The Case of the Chinese Aircraft Carrier Spy
Ship designer Sun Bo reportedly met with foreign agents and shared military secrets. How damaging that intel might be is unclear, but the case is a huge embarrassment for Beijing.
The man who oversaw the construction of China's first two aircraft carriers is on trial in Shanghai for corruption and also, according to press reports, for passing along information to foreign agents.
The charges brought against Sun Bo are part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-corruption campaign, and if Sun really did give up naval secrets, then the Chinese fleet's most recognizable warship, and the shipyard that built it, are compromised.
Clearly their reputations are compromised.
Sun, an engineer and naval architect by training, spent decades working for the government-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, located in Dalian in northern China. Sun, who was born in 1961, steadily climbed the CSIC's corporate ladder while rising in rank in the Chinese Communist Party.
His downfall was swift. In June 2018, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Communist Party's anti-corruption agency, announced Sun's arrest. Sun "is suspected of serious violations of the law," declared the commission. "As a senior cadre and responsible leader of a state-owned enterprise, Sun Bo has abused his authority and was disloyal to the Communist Party.”
The commission didn't specify exactly which crimes Sun allegedly committed. State media claimed Sun "abused his power in the course of executing the company’s business activities and the state suffered huge losses as a result."
CSIC, one of China's 10 biggest shipyards, rocketed past its competitors in the early 2000s when Beijing tapped it to rebuild an old aircraft carrier that the Chinese government had bought from Ukraine under the pretense of modifying the vessel into a floating casino.
The Chinese navy commissioned the carrier, renamed Liaoning, in 2012. Meanwhile CSIC was hard at work on a second carrier, a copy of Liaoning that could be commissioned some time in 2019. A third, larger carrier is under construction at a separate shipyard in Shanghai.
Following Sun's arrest last summer, Chinese Communist Party authorities quickly stripped him of his Party membership and remanded him to the judiciary for prosecution. In China, the Communist Party is a sort of parallel government whose inner workings are closely-held secrets, but whose authority is absolute. The court in Shanghai officially charged Sun with corruption and abuse of power, state media announced on Feb. 1.
The South China Morning Post, a largely independent newspaper based in Hong Kong, cited unnamed sources claiming Sun also stands accused of meeting with foreign agents and passing along military secrets. The nationality of the alleged agents and the nature of the secrets is unclear.
Kaiser Kuo, a writer, podcaster and expert on China, told The Daily Beast that Xi's anti-corruption campaign since 2012 has led to the arrest and expulsion of 110,000 of the Communist Party's roughly 90 million members. But the military appears largely to have dodged Xi's graft-busting campaign for the most part. Fewer than a fifth of major corruption cases involved military officials, M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Daily Beast.
(There are notable exceptions. In 2007, an admiral named Wang Shouye got caught embezzling $25 million in military funds and receiving kickbacks from contractors. In 2014, Xu Caihou, a retired general, was arrested for literally selling high military ranks to top bidders. Xu died of cancer before he could go on trial.)
Xi tends to direct his anti-corruption campaign at his political enemies while sparing his allies. "We see in our data that anyone who had any connection to Xi Jinping did not get arrested," Peter Lorentzen, a China expert at the University of San Francisco, told The Daily Beast.
Top officials in the military and military industries close to the Chinese president may have a level of protection from the corruption crackdown not least because military modernization is one of Xi's top priorities.
Bu nothing is going to save Sun if he is convicted of giving up Liaoning's secrets. "This one's really huge — it's the aircraft carrier!" says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China expert at the University of California Irvine.
Liaoning and her sister ship not only are China's largest warships and only aircraft carriers, they're subjects of widespread public celebration.
Liaoning's commissioning signaled China's ascent as a world power, even inspiring a meme wherein everyday Chinese photographed themselves copying the gestures of the carrier deck crews— "shooters," they're called — who oversee a carrier plane's launch.
The "shootering" meme "encapsulates Chinese aspirations for national success, reaching world standards and achieving the recognition that has long eluded China," naval experts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
It's one thing for a Chinese shipyard boss to pocket a few bribes. It's quite another for him to betray China's most important naval project. Fravel said Sun's arrest could serve as an object lesson and "induce more caution" in other executives in China's military industries.
But even if Sun did give foreign agents classified information about Liaoning, it's unclear whether the info will make much of a difference in the naval balance of power.
Although Liaoning is China's first carrier, as a rebuilt ex-Ukrainian ship dating from the Cold War, it's not actually new. It's small compared to the U.S. Navy's own 11 flattops and lacks sophisticated sensors and computer networks as well as catapults for launching heavy warplanes.
Moreover, its engines are inefficient and unreliable and, according to Erickson, could limit the ship to a top speed of just 20 knots, compared to the 30 knots that American carriers can achieve.
Even with recent upgrades to Liaoning, the Chinese navy still considers the ship to be a training vessel, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency noted in a January report. Unlike most other Chinese warships, Liaoning doesn't belong to any of the navy's regional fleet headquarters, meaning it might not have a specific war-time mission.
But as Sun goes to trial, Liaoning's practical military utility — and the actual damage Sun allegedly inflicted by mismanaging the ship's reconstruction or, worse, giving up its secrets — might matter less than the embarrassment Sun allegedly caused Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.
"Beijing considers the Liaoning a symbol of China’s great-power status," Erickson wrote. Sun could become a symbol of the lengths Beijing will go to to protect the reputations of the ship and the shipyard that built it.