How Transparent Is China’s Government? Here’s What We Know

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The Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled China for 100 years, remains highly secretive in its policies and actions. Fortunately, sources outside China’s government have provided the world with a great deal of information about what is really happening within the communist regime.

Compiling what we do know about the Chinese Communist Party, The Heritage Foundation—parent organization of The Daily Signal—just released its 2021 China Transparency Report. The document assesses China’s level of transparency across eight key areas: the economy, energy and the environment, human rights, influence operations, the military, outbound investments, politics and law, and technology. 

The goal of the report “is partly to bust a myth that China is completely closed off and opaque,” says Dean Cheng, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow for Asian studies who contributed to the report.

“You cannot have a country of 1.3 billion people, you can’t have any economy that’s the second largest in the world, and the world’s largest trading state, and not have some amount of interaction and data flow, etc.,” Cheng says. “But part of the problem is that the available information isn’t easily available, partly because, well, it’s in Chinese.”

Cheng and Justin Rhee, co-editor of the China Transparency Report, join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain its significance in understanding the actions and goals of the Chinese Communist Party. (You may read the full report here.)

We also cover these stories: 

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken invites U.N. envoys on racism and minority issues to visit the United States. 
  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduces a bill to repeal federal mask mandates for those using public transportation.
  • In remarks at The Heritage Foundation, former Vice President Mike Pence calls Communist China a greater threat to America than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: It has never been more important than it is right now for America to understand what is happening in China. That’s why The Heritage Foundation’s 2021 China Transparency Report is so critical as America’s leaders navigate the path forward with China. We’re going to dive into this newly released 2021 China Transparency Report today to find out what we need to know about China’s economy, human rights abuses, technology issues, and much, much more.

And joining me to break down this report in-depth is Justin Rhee, one of the editors and contributors to the report, and Dean Cheng, who is also a contributor to the report, and a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow for Asian studies.

Justin, Dean, thank you both for being here.

Dean Cheng: Thanks for having us.

Justin Rhee: Thank you.

Allen: In this report, you look at China’s level of transparency in eight specific categories or areas. First, the economy, energy and environment, human rights, influence operations, the military, outbound investments, politics and law, and technology. So, let’s begin with the big picture here. What is really the purpose of this report?

Cheng: So, the overall goal of this report is partly to bust a myth that China is completely closed off and opaque.

You cannot have a country of 1.3 billion people, you can’t have any economy that’s the second largest in the world, and the world’s largest trading state, and not have some amount of interaction and data flow, etc. But part of the problem is that the available information isn’t easily available, partly because, well, it’s in Chinese. Partly because a lot of the analysis is stovepipe. People who do economics often don’t look at national security; people who look at human rights don’t necessarily look at energy.

So, the purpose of this report was to bring together a lot of the analysis that’s out there, not just from The Heritage Foundation, but across the country and around the world, to help the average analyst find out, hey, there actually is data out there about Chinese energy imports, or food exports, or investment, as well as some of those sexier, more long-standing areas of interest like the military and foreign policy.

Allen: Well, I certainly found the report really helpful in the fact that right at the beginning, you have a very clear-cut kind of summary of each category, what you all found, what you discovered.

And in that you rank on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being low and 10 being high, the level of transparency in each category, and then you also give an overall ranking. So you rank the government’s transparency and then you rank overall, OK, this is what we know from outside individuals, private efforts, and so forth.

So, let us begin with talking about a really big issue that for so long, I think, has been on individuals’ hearts and minds and that’s Chinese human rights issues. What did you all discover in your research about China’s transparency around the issue of human rights?

Rhee: What we found is, unsurprisingly, the Chinese government is not transparent on its human rights record. And when they do publish data, it is highly questionable. And they do publish white papers and reports to claim that there are no human rights abuses in China, and the Uighurs are not being targeted at home, and obviously, is under heavy scrutiny.

So, what we found is that the private efforts have been instrumental in help filling the gaps in data. And they’ve been particularly great in using cutting-edge technology to look into the situation of Uighurs and Xinjiang, and also persecution and religious liberty persecution, and Tibet, issues in Tibet.

Allen: Even recently … Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with a group of Uighurs about what they experienced as they were held in reeducation camps, and what that experience was like. So, Dean, from your perspective, how is America handling China’s human rights abuses right now? How are we doing as far as our public policy on that issue?

Cheng: Well, American diplomats are bringing the issue up, and that’s important. The problem is—and this has been true for decades, not only with regards to China, but also previously with the Soviet Union—where do human rights fit into the mix?

Should human rights be the leading issue? Should it be a supporting issue? What about, say, arms control? Back when we were negotiating arms control deals with the Soviets, they would often basically say, “If you bring up human rights, we’re walking out.” And so, they were very good at forcing us to start making choices over what to bring up.

The Chinese, I suspect, are even more talented at this because they have more tools. They can basically say, “You bring up human rights, maybe we won’t sign a trade deal, maybe we won’t sign a climate change deal.” So, we, the U.S., as a beacon of hope, and a beacon on human rights, do need to bring this up.

Fortunately also, our European counterparts often have been bringing this up, and in fact, China’s human rights record in Xinjiang is so egregious that the recently negotiated China-Europe mutual investment deal fell through with the Europeans basically tabling it, shelving it, saying, “Until you get your human rights track record back onto something approaching acceptable standards, we’re not going to sign this deal at all.”

Allen: I was certainly fascinated that in the report that that issue of human rights received the lowest score as far as Chinese government level of transparency receiving a 1 out of 10, the lowest score possible. So, really fascinated to hear you all break that down.

Let’s talk a little bit about one of the other subjects you all covered, that’s energy and environment. China has a lot of factors. I mean, gosh, we look at the back of so many of our items in our homes, our clothing, it’s made in China. So with all of the production China is doing, what do we know about their pollution and how it’s affecting not only Asia, but the rest of the world?

Rhee: … Energy and environment are obviously two separate categories in itself, but we linked them together because there are overlaps. And so, what we’re finding is that there’s certain data that the Chinese government does actually help provide an accurate picture on, or at least provide reliable data on. But there are significant gaps, … particularly when it comes to pollution levels and other activity.

Allen: Dean, anything you’d like to add on to that?

Cheng: Yeah. Energy is a national security issue for every country around the world. If you cannot power your vehicles, if you can’t power your factories, then in that case, the country is going to come apart.

So, not surprisingly, on the one hand, the Chinese are energy importers, especially of fossil fuels. So, this is not something they want to talk about very publicly, the linkage to the environment, because this is a very controversial issue. It’s a very public, how good a citizen are you? How good of a global citizen are you? And so, again, the Chinese have a desire to suppress or limit the amount of information available about their environmental behavior.

So, these sorts of data sets that are provided by groups like the Global Energy Monitor, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy goes to an aspect of both Chinese national security. How much are they importing? And also China’s public face, how polluting are you?

The Chinese have no desire to advertise the fact that, for example, last year they brought more coal-fired energy online, more coal-fired power plants went online in China than in the entire rest of the world combined.

Allen: That’s significant. Goodness. Well, and of course, so closely linked to that issue of energy and environment is the economy. Talk a little bit about what you all discovered regarding the transparency of how China’s economy works, and where they’re trying to head in the future.

Rhee: The Chinese government economic data is notoriously unreliable. So, keeping track of when and how Beijing corrupts statistics—whether by adjusting [gross domestic product], investment, or retail numbers—is something that needs greater study.

Allen: Thank you, Justin. Please go ahead, Dean.

Cheng: But the good news here for both energy stats and economic stats is that because China is a trading power, … the Chinese don’t get to make up the numbers out of whole cloth entirely. If they are importing more oil, … on the other side of the ledger, other people are exporting oil to China.

It’s a lot harder to track those numbers in finance because you can mask things by purchasing through third parties or through the Cayman Islands and stuff like that. But oil and food and other raw materials that come in, it’s got to come from somewhere. And similarly, when the Chinese export it out, it goes somewhere.

So, there is the ability to check at least some of this, but as Justin pointed out, that doesn’t keep the Chinese from trying to cloud the numbers as much as possible. And one of the things that has been very frustrating at times is that when the Chinese realize that there are data sources that we are using, they’ll suppress them.

A former colleague of ours, Derek Scissors, used to try and track Chinese coal production until the Chinese realized he was looking at provincial-level numbers, and all of a sudden the province has just stopped publishing those numbers.

Allen: So, there’s really a concerted effort on China’s part to keep this information secretive and hidden from the public.

Cheng: Yes, but more to the point of this report is, broadly speaking, they actually turn our transparency almost on itself: “Oh, you are tracking this statistic using that database that China publishes, we’ll stop publishing that database, or we’ll start changing the units used in that database.” So, they are very closely watching all of these analysts, all of these organizations that are focused on analyzing China.

Allen: So, do we have any knowledge of the Chinese government’s, or individuals within the Chinese government, of their response to this transparency report?

Cheng: Not yet. It just did just come out. But I would expect that we will probably see the Chinese react negatively to this. First by probably almost certainly claiming that the report doesn’t accurately reflect how transparent China is, but second of all, ironically enough, then going out and suppressing as many of the sources as possible.

Allen: Yeah. Well, I would love to talk about all eight categories, but for the sake of time, we’re having to pick and choose, but I do have to ask you all about technology. This is an area that, obviously, within the last 10 years, increasingly it seems like really every month now is becoming a bigger and bigger deal, being aware of China’s technological advancements. What did you all learn?

Cheng: One of the things to keep in mind is, of course, technology covers a vast swath of areas. This year’s report is really focused on ICT, information and communications technology, simply because you could easily write a multi-volume report just looking at Chinese technology, writ large.

What we see is pretty much what you said that the Chinese are investing heavily in it, that they are prioritizing the development of information and communications technologies. And that in this regard, they are no better than average for them with the transparency factor of about 3 when it comes to Chinese government information.

Allen: Mm-hmm. So, for each of you, Justin, we’ll start with you, what was something that really surprised you or that you were particularly fascinated to learn as you researched for and wrote this report?

Rhee: Yeah. So, one thing I found fascinating was that, when we’re looking at, obviously, we have eight different categories here, and they each focus on different things. But there is consistency, not just in terms of the fact that Chinese government and the Communist Party withholds information and they’re issues with data, but also when looking at private efforts, there’s a lot of techniques that have been shared in terms of trying to collect information, and the techniques that can be used elsewhere, right?

So, what works for analyzing human rights data and on Xinjiang can easily be applied to looking at military developments or activity along South China Sea. So, stuff like that it’s been really interesting to see.

Allen: That is fascinating. Dean, what about you?

Cheng: Actually, I want to echo Justin’s point.

So, my focus at The Heritage Foundation is Chinese political and security development, so my focus is on the military. And I have to admit, listening to the people talk about the political trackers that are out there, and the human rights trackers, it was both, “Wow, look at all of the information that actually is available,” but if you don’t work that field, you may not be aware of it, but as important are the methods by which they are delving into the available data.

And this is the sort of thing that hopefully this report will encourage, is greater cross-fertilization. The opportunity for people who do different types of subjects, learning different methodologies, so that they can enrich and really flesh out the data that is available, and to really tease out implications, tease out policy effects, impacts.

This has been really, … frankly, a cool experience, just being able to survey all of these sorts of databases and working groups and all that, and getting to know some of these people and hearing sort of how they came up with these ideas. It’s been really just a great experience.

Allen: That’s so wonderful. Well, when it comes to next steps, what are your recommendations for how, given this information in this report, now what we know, how does America move forward in its relationship with China? That’s obviously a loaded question, but maybe just a few points on that.

Cheng: Well, certainly, we cannot stop the demand for China to become more transparent. We and the Chinese are engaged in an ideological struggle, and part of that struggle is whether China writes the rules, which says that you don’t have to be transparent, and you get to basically lock away as much information as you can or want to. And even if you, the United States, or you, Europe, are transparent, China has no obligation to be transparent.

And yeah, that’s a very Chinese “rule by law” approach. Or it’s rule of law, everyone is operating to the same standard, the same rule set, and transparency is expected and demanded of everyone, and if you don’t, there are consequences.

So, hopefully, on the one hand, folks will read this report and find out how much there is to know, but also, will say, “Hey, how come China doesn’t give us statistics that every other civilized country does? And if they don’t, we should sanction them. Or we should say, ‘Then you don’t get access to the American Stock Exchange,'” or things like that.

Allen: Well, I love how you all laid out this report. It’s about just over a hundred pages, but like I mentioned, the summary at the beginning is very concise, and for those that kind of want that high-level overview, it’s fantastic. And then you’ve broken it down into each of those eight categories. So for any individual who wants to go deep in one or all of those, they can. How can people get access to this report and read the whole thing?

Rhee: Yeah, so, they can go to the China Transparency Project website, which will be in the show notes, and it’s available via PDF file. So, once you go to the project website, you’ll see on the front page a link to the report itself, and you’ll be able to download it there.

Allen: Great, great, Justin. Yes, and as you say, we’ll be sure to link that in the show notes. But Dean and Justin, thank you all so much for your work on this, and thank you for coming on the show.

Rhee: Thank you.

Cheng: Thank you for having us.

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