Troops with the People's Liberation Army Ground Force attend a drill on January 2021 in China's Yunnan Province.

Troops with the People's Liberation Army Ground Force attend a drill on January 2021 in China's Yunnan Province. Zhang Zhengju/VCG via Getty Images

Introducing ‘The China Intelligence’

Everyone needs to understand China better. Open-source intelligence can help.

Welcome to The China Intelligence, an occasional series by P.W. Singer at New America, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.; and Bluepath Labs, a strategic analysis and technology consulting firm that regularly publishes analysis of China based on open sources.

In just one generation, China has transformed itself from a largely agrarian country into a manufacturing and trading powerhouse — with a matching boom in military and technology power. And the consequences have been world-changing.

A mere decade ago, the budget of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, was roughly $35 billion. Today, it is around $250 billion. China’s military now boasts capable long-range ballistic missiles, 5th-generation fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers, and the largest surface combatants in the world. Its forces are increasingly active in not just the Pacific but also carrying out operations far beyond. Its arms and equipment are the products of China’s defense industry, whose rise and global impact mirrors those of the country’s larger economy. Once reliant on imports for high-end capabilities, China is now in the top global tier of research, design, and production in fields that range from established areas like rocketry, shipbuilding, and aviation, to some of the most cutting-edge areas like robotics, AI, quantum, and hypersonic flight. This shift has also upended the global arms trade. China’s arms trade shows now preview not just what will equip the PLA next, but what will also show up next in the battlefields of the developing world.

This incredible shift is at the heart of monumental changes in global stability, as well as a bipartisan recentering of U.S. national security and technology strategy around great power competition and maybe even conflict with China. Even that creates a new challenge, however; as Defense One editor Kevin Baron notes, ”Just Say China” is rapidly becoming a way to justify almost any policy, on any topic.

And yet a fuller understanding of the new China and its new technologies is noticeably lacking in both popular media and the mainstream security studies community. While there is a literal library of journals and blogs that explore the latest in U.S. military R&D, which come in both highly specialized and broader readership form, the amount of attention paid to and understanding of the planet’s other great military and tech power pales by comparison. This is illustrated by raw metrics — an order-of-magnitude difference in the number of articles and web hits on the two topics — and exemplified by how few people know the Chinese companies and tech that will shape the future. During the Cold War, knowledge of Soviet tech was far more widespread. You don’t have to be a Russian military specialist to have heard of a MiG fighter jet or the Soyuz spacecraft. Yet small percentages of not just the general public, but also the security studies community and the U.S. military can name their present-day Chinese equivalents. (The answer: Shenyang and Chang Zheng.)

So what can we do about this, especially when China remains a closed society, an authoritarian state with one of the most advanced surveillance programs in history? Part of the answer lies in what is known as “open source intelligence” or OSINT: gathering and analyzing information that lies in the public. 

To be sure, there are challenges. Much information of value is censored and what does make its way out of China is sometimes modified. An example is the blurring of even government-released images. 

Yet much of value makes its way through this net. Some information is deliberately shared by the regime, in a bid to spread ideas beyond its top leadership in a non-classified setting. Examples range from official party documents on tech policy to military journal articles on robot warfare doctrine. Other messaging might aim to highlight indigenous developments and publicize defense capabilities, to create pride in their domestic audience or to deter external foes. There are also reasons of career advancement. Chinese scientists, as a professional requirement, habitually publish their research in fields that range from hypersonic engines to missile guidance. And, finally, there are economic reasons. If they want to make the sale, Chinese companies competing for contracts have to show off their wares at open settings like arms expos

Then there is the undeliberate side. As discussed in this author’s book LikeWar, our new digital world means orders of magnitude more information is being produced and shared than ever before in human history. This information that leaks out from China comes in the form of everything from cell phone selfies that reveal OSINT details in the background to publicly available satellite imagery (such as via ESA, and Planet), which offer the ability to watch for strategic weapons testing or even track ships at sea. As Mister Universe said in the cult movie Serenity, even the most dedicated authoritarian regime “Can’t stop the signal...Everything goes somewhere.” 

The outcome is that anyone, anywhere can learn the kind of information that even the CIA would have been envious of just a few decades back. We’ve used this approach to explain developments in Chinese strategies and the people who formulate them to provide details on China’s newest nuclear missiles and where they are located

And the revelations are not just about military systems. Indeed, before COVID’s spread was fully understood by many, we detected that China’s military was not deploying to deal with a looming pandemic in the scale that was needed, as well as document the ways that China was censoring information about the pandemic, another indicator that it was to be worse than thought. We later tracked China’s early efforts to spin the narrative and blame other countries for the outbreak. 

Whatever the form or topic, the information gets out and then someone sees it. These OSINT trackers range from trained intelligence analysts to the volunteer online “military fan” (军迷) community that regularly surfaces and debates the latest PLA tidbit or data trail. 

However, this points to another part of the problem. Too little of this wealth of information makes its way outside the specialist community. One issue is that it is primarily in Chinese language. But it is also about the channels of communication. Much of it stays in social media chatter, in the back and forth of those specialists and fans on Twitter. Of what does get published, it typically moves either through the blogs and thinktank sites that are phenomenal but tend only to reach their already dedicated audience. Occasionally, there will be an article that pops out every so often into the mainstream. Yet, there is no consistent outlet for this kind of reporting at a general media hub. And finally, not enough of the information that does get surfaced is put into context. The need is not just to let people know about some important new development, but also explain what it means. 

The bottom line is that a huge part of the latest and greatest in Chinese military and technology news lies in the public domain. One simply has to collect it, make sense of it, and share it. 

And that is what we’re going to do.