other than the Central Military Commission and the State Supervision Commission, which is essentially part of the CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission — post many official documents, including drafts released for public comment in some instances, on their official Chinese-language websites and social media accounts. WeChat and social media have become an almost indispensable source of keeping up on new policies, legislation, and developments.
Some central ministries that deal with foreign policy, commercial, financial, and other foreign-related affairs also maintain English-language websites that are typically less complete than the Chinese-language ones. Even seemingly official English translations published by the authorities need to be used carefully, and checked against the original Chinese text, as various important terms are often translated differently in different documents. Jeremy Daum’s collaborative translation project, China Law Translate, provides rapid, free translations of and commentary on an array of Chinese legal developments, and several professional and specialized organizations — like Graham Webster’s DigiChina Project that translates and analyzes Chinese technology policy — and publishers offer free or for-fee translations of select Chinese policy and legal documents.
The Chinese Communist Party publishes selected speeches by CCP leaders, decisions, plans, policies, intraparty regulations, reports, and other documents relating to its meetings and activities. It does not maintain an English-language website. Some CCP subordinate organizations like the anti-corruption Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the Political-Legal Committee have their own websites. The Center for Advanced China Research’s Party Watch Weekly Report offers updates and information on CCP activities in English.
The National People’s Congress (NPC) and its Standing Committee publish a host of documents including laws, draft laws, and official and academic commentaries on laws; five-year and annual legislative plans; annual work reports submitted by other state organs for approval at the annual NPC meeting; and congressional supervision investigation reports. It also maintains an English-language website with translations of many laws. The NPC Observer, run by Changhao Wei, offers commentary, compilations, and explanations concerning the NPC in English. Local people’s congresses at the provincial, county, and township levels also publish locally-promulgated and issued documents.
The State Council, China’s central government, also publishes CCP and government policy documents, economic and rulemaking plans, administrative regulations in draft and final forms, regulatory documents, white papers, statistics, and other materials, some of which are available in translation on its English-language website. Most ministries and other institutions subordinate to the State Council also maintain websites to publish their own documents, as do local governments and their departments. Some of these, such as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Commerce, and Finance, also maintain English-language websites. Many newsletters like Trivium Tip Sheet and CP.China Policy follow State Council policies, regulations, and regulatory activities.
The Supreme People’s Court (SPC), and its English-language website, now publishes many of its and the lower courts’ judicial decisions in a searchable, open database, as well as judicial interpretations, judicial reform and annual judicial interpretation plans, investigations, and other reports and analyses. Susan Finder maintains a helpful blog, Supreme People’s Court Monitor, which discusses the courts. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) is responsible for legal prosecution and investigation in China. It also publishes a variety of documents including prosecution-related policies, guidelines, rules, and case reports. It does not maintain an English-language website.
English-language newspapers and magazines offer great coverage of China. In addition to usual outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, etc. — Caixin Global (whose content is taken from their broader Chinese-language counterpart) and the South China Morning Post are good sources of news and analysis of China developments. Sixth Tone features stories about Chinese society. The China Daily is the official English-language newspaper of the Chinese government and publishes official documents in English translation from time to time, as does Xinhua (the state run press agency) English-language service.
I work on security and foreign policy issues, so I usually rely on the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defense websites and the People’s Liberation Army services’ and theater commands’ WeChat accounts to follow events. CNKI (China National Knowledge Infrastructure) and Pishu are my go-to databases for most Chinese-language newspaper and journal articles, yearbooks, and think tank reports. For English-language sources, I usually look at reports and analyses coming out from Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, RAND Corporation, CNA, National Defense University, the National Bureau of Asian Research, the Center for a New American Security, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the U.S. Naval War College, and articles published in major academic and policy journals. I also follow information released by Japan’s Ministry of Defense and its research institution the National Institute for Defense Studies, the Japan Coast Guard, and several Japanese think tanks, including the Japan Institute for International Affairs, Sasakawa Peace Foundation, and the Institute of Developing Economies. In addition, I follow content published by several Singapore-based institutions including the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of the Nanyang Technological University and the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.