A starter guide to Chinese open source data for non-Chinese speakers

Screenshot from France 24 English YouTube channel discussing China's influence in Zambia

By Niva Yau. Yau is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub. Her research work focuses on China-Central Asia relations and China's new overseas security management infrastructure and initiatives. 

The lack of access to data has long been a problem, primarily as a mental block, for members of civil society worldwide looking to work on China-related issues in their countries. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to establish a monopolizing, authoritative voice in all affairs of the People’s Republic of China (China). To reach this, they have set up various criteria preventing the growth of independent research and journalism — including excluding non-Chinese language speakers from being able to easily access information and content about the CCP.

But for members of civil society on the ground, not much Chinese language is actually needed for research as a starting point to identify activities of the PRC in their countries. This is true, particularly for certain areas of research, such as identifying and monitoring CCP entities and mapping elite capture and relations, which would require a higher level of knowledge of local affairs.

Being able to access at least some Chinese open-sourced data gives useful supplementary information to know what additional information and/or persons of interest to look for on the ground. This article will provide a brief walkthrough in how to identify and access this Chinese open-source data.

Identifying sources

As a start, install Google Translate in the browser of your choice for ease of full website translation. Note that even when websites have an English version, the Chinese version will almost always have more information. Depending on the countries you are researching from, be aware of cyber security risks and access safely Keep a running document with Chinese words of countries and persons of interest, this is important for pasting words back into the search engine, it should always be done in Chinese language.

One of the first documents you want to access when researching PRC activities in any given country is the Country (Region) Guidelines for Foreign Investment and Cooperation (对外投资合作国别(地区)指南). It’s a publication released annually by the trade section of each Chinese embassies worldwide, specifically written for Chinese business people looking to invest in other countries. Depending on the level of Chinese engagement with the country, the publication is usually between 80–150 pages long, providing the Chinese perspective of that country’s history, geography, resources, climate, demographics, politics, culture, language, religion, non-governmental organizations, domestic economics, and most useful of all, bilateral trade relations.

Because investments into strategic sectors, companies, and individuals lay at the very heart of the PRC's strategy to build influence in other countries, this data is key for identifying and monitoring CCP entities, mapping elite capture and relations, and understanding what kind of Chinese investments are already on the ground and/or on the way. The Embassy Guidelines often contain a rich section on bilateral trade relations containing information such as the past five years of Chinese statistics on export-import trade, two-way investment (including accumulative figures), contracted projects (such as those bids from international financial organizations), local banks in collaboration, and number of Chinese workers.

There are also valuable qualitative data in the Guideline where the Embassy communicates with the Chinese businesspersons about what local culture they should be aware of when starting investments in this country, sometimes including failed cases of engagement, warning of religious customs, and asking Chinese companies to always be mindful to establish a good image in this country. The Guidelines also include various appendixes of key information, such as a list of leading Chinese companies operating in the country, sometimes with contact information such as emails or phone numbers.


To access the Guidelines, go to the public service platform of the PRC Ministry of Commerce, translate the whole website, and find the country whose guidelines you would like to download. You will find the guidelines on the top of the box after you hold your cursor on the country name, it should look like this:

Screenshot of the Guidelines page for Asia

The downloaded guidelines will be in English. Google Translate provides a free service where a document can be uploaded, translated to a language of your choice, and re-download in that language.

The bottom of the box (see bellow) is the access point to the website run by the trade section of the Chinese Embassy in that country. It is another great resource, though the level of available information varies depending on the Embassy. Information also tends to get erased when Ambassadorship changes; thus, it often shows only content from the past few years.

The website mainly publishes trade-related content written by the trade section itself, press releases from Chinese companies working in that country, and local news articles which have been translated into Chinese. Those written by the trade section itself are often site visits that show the progress of investment projects on the ground, deals in discussion with local counterparts, meetings with delegations of Chinese companies in-country, and market research. Local news articles, on the other hand, are often not related to any Chinese companies but are indicative of what business trends the PRC is paying attention to in that country.

Another website, the website of the Chinese embassy itself, is another great resource to keep tabs on. Depending on the PRC Ambassador in residence, the Embassy website publishes a variety of press releases of various lengths highlighting the Embassy's activities. Tracking the meetings is one of the most useful datapoints when mapping CCP entities and elite relations on the ground. Looking at the local officials and leaders who the Ambassador regularly meets with, the local media outlets who are loyal to reporting writings by the Ambassador PRC positively, where the Embassy is donating to, even the Ambassador is attending… all of these are datapoints useful to local researchers who combines the information within the local context.

For example, in a 2015 press release, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek reported to have begun giving out “friendly journalism prizes” to local journalists who report on bilateral ties. Our follow-up local research has shown that at least one of the winners has gone on to receive a promotion at a popular newspaper soon after, a special role dedicated to editorial work concerning PRC affairs.

Last but not least, it’s important to remind ourselves that any type of open-sourced research takes time. With Chinese open-sourced research, it’s all about spending time digging through information and putting small pieces of information together to snowball into a story.

For more on China's presence and influence, check Global Voices special project and collection of stories: China's Belt and Road Initiative: Deal or steal? 

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