Why We Need the Center for Strategic Translation

Andy He/Washington D.C.

Today the American Governance Foundation, which publishes Palladium, announces the launch of its newest project: the Center for Strategic Translation.

We are founding CST in the wake of two revolutions that have shaken the field of China watching. Either could compromise the coherence of contemporary China studies as an intellectual community; together they threaten to upend this community’s influence on international relations altogether. 

The first crisis is methodological: in Xi Jinping’s “New Era,” many of the tools China specialists relied on to understand communist politics have become outdated. The second is sociological: as Chinese ambitions have grown, interest in these ambitions has grown too. Today, Western capitals are flooded with politicos who have little understanding of a country they place at the center of their political programs. This must change. We need new institutions to equip statesmen and scholars with the tools they need to interpret the intentions of the Chinese party-state. 

This has been done before. At the height of the Cold War, the United States built a vast information ecosystem to understand the communist regimes of Europe and Asia. Institutions such as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service were founded to translate documents, articles, and speeches by the hundreds. From the Ivy League down to state colleges, America was dotted with centers for the study of communist economies, policy, and rhetoric. In a time of great need, these tools helped Western leaders understand otherwise closed societies. 

The need has returned. The tools have not. As the communist bloc dissolved, so did many organizations devoted to the study of communist regimes. Most were never reconstituted. Many experts who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s graduated from academic departments where quantitative methods and formal models were the focus of training. For the smaller cadre of scholars still interested in qualitative assessments of China, the old arts of open-source “Pekingology” held less luster than in days past. After all, field surveys and personal interviews with party officials were only a plane ride away. 

This worked during the ‘90s and the aughts, the heydays of Reform and Opening. This open interregnum has now ended. Field surveys in China are no longer possible. Archives have closed. Officials no longer give interviews. In the age of Xi Jinping, the tools that a generation of “China hands” relied on to understand communist politics no longer shed light. This means that the West contests the future with a country we lack the means to understand.

But this is only half the problem. Xi’s New Era has elevated China policy from a niche concern managed by a small community of specialists to a centerpiece of national debate. Over the last six years, we have witnessed an influx of new voices in these discussions. Some of these newcomers come to China policy with a deep background in fields like finance, trade law, or military operations; others come to China policy as true generalists, having made their name as pundits or politicians. Most of these newcomers lack the language skills, advanced degrees, or in-country experience that distinguished the China hands of yore.

Established experts will always be tempted to respond to this influx with displeasure. It is frustrating to spend decades of one’s life building a fine-grained picture of a complex system only to be sidelined in favor of outsiders whose interest in the topic will last only as long as it is at the top of the White House’s agenda. Though understandable, this reaction is short-sighted. A narrow band of specialists can dominate the field without interference from policy generalists only when their chosen specialty is so niche that no one but themselves can muster any interest in it. China hands like myself made a career out of watching China because we believed that the intricacies of Chinese politics mattered not just for China, but for the rest of the world as well. Now, for the first time, we find that the rest of the world agrees with us. 

For countries like Australia or the United States, there is now an obvious China angle to every diplomatic initiative. China policy can no longer be the province of narrow expertise. Those impacted by China policy demand a say in its goals and execution—and they have gotten it. The challenge facing the China hands of the twenty-first century is to integrate these new entrants into existing debates. 

But that injunction leaves us with a puzzle. The obvious solution to the field’s methodological problems is to use the same sort of open-source textual analysis that defined China watching back in the days of the Cold War. But embracing the old tools of Pekingology threatens to make the field even less accessible to outsiders than it already is. Solutions to one problem seem to come at the expense of resolving the other.

* * *

To understand the value of textual analysis for understanding modern China, we must start with a basic reality of Chinese politics: commanding the Communist Party of China is hard. Central authorities must work their will through a sprawling bureaucratic labyrinth. Some 96 million people claim party membership—more than the populations of California, Texas, and Florida combined. Inducing this colossal mass of committees, groups, divisions, and departments to pull in the same direction is the most difficult task facing any General Secretary. One might call the Communist Party of China the world’s largest coordination problem. The central leadership cannot solve this problem without a measure of openness.

Open coordination comes by way of slogan. Central authorities lead the party by condensing their plans, goals, and assessments into slogans designed to ceaselessly cycle through official speeches, party directives, guiding regulations, and daily propaganda. Through this omnipresent whir of words, the leadership instills a shared conceptual vocabulary that individual party cadres can then adapt to their particular circumstances. A tremendous amount can be learned by studying these slogans and the documents that they appear in. Unlike interviews and field surveys, there is little worry that Western analysts will be cut off from these documents. Because they are central to the workings of the party-state, the party apparatus promotes them with feverish intensity. 

Yet drawing conclusions from these documents can be difficult. Simon Leys, one of the masters of the Cold War art of “Pekingology” once quipped that “reading Communist literature is akin to munching rhinoceros sausage, or to swallowing sawdust by the bucketful.” The sawdust eater: 

must know how to milk substance and meaning out of flaccid speeches, hollow slogans, and fanciful statistics… he must crack the code of the Communist political jargon and translate into ordinary speech this secret language full of symbols, riddles, cryptograms, hints, traps, dark allusions, and red herrings. Like wise old peasants who can forecast tomorrow’s weather by noting how deep the moles dig and how high the swallows fly, he must be able to decipher the premonitory signs of political storms and thaws, and know how to interpret a wide range of quaint warnings—sometimes the Supreme Leader takes a swim in the Yangtze River, or suddenly writes a new poem, or sponsors a ping-pong game: such events all have momentous implications.

To provide a contemporary example, consider a bit of phrasing uttered by General Secretary Xi Jinping last month that caused a stir within China watching circles but has yet to make much of an impact outside of them. The 20th Party Congress concluded three weeks ago. The primary purpose of a Party Congress is to confirm personnel changes in top leadership. But these meetings, convened once every five years, also have a coordinating function. At each congress, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China gives a long “Political Report” that summarizes the accomplishments of the previous five years and then makes programmatic statements intended to guide Chinese policymaking for the five years to come. In this context, Xi told the party membership the following:

The world has entered a new period of turbulence and change.


At home, we face many deep-seated problems regarding reform, development, and stability that cannot be avoided or bypassed. In our efforts to strengthen the Party, and especially to improve conduct, build integrity, and combat corruption, we are confronted with many stubborn and recurrent problems. External attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time.


Our country has entered a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising. 

At first glance there seems to be nothing especially significant about Xi’s proclamation that China has entered a “new period” where “strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent.” Yet the phrase has deep implications for China’s approach to the external world. Understanding these implications requires a brief tour of party history.

For many decades it has been the custom of party secretaries to formulate strategic directives on the basis of explicit assessments of the international environment China faces. Party members of Xi’s generation will remember Mao Zedong’s judgment that the international environment of his day was defined by the forces of “war and revolution.” From this judgment flowed many of China’s most important policies, including PRC aid to Maoist guerrilla revolutionaries abroad and the “third front” economic policy, which aimed to build industrial centers in deep inland China so that the Chinese industrial base might survive a new world war.

Deng Xiaoping had a more sanguine view of the world. He officially revised Mao’s judgment in a 1984 address where he declared that “we now think that although there is still the danger of war, the forces that can deter it are growing.… The two really great issues confronting the world today, issues of global strategic significance, are: first, peace, and second, economic development.” 

In party documents, Deng’s assessment was soon codified with the phrase “the theme of our times is peace and development.” By codifying this assessment into party dogma, the party’s central leadership signaled that economic modernization should take priority over military modernization, that economists deserved a seat inside party councils, and that joining existing international organizations, not fomenting world revolution, would bring greater returns to the Chinese people.

The first great challenge to the Dengist line came in 1999, shortly after the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. That summer the diplomatic and security apparatus of the People’s Republic formally debated whether aggressive American hegemony meant that the party needed to rethink its approach to diplomacy, defense, and development. The party eventually reaffirmed that, despite America’s armed interventions abroad, “peace and development are still the theme of our times.” China’s ascension to the WTO and the promise of a more cooperative relationship with America after 9/11 seemed to vindicate this judgment. At this point party leaders began including an additional sentence to their assessment of global trends: “for our country, the first two decades of the 21st century is a period of important strategic opportunity for development, which we must seize tightly.”

The new judgment implied a window for consolidating China’s national strength. It was up to party leaders to take advantage of globalization before this window closed. Their task was to integrate China into the world economy and invest the gains of the growth that would follow into modernizing their military power, scientific apparatus, and technological expertise. This assessment of the international scene, complete with language about “peace and development [as] the theme of the times,” was endorsed by three different General Secretaries in the four Party Congress reports issued between 2002 and 2017. This assessment was the starting point for both Chinese industrial strategy and international diplomacy over this entire period.

That period is officially over. Xi’s new phrasing intentionally echoes–and subverts–the old assessment. The ultimate meaning of the phrase “a period of development where strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent” will not be clear until the new line is fleshed out and operationalized by lower-level bureaucracies. But when juxtaposed against past formulations the significance of the term is clear: the party no longer believes that global economic integration is the theme of the times. 

This means that policy can no longer be predicated on a peaceful international environment; globalization’s low-hanging fruit has all been plucked. Yet if the period of strategic opportunity has ended, Xi has not pushed his party back to the Maoist formulations of revolution and war. Instead, he contrasts opportunities with “risk” and connects failed domestic reforms to political opposition abroad. Party policy on defense, diplomacy, and political economy must adjust to this new period, a period where threats to the party’s political legitimacy demand just as much attention as opportunities for economic growth.

* * *

Expositions like these could be delivered for a hundred different phrases used in the most recent Political Report. Terms like “period of strategic opportunity” are rarely defined explicitly in everyday language. Their meaning is discerned by juxtaposing official definitions against unofficial commentary by Chinese intellectuals and academics, carefully tracking which other slogans appear alongside them, contrasting how various parts of the party-state deploy them for their own purposes, and reading current terms in light of their historical predecessor and past use. 

This kind of analysis is too much to demand of most people engaged in debates over diplomacy and defense. This is not because parsing the tea leaves requires special genius. Quite the opposite: these directives are intended to guide the behavior of millions of party members, many of whom are neither especially learned nor particularly clever. In this sense, we might compare party-speak to the cloud of acronyms and doctrinal terms that burdens anyone working in the Pentagon. Though opaque to outsiders, these words must be conceptually simple enough to be operationalized by 20-year-old lieutenants. Understanding American defense jargon does not require brilliance, but it does require patience. The same is true for the jargon of the Communist Party of China–though in this case, patience must also be paired with historical knowledge and a working fluency in written Chinese. Most newcomers to China policy do not have either.

This is the challenge of wise China policy: how do we structure an information environment when our understanding of Chinese politics increasingly relies on textual analysis of stilted and opaque party directives, while still keeping policy debates accessible to researchers, businessmen, and opinion shapers who have never been nor will ever be trained to read the sources on which our analysis is based?

As a writer who covers Chinese politics for popular audiences, I have had a first-hand view of this problem. My work often boiled down to reading the steady flow of academic monographs and think tank reports published by Western China watchers, then condensing their ideas into more approachable 2,000-word pieces. Most of the research I have summarized was written with the expectation that only other China specialists would read it. But the conclusions these scholars reached have obvious relevance to the world beyond professional China watching. My role was to package these conclusions in a form accessible to those with little existing expertise in Chinese politics. 

The drawback of this method is that anyone who read one of my pieces was separated from the original sources by at least two intermediate layers of analysis: my writing was a gloss of other people’s research, which itself was a summary of multiple sources in Chinese. This way of doing things is no longer sufficient. To resolve debates over China policy, all participants need to read what the Chinese are saying in their own words. Wise China policy will not be made until the generalists are able to access the same sources as the specialists.

The Center for Strategic Translation is an answer to this problem. Our mission is to locate and translate speeches, essays, directives, and manuals distributed by party authorities, as well as less authoritative commentaries on these themes by Chinese academics and public intellectuals. We are not the only ones to take on this challenge. The teams behind DigiChina, CSIS Interpret, the China Aerospace Studies Institute, Reading the China Dream, and the Center for Security and Emerging Technology have all reached similar conclusions about the necessity for translation. With our translations we hope to join this august company.

However, we also believe that translation is not enough. To understand documents of historical or strategic value, readers must also understand the context in which these documents were produced, the biographies of their authors, and the authoritativeness of what is being translated. Readers must have a way to grasp the history and broader meanings of the slogans they encounter in their reading. Otherwise there is a risk that even in translation, the speeches, explainers, and directives issued by the Chinese party-state will only be accessible to the same narrow band of experts who could read these documents in their original language. 

To meet this challenge, we attach extensive footnotes and an introductory essay to every piece translated. They contextualize the document and highlight points of importance that might otherwise be lost in a storm of stilted jargon. Every piece is crosslinked with an official glossary whose entries summarize the history and meaning of slogans used in party speech. This glossary currently contains only the terms used in the first batch of translations. It will grow with each new document translated. In time, it will become a critical resource for experienced researchers and interested laymen alike.

This is our solution to balancing the field’s competing needs for methodological rigor and generalist accessibility. Policy must be built on a foundation of open-source analysis. That means making primary source documents accessible and understandable to the generalists who by necessity are involved in crafting China policy. 

Our first set of published translations centers on another slogan whose significance may not be grasped at first glance. For five years, Xi Jinping and other members of the party’s central leadership have declared that the world is undergoing “great changes unseen in a century.” This phrase is another assessment of the international order–in particular, the changing role of American hegemony in that order. 

In 2019, two Chinese think tanks hosted a panel to discuss the relevance of this concept to Chinese diplomacy and Sino-American relations. The discussion that followed was remarkably frank, wandering from Chinese assessments of Trumpism and social justice politics to Chinese predictions about the future of technological change over the next century. You can read an introduction to this round table and find translations of each of the roundtable’s six pieces on the CST website.

In the weeks to come, more material will be published on “great changes unseen in a century.” To follow our work and read these translations when they are published, you can subscribe to CST’s newsletter and Twitter feed

We have much more material in the works. CST will soon be publishing chapters from a textbook published by the National Security Commission of the Chinese Communist Party that outlines the threat that “color revolutions” pose to party rule, a contrasting set of intraparty regulations meant to guide the behaviors of party members in the Deng and Xi eras, studies that draw out the lessons Chinese have learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a series of Chinese language essays on the origins and history of Chinese cybernetics. These translations move us one step closer to the intellectual ecosystem the West needs to navigate its relationship with the People’s Republic of China.

Tanner Greer is the director of the Center for Strategic Translation and a correspondent for Palladium Magazine. His writing focuses on contemporary security issues in the Asia-Pacific and the military history of East and Southeast Asia.