Thursday, October 23, 2014

A recent CV-16 article and trouble with interpreting Chinese sources

There was a recent entry on War is boring which later got published on business insider talking about trouble that China is having with engine compartment of CV-16 in recent sea trials. As usual, such articles created a lot of debates on Chinese military forums.

Now, I have actually watched the original CCTV news report that this story is based on. It mentioned that CV-16 has just completed 6 months of maintenance and overhaul at Dalian shipyard before going out to sea again. The report focused on the electrical department of CV-16. Traditionally, it has been customary of Chinese news reports to interview naval personnel, talk about one challenge they had to deal with to give audience an idea of the challenges facing these sailors and then emphasize how their great works saved the ship or mission. These kind of new reports are common and are tools used to foster patriotism in the population. So in this particular praise, this news report was trying to praise the works of the electrical department of CV-16 and give the impression to Chinese population that the Chinese navy is making great progress with its historical mission. In reality, any real life and death scenario would probably be considered confidential and never reported on Chinese news.

Back to the war is boring article, it appears to me the author does not understand the context of such news report. He summarized that China is having a lot of problems with CV-16 and especially with its engines. What we do know is that Chinese navy is at its infancy when it comes to naval aviation and working hard to improve capabilities. We also know that while CV-16 has spent a lot of times at shipyard, it has also spent a lot of times in the ocean. Currently, it has been out on sea trials for 50 days after 6 months at shipyard. Even the most competent navy USN could have engine problems on a long deployment, because complex machines like the naval propulsion systems do breakdown. So it is completely expected that CV-16 would suffer breakdowns on various subsystems while on sea trials or deployment. We know that the problem was identified and fixed quickly without delaying take off/landing training of that day. That tells us the mishap was not major. The original news report was trying to show the head of electrical department is good at identifying problems in his department and working to fix them while at sea. These are all good signs for Chinese navy going forward. That is not a surprise, since these reports are meant as positive propaganda for the population. The irony of this story is that real problems with CV-16 power plant would never get reported on CCTV.

So I think this shows that a lot of experience and cultural knowledge is needed to decipher Chinese military news. Since PLA is still lacking transparency compared to most military around the world and most of their articles are in Chinese, English articles talking about news reports coming out of China often lacks understanding and context of the original article. Depending on the bias of the author, we could get different interpretation which could either sound fear mongering or overly dismissive. Real honest truth about problems facing Chinese navy is not easy to find in the midst of their modernization and building boom. One can decipher problems facing certain programs from delays in construction and commissioning. One can also decipher problems based on the subsystems used on certain ships. And finally, some insiders are candid on Chinese forums about the issues facing Chinese navy. Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese navy does not have unlimited budget. A lot of its decisions are financially related just like they are for USN.


JB said...

To be fair, a lot of your assumptions seem to rely on the assumption that the author is biased against China. Admittedly that could be an correct assumption based on sections like this

"But the 53,000-ton, 999-foot-long carrier could be dangerous to her crew and prone to engine failures. If so, that makes the vessel as much of a liability as an asset to Beijing."

But overall the article seems to be trying to report facts, not attack the PLA Navy. It mentions the incident then explains that it was resolved loss of life or major problem. The author is also not denying that things can happen to US ships, and mentions that this is why things like oversea bases are useful.

Overall I think you are correct that it is impt to have experience and background knowledge on the subject, especially when dealing with an organization like the PLA, but I don't think that it is fair or accurate to accuse an author of fear-mongering or lacking such knowledge just because they said that these types of failures could prove costly and are something to watch for.

Feng said...

Actually, that's not my point at all. My point is that without experience on the subject, a new story originally developed for PLA propoganda can be interpreted as PLAN failure.

Rick Joe said...

Feng, it might have been worth directly translating some of the articles or news reports word by word to show why the War is Boring article emphasized some of the points a little excessively. Certainly it wasn't an "explosion" so much as just a malfunction, and I don't believe the ship shut down either.

Honestly this case is not as bad as the problem a few months ago when western media quoted an english cctv (or was it xinhua) report supposedly saying pilots from liaoning had died during tests, when in reality, the original chinese version of the article makes it quite clear that the pilots from the specific test squadron had died and that this test squadron contributed to the carrier aviation programme (among other many missions not related to the carrier).

The problem is not one of bias, but of an inability to understand the original Chinese language source.

Feng said...

I'm not attacking this article, but the general problem where lack of understanding by most Western writers lead to wrong conclusions.

Christian Brotherhood said...

Word is Boring often uses eye-catching headlines to grab people's attention. The David guy once called Liaoning a " a piece of junk."

Jack z said...

Why do you even bother? I for one have never see any real reporting about China in the "free media" since... oh you know.. the beginning of time.

China is either the big bad bully on the imminent warpath to conquer all of Asia, or China is on the verge of imminent revolution since you know... they lack FREEDOM and DEMOCRACY and all that other crap that Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya lacks, and of course, any time you get a news about China's GDP goes from 7.5% to 7.3% it must mean the much predicted imminent economic collapse will happen tomorrow... bla bla bla....

Please don't ever write another article like this to stoop down to their level.