The Heritage Foundation’s China Transparency Report assesses the current state of China’s transparency on eight issues. It does so by analyzing the data, or lack thereof, provided by the Chinese government, and highlights measures by private, global organizations and researchers to fill in the (very wide) gaps using open-source data. Why is transparency important? The report addresses this question for each of eight categories: (1) the economy, (2) energy and the environment, (3) human rights, (4) influence operations, (5) the military, (6) outbound investments, (7) politics and law, and (8) technology.
Broadly speaking, transparency is important because the Chinese government has a history of withholding, manipulating, and falsifying data for its own purposes. As U.S. policymakers look to address the China challenge, access to reliable data becomes increasingly important. Data help to provide accurate assessments of China’s capabilities, expose areas where China poses the greatest threat to U.S. interests, and examine where threats are overstated.
While the editors of the report acknowledge that virtually all governments have some degree of transparency issues, the Chinese government’s lack of transparency is alarming on two fronts. First, the nature of the Chinese communist system exacerbates the lack of transparency. As continued Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control is its utmost priority, the CCP benefits from repressing data that do not fall in line with its narratives. Second, the U.S.–China competition and the policies made today will have consequences for generations to come. As such, it is critical that U.S. policymakers have access to accurate data to create sound policy.
The report is not a comprehensive review of every available tracker or project. The editors seek to raise awareness about ongoing private efforts and their methodologies, while pointing to where more research can be done. The editors hope that this report will encourage not only more datadriven analysis within the policy community, but also encourage cross-fertilization between categories. Methodologies and best practices are not exclusive to a single category.
This report does not limit data to quantitative figures or statistics. Data do not always come in the form of numbers. This is especially the case for categories such as human rights, where there simply is not enough numerical data.
Also, while the focus of the report is primarily on private, non-governmental research, governmental agencies are instrumental in data collection as well. Unless stated otherwise, The Heritage Foundation does not claim ownership of the data projects mentioned in this report.
In addition to an assessment of the eight categories, this report also features six topical essays written by Heritage analysts and external authors:
- “Creating Some Clarity on the PLA Budget,” by Heritage senior policy analyst Frederico Bartels. This essay examines the current available primary data on the PRC’s military expenditures, its gaps, and how independent institutions have made up for the information gap. In a scenario of great power competition, it is important to understand how adversaries are building their militaries and its capabilities. Thus, it is paramount to have a clearer vision of what the Chinese allocate to the People’s Liberation Army.
- “China Considers Big Data a Fundamental Strategic Resource, and Africa May Offer an Especially Valuable Trove,” by Heritage senior policy analyst Joshua Meservey. The CCP believes that technological superiority is critical to achieving its most cherished national priorities, including the upending of the U.S.-led international order. Africa is likely a key part of Beijing’s ambitious project. Chinese companies, and through them the Chinese government, have gained extraordinary access to valuable African data that can help China refine critical technologies such as artificial intelligence and biomedical technology. Given Beijing’s prioritization of data as a strategic asset, its companies’ history of sharing data with the government, and the ease with which it can mine African data, this essay argues that it is implausible that Beijing declines to exploit this valuable opportunity.
- “Chinese Influence on and Exploitation of U.S. Colleges and Universities,” by Heritage Visiting Fellow and former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf, and Heritage Davis Institute vice president James J. Carafano, PhD. This essay analyzes China’s rising influence and exploitation of U.S. colleges and universities. Given the importance of U.S. research institutions to the security and prosperity of all Americans, it is crucial to have transparency on Chinese government and government-directed activities in order to best evaluate the risks and assess the effectiveness of mitigation measures.
- “The Future of China’s Maritime Militia in the ‘New Situation’: A Primer,” by Collin Koh, PhD. Koh is a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This essay argues that, notwithstanding China’s expansion into distant-waters fishing, near-seas fishing especially in the South China Sea remains important for Beijing to assert its maritime sovereignty and rights in the area. The combination of wild-catch fishery and mariculture activities amplifies the continued relevance of the Chinese maritime militia. The recent Whitsun Reef incident with the Philippines presents a good case in point.
- “Commanding Depths: China’s Bid to Dominate the Cloud—Under the Sea,” by David Feith and Lara D. Crouch. David Feith formerly served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and is currently an adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security. Lara D. Crouch is a congressional staffer who focuses on Indo–Pacific issues. The views expressed in this essay are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States government. Feith and Crouch highlight that protecting economic and national security requires understanding who builds and finances undersea cables, which carry more than 95 percent of global data flows and are a clear focus of Beijing’s ambitions. Through Huawei Marine Networks and other Beijing-backed firms, China can steal information, divert or manipulate data, cut off communications in a crisis, and install subsea surveillance equipment. This essay advocates sharpening U.S. policy at home, keeping U.S. technology from Chinese firms, improving coordination across the U.S. government and with the private sector, and prioritizing diplomacy with NATO allies, Quad partners, and other important players.
- “The South China Sea is the 21st Century Fulda Gap for Major War in Asia,” by Heritage senior fellow Brent D. Sadler. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has struggled to identify a compelling naval challenge to inform investments in building its future fleet. Today, as tensions rise with tragic consequences in Asia, most notably over Taiwan and in the South China Sea, the Navy has its new Fulda Gap. As was the case for the Fulda Gap in Germany during the Cold War, this essay argues that the naval forces operating and engaged in combat in the South China Sea will determine the outcome of any armed conflict with China.