Lost in Translation (2006)

U.S. government assessments of China's military prowess are sometimes based upon shaky sources
June 2006

China’s government is far less transparent than the United States government. Yet, while Americans often blame their lack of knowledge about China on secrecy and deception, a fair share of the fault lies with Americans themselves. Many of the people gathering the intelligence and producing the analysis that informs U.S. China policy are not proficient in the Chinese language. They have not spent an appreciable amount of time living in the country they are being asked to analyze, and therefore do not understand the culture well enough to evaluate Chinese sources. The Defense Department admits that language and cultural skills are not valued as core competencies.

In Lost in Translation, a report written for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we call attention to some of the consequences. We present evidence of poor selection, poor translation, misrepresentation and misinterpretation in the U.S. intelligence community’s handling of Chinese sources. And we caution policymakers and the public that they need to be aware that some of the assessments they read on Chinese military capabilities and intentions may be inaccurate and unreliable.