It is literally translated as ”black-box operation(s)”.

It refers to actions within an organization which are not transparent to the general public or the “masses” within the organization, which consequently result in bad things happening. It is a metaphor of the black box, where one knows the input and the output, but doesn’t know the underlying process/transformation that occurred to change the input into the output.

Is there an idiom in English that encapsulates the same idea?

  • Here I thought "black box" is a phrase borrowed from English, and not a traditional Chinese expression. Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 7:33
  • It’s relatively new, isn’t it?
    – Axel Tong
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 7:35
  • If I asked for a English idiom which contained most of the meaning in “catch 22 situation”, then I would probably end up with “choosing between a rock and a hard place”. I wish to know if there are older expressions which mean the same thing.
    – Axel Tong
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 7:37

2 Answers 2


Usually, "black box" refers to either a "black-box flight recorder", or some hidden component of a system: it has certain inputs and outputs, but an unknown internal function.

As Tang Ho mentions, "black-box operations" is understandable, but I don't think it's common to use it to describe an operation by an organization. It'd more commonly arise in a sentence such as:

It's best to think of that organization as a "black box", not really knowing what they do there, otherwise we'd have to take action against their suspicious practices.

"Black-box" does not always carry a connotation of "bad things happening", just that the underlying operation is hidden, e.g. perhaps for simplicity, security, or privacy.

Instead, these would be better described as

  • "shady operations",
  • "undercover operations",
  • "secret operations",
  • "covert operations", or
  • "clandestine operations".
  • What does “black-hat” refer to?
    – Axel Tong
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 10:47
  • Actually, maybe black-hat isn't the best here; it generally refers to hacking. (If I were to choose one, it'd definitely be "shady operations" ["concealed" in a "negative" way].)
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 10:49
  • I thought in english we can use "under the table"?
    – sylvia
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 6:03
  • Oh yeah, that’s a good one (:
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 6:04

The term "黑箱" was a direct translation of a science term "Black box" from English

"Black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs (or transfer characteristics), without any knowledge of its internal workings.


Almost anything might be referred to as a black box: a transistor, an engine, an algorithm, the human brain, an institution or government.

黑箱作业 in English should be ”black-box operation(s)” . (you can see what goes in and what comes out, but you never how the system works). Presuming the English speaker knows what is a 'black box'

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