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Misattribution and Exaggeration Mar Reporting on Chinese Missile Test

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China is reported to have conducted a missile test during the latter part of July. Chinese missile tests are a relatively common occurrence and are routinely covered in the Chinese press. I wrote about one such test several months ago, noting China's first female missile brigade conducted it. As with many Chinese missile tests, it was a training exercise, not a test of a new Chinese missile. Most go unnoticed by the U.S. press.

The late July test, however, attracted extraordinary media attention. Bill Gertz, a U.S. reporter, claimed it was a test of a new Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The claim appeared in an article published in the Washington Free Beacon on August 15. Gertz also claimed this new Chinese ICBM could carry ten nuclear warheads to targets in the United States. Jane's Defence Weekly repeated Gertz's claims in its August 22 edition. The claims about the missile were repeated a third time in a series of articles published shortly afterwards by the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper.

On August 24, New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher penned an article presenting Gertz's claims about the new Chinese ICBM, as reported in the Global Times, as matters of fact and mistakenly attributed them to the Chinese government. Four days later a Central Chinese Television's (CCTV) English language news broadcast repeated the misattributed claims contained in the New York Times article. CCTV compounded this comedy of errors by talking about the alleged ICBM while displaying an image of a short-range Chinese ballistic missile test published by a People's Liberation Army (PLA) newspaper the day before.

Within a week, the unsubstantiated claims of a single U.S. reporter were being presented in newspapers across the United States and around the world as an official Chinese announcement that they were developing a new ICBM that could carry multiple warheads.

The chain of exaggeration and misreporting may never have started if Jane's Defence Weekly had examined the origin and credibility of Gertz's claims. In the opening paragraph of his report Gertz insinuates but does not state clearly that U.S. officials told him the allegedly tested missile is a new Chinese ICBM. Several paragraphs later he admits the Pentagon declined to comment on the test.

Moreover, all of the information on China's supposed new ICBM that appears in the Gertz report appears to come from unofficial U.S. analysts known to have made similar claims about Chinese nuclear capabilities in the past. Gertz presents no evidence that a new missile was tested, and no evidence that China is developing a new Chinese ICBM with the capability to carry multiple nuclear warheads.

China's Global Times properly attributed the claims about the test of a new Chinese ICBM to the Gertz report and Jane's Defence Weekly. The Chinese newspaper interviewed several Chinese military experts in an effort to evaluate and comment on these claims. None of the Chinese experts quoted in the Global Times gave credence to the claims that China tested a new ICBM or that this ICBM could carry multiple warheads. One quoted expert, identified as a researcher with ties to China's strategic missile forces, told the Global Times that while the China was considering developing such a missile, it was still in the "research phase".

Researching a new ICBM is distinct from developing one, much less testing one. Nevertheless, on August 24 Keith Bradsher published the following statement in the New York Times:

"The Global Times, a newspaper directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, reported Wednesday that China was developing the capability to put multiple warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs."

Mr. Bradsher's language, especially the phrase noting that the Global Times is "directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party," strongly suggests that the report China was developing a new ICBM capable of carrying multiple warheads was a statement of fact authorized by the Chinese government.

The stories on the test published by the Global Times clearly state the claims about the test and the missile came from foreign, not Chinese sources.

Interestingly, the Global Times articles included statements contradicting other claims made by Gertz and repeated by Jane's Defence Weekly, particularly the claim that the alleged ICBM test demonstrated China intends to dramatically expand the size of its nuclear arsenal and acquire a first strike capability against the United States. Peng Guangqian, a former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Science who holds the military rank of a general, told the Global Times that China "would not expand the scale" of its nuclear arsenal and that any new missiles would be replacements for the current generation. PLA Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, told the Global Times that nuclear weapons "have no real use in actual war fighting," suggesting spending on nuclear weapons was ill-advised because it would divert funds from China's conventional military modernization. Wei Guoan, the Chinese expert who said the new ICBM is still in the research phase, also told the Chinese newspaper, "China's pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons would not change."

China's nuclear posture is shrouded in secrecy and is difficult to discern, even by Chinese academic and military experts. Chinese authorities consistently refuse to discuss the size and capabilities of China's nuclear arsenal despite constant international demands for greater transparency. Reliable information on China's nuclear arsenal is, therefore, very difficult to find.

Perhaps this is why many U.S. analysts and reporters seize upon any information that seems to provide some insight into China's nuclear weapons programs. In the rush to publish something new, they often lose important details and caveats. Worse still, they don't take the time to identify or examine the credibility of the source. What can result, as it did in this case, is the global dissemination and reinforcement of incorrect information on a topic international importance.