Guide to PLA watching Part I: Fundamental Rules
This is the first entry in the short instructional series on how to transition from a greenhorn PLA watcher, to become an individual well versed in the nuances and patterns of Chinese military developments and who can keep up with, or even contribute to discussion of the newest rumours and pictures from the PLA.
This entry will describe several fundamental rules and understandings one should accept, prior to beginning their PLA watching journey. These include: Consensus and change is key, Operational security and opacity is the PLA way, Rumours are essential but not all are equal, Absence of evidence is not evidence for absence, Learn to read Chinese, Showing off is not common. These long and arduous descriptions can be shortened to a simpler acronym: CORALS.
Consensus and change is key
It is impossible to gain fully accurate and up to date information on the newest Chinese military developments, and often, only rumours from “non-official” sources are available. The job of PLA watching communities is thus to apply their collective logic and knowledge to critically assess new rumours, new blurry pictures, new drawings, and new word-of-mouth messages, to try and ascertain the most likely realistic scenario of a certain development. This process cannot occur in a vacuum through only one individual’s efforts, but rather it requires the collective contributions of knowledgeable individuals to bring together their expertise and experience to reach a most likely overall consensus, and if a consensus cannot be reached, then the most likely situations should be acknowledged and made clear.
However, change is also a constant fact in PLA watching, due to the persistent revelation of new leaked rumours, new photos, and new releases from state media. Typically, if a consensus is reached through a correct and logical process, the change which occurs helps to “add” to the present consensus, rather than to “challenge” the consensus – for instance, it has been expected for years that Dalian shipyard would build the first domestic aircraft carrier for the Chinese Navy, and in early 2015 the first pictures emerged which changed the basis of information available through adding evidence to the prior consensus. But every now and then, new information may blindside and turn a previous consensus upside down and to challenge it, such as in the late 2000s that a stealthy “JH-7B” strike aircraft was under development, but it turned out that the actual JH-7B was merely an upgrade of the existing JH-7A, lacking any stealthy features or major structural changes at all.
Overall, the principle of “Consensus and Change” is not dissimilar to the scientific method, where peer review and critical assessment of new information provides the basis for creating new scientific assumptions and conclusions.
Operational security and opacity is the PLA way
The Chinese military holds itself to a very high standard of deliberate operational security and opacity. Official reports, specifications, interviews, op-eds, assessments and articles about new weapons developments common among the military forces of western nations rarely exist for the Chinese military.
Therefore, attempting to find evidence for Chinese military developments of the same calibre of reliability that typically exists for western military developments, is generally futile. It is understandable that many publications on the Chinese military by think tanks, government agencies, and military intelligence organizations typically would prefer to cite evidence in line with western standards to produce sanctioned and reliable knowledge, however this produces a likely and inevitable delay between such publications and the reality of what may actually be occurring in the Chinese military domain. Sometimes, certain more accepted western publications may also make incorrect statements or assumptions on the latest Chinese military developments and in turn become widely circulated, which creates a further shroud of confusion.
In short, this principle seeks to establish the deliberate differences of available information between the Chinese military and military forces of other nations. Once this principle is accepted, one is able to consider more alternative, more nuanced and more grey areas of information and news.
Rumours are essential but not all are equal
In the absence of available, reliable evidence for new Chinese military developments, Chinese language military watching forums and bulletin board services are often the most widely watched source of information. Such forums and sites are frequented by many individuals in China who are considered “insiders” in particular industries, and may occasionally leak tantalizing clues and projections of current or future developments, but are generally classified as “rumours”. These sites are also usually the first location on the internet where new photos taken by military enthusiast wall-climbers are released, and often provide the photographical evidence for new developments whether they be a new stealth fighter or further production of a destroyer class. The collection of this information provides a gold mine of information for Chinese military watchers who know what they are looking for.
But identifying which rumours and photographs are legitimate and reliable, is no easy task. For every insider and photographer who provide insightful and reliable content, there are hundreds if not thousands of individuals making background noise of false rumours and extravagant claims, and also some individuals who post doctored photographs seeking to deliberately misinform or simply to troll the Chinese military watching community in China. It thus requires a substantial degree of experience to truly sort out the diamonds from the coal, and even then one must maintain a constant vigilance to critically examine whether a new rumour is likely based on who has said it, where it was posted, and the actual content of the rumour itself. New photos are also constantly scrutinized for evidence of possible doctoring which may seek to misrepresent the item in question.
To gain the most from Chinese language rumours and photos, one must thus gain an intimate understanding of nuances and patterns and personalities by following those forums and sites directly, or rely on rumour aggregates in the form of some English language sites and forums who help to identify and relay new rumours and information and photos deemed to be reliable through their own experience. Such outlets will be described in the next entry on PLA watching, where the reliability and practicality of various sources are compared against one another.
Absence of evidence is not evidence for absence
This principle is a very simple one, and asserts that the lack of credible rumours or confirmed photographs of a particular type of military development does not mean developments of a certain nature are not occurring.
It is unfortunately quite common for some mainstream media and defence commentary outlets to hold this incorrect presumption, often causing substantial underestimation of certain capabilities or progress which may otherwise be indicated by non-traditional sources and through the application of logic and common sense.
The most famous case of this fallacy is probably the J-20 stealth fighter, also known as J-XX during the early to mid 2000s. The lack of truly credible information regarding the J-XX project led to a substantial degree of complacency and underestimation of Chinese Air Force ambitions as well as the capabilities of the Chinese aerospace industry in most mainstream defence watching communities and this occurred to a degree, even in official government agencies of some nations. Needless to say, the arrival of J-20 in January, 2011 thus took many defence watchers and media outlets by surprise due to the seemingly “sudden” emergence of the aircraft without years of prior “evidence” indicative of a development process. However, many PLA watching communities had been aware of the existence and development J-XX for years before the first photos were plastered across the internet, with quite intimate knowledge of everything from its aerodynamic configuration, role, powerplant, and intended weapons suite, despite the “absence of evidence”.
Learn to read Chinese!
A common theme among PLA watchers whether they are amateur enthusiasts or professional analysts as part of agencies and think tanks, is that those who are able to reliably read Chinese will typically gain better insight into the matter they are interested in. In fact, this goes not only for watchers of the Chinese military but also for any media commentators seeking to write about China matters whether they are political, cultural or social in nature.
Understanding the language helps one to access new sources of information that may otherwise remain untranslated from Chinese to English, and occasionally Chinese articles which may be translated into English (such as some state media reports) may even be incorrectly translated, leading to substantial confusion and accidental misinformation, in which case the original language source would take precedence. For instance, in 2014 an English language translation of a Chinese state media report on a Naval Aviation test squadron mistakenly wrote that deaths had occurred during test flights for a carrier fighter aircraft (seemingly referring to J-15), however the original Chinese language article was phrased in a way which made it clear that it was merely the squadron which had suffered a death in past test flights (the actual death was during a flight of a JH-7 strike fighter), and that it also had the responsibility of conducting certain test flights for carrier fighter aircraft. In other words, de
Learning Chinese is arguably the most difficult principle for any individual to truly follow, however simply appreciating the benefits of reading Chinese, and accepting that the vast majority of relevant information for watching PLA developments is not in English, is in some ways enough.
Showing off is not common
Lastly, it is important to place official revelations of new projects and equipment by the Chinese military and the Chinese state in context. Chinese state media including television channels and online news, may occasionally “reveal” new developments or new exercises or capabilities in the military, or during official military parades or defence expos, and these are typically perceived by western news media as “showing off”.
But considering the types of developments which are typically revealed and when these developments are revealed, it is easy to appreciate that the Chinese military only typically allows official displays of new capabilities when those capabilities are mature and either in advanced stages of development or in a state of operational service… and even then, certain capabilities may not be officially revealed for years if not decades after entering service, such as the secretive Chinese Navy nuclear submarine fleet.
In other words, observers of the Chinese military would be well informed to understand that official revelations and disclosures of new capabilities typically occur only after they are reasonably mature, if not operational. China is not Iran or North Korea, who often display false military developments and capabilities which are in very early stages of development to project a sense of strength, and China is not the United States, where defence contractors and military forces may show off under-development concepts at early stages for the sake of deterrence. China instead tends to under-disclose its military capabilities through high operational security, so as to cause potential adversaries to expend greater effort to ascertain the PLA’s actual true capability and progress.