Tanner Greer is director of the newly launched Center for Strategic Translation (CST). He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about CST’s mission to shed light on China’s government.
What is the Center for Strategic Translation?
The Center locates, translates, and annotates documents of strategic or historic value that currently only exist in Chinese. These translations can be read on our website. We also plan seminars that will teach China observers how to conduct open-source research on Chinese politics; these will not be ready until later next year.
Why is CST’s work needed right now?
In Xi Jinping’s China, outsiders are not allowed into most archives. Officials no longer grant interviews. Even getting visas to visit China is difficult. So China studies has been forced back to where it started—the analysis of speeches, regulations, official commentaries, and other documents produced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Our role is to make these materials accessible to Westerners who have a stake in China policy but who do not read Chinese. We do not take sides in debates between China doves and hawks but instead aim to elevate their debates by providing impartial translations of what the Chinese are saying to themselves. We pay special attention to providing reader aids (a cross-site glossary, introductory essays, and extensive footnotes) for those without a deep background in Chinese politics.
How do you locate these sources, and what are the selection criteria?
Our process is fairly informal. It is usually organized around a topic of interest. For example, the CCP is haunted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Xi describes his program as an attempt to avoid the same fate. But what lessons has the CCP drawn from the Soviet experience?
One may look to different sources to answer this question. We start with essays and commentary by academics and public intellectuals in China. Intellectuals with party affiliations but no formal position of power have more freedom to state their views plainly because they do not worry that other Chinese will confuse their personal views for party policy. We should not confuse them for policy, either—but if dozens of these academics return to the same themes, then you have found an intellectual consensus. To do this right, you need to read dozens of their essays. Eventually we will end up with somewhere between five to eight essays we believe are representative of the whole and then commission translations for them.
There is also an entire hierarchy of documents that CCP organizations have sealed with their official stamp of approval. Generally speaking, the more authoritative a document is, the more guarded its language. Most of the stuff at the very top of the hierarchy—documents promulgated at plenums and party congresses—are already translated into English by the CCP itself. But if you go down a level or two—speeches and essays written by members of the Politburo and published in official journals like Seeking Truth, editorials in newspapers like the PLA Daily, instructional materials for party schools, directives published by various party or state bureaucracies—then you have a wealth of fairly authoritative material that is not currently found in English.
Who is the intended audience for your translations and commentary?
China policy is too important to be left to the China hands. Some China watchers lament the huge upsurge of interest in Chinese politics because it means that they must deal with an influx of poorly informed opinions in a space that used to be the preserve of experts. I can sympathize with their feelings, but only so far. Policy can be determined by a narrow band of experts only when their topic of expertise does not matter enough for anyone else to care about it. That does not describe U.S.-China relations. China policy matters—and those affected by China policy will find a way to shape it, regardless of whether they speak the language. In our view, the job of the China-watching community is not to block these non-experts out from policy debates but to find a way to better integrate the non-experts into them.
Can you give an example of what we’ve learned from the Center’s work so far? Any insights on China’s present unrest, for instance?
Early this year, the National Security Commission of the Chinese Communist Party published a study guide on national security. This book—more than 100 pages—is intended to be read by CCP cadres across the system. Much like the role of doctrinal manuals in the U.S. military, publications like these are meant to strengthen coordination: by providing millions of people with a common conceptual vocabulary and a shared frame of reference, these publications aim at a consistent pattern of action across the entire party.
We will be publishing this manual’s chapter on “political security.” Political security refers to the security of the party regime and its unchallenged sovereign power. “Various hostile forces,” the manual warns, “have persistently sought to ferment a ‘color revolution’ within our state, vainly attempting to subvert the leadership of Chinese Communist Party and the institutional system of socialism in our state.” Western countries attempting to instigate color revolutions “begin their attacks . . . whipping up public opinion and hyping up narratives that condemn political and party institutions different from their own, [which] incites the masses and leads to street politics.”
All of this was written months before the protests began—and was studied intensively by party members across the country. This is the conceptual framework that party members will use to analyze what is happening to their country. It will shape how they respond.
There is a great deal more in this document than this passage (in English translation, it runs about 12 pages). Those interested in this and other translations can either sign up for our Substack or follow our Twitter feed.