Jeffrey LewisYesin on China’s Nukes

Phil Karber has placed another story, this time directly associating himself with the discredited claim that China has 3,000 nuclear weapons.  Karber found an essay by General Viktor Yesin (in Russian), a former commander of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, and placed it in the Falun Gong-run Epoch Times.

Yesin’s essay is full of errors, so let’s start with the easy one.  Yesin claims China is producing fissionable material at a place called Koko Nor.  Above is a picture of me (younger, thinner), at the facility in Koko Nor, which was closed in the mid-1980s. It ain’t producing nuclear weapons.

China moved the nuclear activities at Koko Nor — which were related to design and fabrication — to a place called Mianyang.  This is a picture of me (older, fatter), with the much-maligned “UCS-crowd” visiting Mianyang.  I keep saying it over and over again.  A real scholar would get on an airplane and do some fucking research. More comments after the photo and jump.

Speaking of airplanes, General Yesin’s exaggerated views of China’s nuclear forces are well-known.  He presented a similar paper at a small meeting I attended in Switzerland in 2009, which received some attention in the Washington Post when the East-West Institute published the rapporteur’s report.  I actually blogged about the subject, although I did not mention General Yesin by name as the meeting occurred under the Chatham House rule. Given that he is openly publishing these statements now, I see no reason to obscure his identity.  (His name is transliterated as Esin in the EWI paper.)  Several colleagues wrote in to share their own assessments of General Yesin –“idiot” and “well-known nutty commodity” were two comments — while an equal number wrote in to describe him “very solid, sober, reasonable, serious, and scientifically objective.” What to make of those very different interactions, I don’t know.

In my limited experiences, he’s been right out of central casting. This may be a case of “garbage in, garbage out” that tells us more about Russian views of China than anything about General Yesin. General Yesin’s views are, I would note, typical of those circulating within Russia, where alarmist estimates of American and Chinese military capabilities are the norm.  As I noted in 2009:

I presume readers are familiar with the phenomenon of extreme assessments of foreign nuclear programs by Russian observers. I was very recently at a meeting where one colleague noted dryly, “It is wrong to stereotype entire countries, but if it weren’t wrong, we would say the Russians are paranoid.”

Yesin is, on balance, probably a positive voice for stability in US-Russia relations. One of my concerns about Phil Karber’s baseless claims is that not that he will distort US policymaking, but that false information will deepen the already considerable Russian paranoia that has led them to retain three to five thousand tactical nuclear weapons.  Karber’s efforts to gain attention for himself have a real cost — he may say he is in favor of arms control measures, but by spinning up the Russians he ensures efforts to reduce the Russian stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons go nowhere.

Second, Yesin has apparently claimed these are official figures, but in fact they are most likely derived from the same bizarre Usenet post that Karber relies on. (I will refer to it as the “Yang Zheng” essay — although you can read all about it here and here.) At the very least, many statements are factually inaccurate.  For example, Yesin appears to identify “Baotou” as a source of fissile material–“Они находятся в Баотоу (автономный район Внутренняя Монголия), Кукунор (провинция Цинхай), Ланьчжоу и Юймынь (оба в провинции Ганьсу).”– a mistake the United States made in the 1960s and that was repeated in the online post that is the source of all this nonsense.  In fact, Baotou’s primary mission was to fabricate fuel rods for China’s plutonium production reactors.  As far as I can tell, all of these claims, from Karber to Yesin, still seem to trace back to the same Usenet post; this is simply an exercise in laundering bad data.

Yesin also claims that a site at Koko Nor (Кукунор) remains active — in fact, China closed the site in the mid-1980s. As I noted, I visited Koko Nor in 2005 and took lots of pictures.

Karber should get on an airplane and do some research! Citing Yesin is not research. It is just hearsay — a real scholar would visit the place that Yesin claims is an active nuclear weapons facility. He would see with his own two eyes that it has not been active for a very long time, just as Gregory Kulacki tracked down the original Hong Kong publication that was misquoted in the Usenet posting.

Third, Rick Fisher claims that “Gen. Yesin has dropped a nuclear bomb on the hubris of the American arms control community.” I should add that Fisher himself cited the bogus Yang Zheng essay directly — not once but twice.  He’s hardly a paragon of judgment. I usually avoid taking pot-shots at Fisher because, despite all my objections to his work, at least he’s not lazy. He actually visits China. But since he doesn’t feel like playing nice today, let’s not let it go unremarked that he was one of “Yang Zheng’s” original suckers.

If Karber isn’t interested in doing actual research himself, he could also ask others before going public. Here is what Karber did not do when he found Yesin’s essay — he didn’t forward it to colleagues for comment and analysis.  He tried to keep it a secret (as though the rest of us don’t have friends who read Russian) and then tried to surprise the Administration with a press story.  That’s not research, it’s advocacy. The fact that Karber doesn’t consult with his colleagues suggests that he is more concerned with the headline than the real answer. The only comfort that I draw from any of this is that Karber is down to the Epoch Times as a venue for his bullshit.



  1. Steve (History)

    Looks like it also got picked up by the Taipei Times as well.
    I used to work with a media expert who said the best time to try and release a bad story you wanted to get traction was on Thursday. Reporters are as lazy as the rest of us and look for an easy story to file on Friday so they can clock out early.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I can totally see that. I won’t lie: I was hating the fact that I was sitting at SFO thinking about Phil Karber instead of my flight Paris.

      Actually, I am now kinda hating the fact that I am sitting in Paris thinking about Phil Karber. Ok, time for a glass of wine. It’s got to be 5 o’clock someplace between here and the international dateline.

  2. Matthew Robertson (History)

    Dear Jeffrey and Jeffrey’s readers,

    I heard about the Yesin report and picked up a copy of the paper at an event on the Hill ( Neither Karber nor anyone else solicited me to report on it. I had previously spent some time becoming familiar with Karber’s work and the responses to it, and therefore the debate surrounding China’s nuclear strategy (and wrote the article here: – note that journalists don’t often write their own headlines). I understood Yesin’s perspective to be a ‘new development’ in the discussion, so to speak, and I thought it worthy of being reported. The newness of the claims coupled with the identity of the person making them seemed to me newsworthy.

    I sought out both perspectives for the article I wrote, and represented them in the piece. I am not sure what professional malpractice I am being accused of, if any. I think Lewis’s deprecatory remarks about the publication I work for are gratuitous and unfair.

    On one factual point: Yesin does not state that the Koko Nor site remains active. He identified it as a site of fissile material production, but did not indicate that it was currently producing fissile material.

    I’m obviously not an expert in this debate and do not seek to be. I write about things that strike me as interesting, and seek to do so as fairly, accurately, and as completely as possible. I don’t have an opinion on whether Yesin’s estimates are likely true or nonsense. That he published them was to me newsworthy, and I sought out people in the field to provide comment.


    • Jeffrey (History)

      I don’t think you are being accused of professional malpractice. Stephen Hayes was commenting on the tendency of papers, in this case the Taipei Times, to run follow-on stories on Friday. At least that is how I understood it. I avoided griping about the story itself, since as a reporter working under word limits you simply can’t make everyone happy.

      I suppose the comment about the Epoch Times was gratuitous. I apologize for that. But I have no doubt Karber would have preferred that Yesin’s piece run in a higher circulation publication that does not have such a distinct editorial bent. As a side note: is it insulting to point out that Epoch Times is associated with the Falun Gong?

      Finally, I also apologize for stating that Karber provided you with the Yesin piece — that was the impression I got in our conversation. I have to take your word for it, but I am very surprised. How did you find Yesin’s article?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Let me add that Karber released a somewhat professional translation of Yesin’s article within about 24 hours of your story appearing — he was clearly prepared and his efforts suggest a coordinated press-rollout. (It might have been 36 hours; I am traveling.) I am willing to accept your word that this is just a coincidence, but you must admit it is surprising.

      On the factual point, both Karber’s translation and the translaton I am using, clearly describe Koko Nor as an active facility engaged in the production of nuclear weapons. Perhaps Russian speakers will find Yesin’s original article more subtle.

    • Pavel (History)

      You can always rely on Russian generals when you need a bold and totally unsubstantiated statement…

      The original Russian text lists all the facilities as current. It doesn’t say so explicitly, but I don’t see how one can get an impression that some of them (like Koko Nor) are not active.

      Speaking of the original, Yesin doesn’t quite say that Baotou is a fissile material production site – he lists it as part of “a group of facilities that are involved in the production of special fissile materials and components of nuclear warheads […]” “Involved in the production,” of course, could mean anything.

      I don’t think, however, that Yesin’s piece should be pored over in search of a hidden meaning. He is coming from the Soviet culture where nobody really expects official statements to reflect the reality. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s always safe to assume they don’t, unless there is some additional evidence that says otherwise. There is no such evidence in this case.

      For those who want to look at the most recent estimate of China’s fissile material stock – 16 tonnes of HEU and 1.8 tonnes of weapon-grade Pu – it’s in Chapter 7 of the IPFM 2010 annual report

    • stephen (History)

      Matthew I also would like to say that I was in no way implying maleficence on your part. Also, in fairness my media expert coworker was talking about TV journalists, specifically local news journalists, whose deadlines are set to local news times. I do assume however, that like all god-fearing Americans print journalists enjoy getting off early on Friday.

  3. Juuso (History)

    Has there been any information how much DF-31A’s warhead/reentry package weights?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      470 kg, last I heard.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Then-NAIC estimated 470 kg in 1996 (at the end of testing). That is more or less consistent with later statements about the number of DF-31 RVs that might arm a MRV’d DF-5A. See: (Note: contains security classification markings.)

  4. Juuso (History)

    How large yield you think that DF-31 warhead has? FAS says 300kt and nuclearweaponarchive says this:

    ” Overall, the yields since 1990 have suggested that two warheads have been in development: one in the 100-300 kt range, and one in the 600-700 kt range.”

    There is also plenty of sites what say that DF-31 carries 1 Mt warhead, but I would assume that’s probably false information.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The interesting question here is whether Chinese labbies were scaling the tests. The yields of the last test series averaged 90 kt (with a 95 percent confidence interval stretching up to about 150 kt).

      90 kt is about what one would aim for to stay within the Threshold Test Ban Treaty limit of 150 kt. Why would the Chinese do that? One possibility is not that they were trying to honor the treaty, but rather they were replicating US and Soviet practice of testing 500 kt-ish warheads at yields below 150 kt. Some of my conversations in China would seem to imply scaling, although no one said so directly.

      It’s possible that the yield is really “only” 100 kt, but John Lewis and Xue Litai (as well as John Lewis and Hua Di) indicated a design goal of about 500 kt. Given that this is both technically feasible and consistent with a few cryptic comments, I’d judge it more likely than not that the tests were scaled and the actual yields are closer to 500 kt than 100 kt. I discuss this a bit on pp 90-96 of my book.

      Still, its an interesting and open question about the precise yield. Let’s hope we never find out for sure!

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