Guest post by my friend and colleague M. Taylor Fravel, Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.

At the end of 2011, a study by the Asian Arms Control Project at Georgetown University on China’s nuclear forces attracted a great deal of attention, including a page one article 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 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Experts and analysts quickly challenged many of the study’s most provocative claims about the number of Chinese warheads and fissile material production. Questions were also raised about the Chinese-language sources that formed the basis of the study’s conclusions. A key source for the study’s claim about the number of warheads was Chinese blog posts.  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 the original source 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, repeated in an anonymous Usenet bulletin board post 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 documented back in 2005, 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, www.chinese-army.com (that only appeared to be online for the month of November 2010 according to this cache of the site). The blog post was redundant, as it only contained a crude machine translation of the transcript of the television segment.

The Phoenix television segment, 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” (印媒称解放军边境部署12个导弹旅瞄准印度). 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.

This article originally appeared in The Diplomat.

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Ray Kwong is senior advisor to the USC US-China Institute, a charter member of the Asian International Business Advisory Group, a Forbes contributing writer and columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He is currently facilitating talks between China and U.S. interests on such matters as clean energy economics, nanotechnology and commercial aerospace. While it sounds way cooler than it really is, he is also a member of the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Market Advisory Board and the McKinsey Quarterly Executive Panel. You can follow him on Twitter @raykwong. Eyeball Ray's posts from Forbes ChinaTalk.
Ray Kwong has 17 post(s) on Asia Security Watch