Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 12

By Harvey B. Stockwin


It is a remarkable fact that numerous observers of the Chinese scene, anxious to see progress even where there is little at hand, have hailed as a sign of Chinese “glasnost”–or political openness–a decision by Beijing to disclose information about a recent naval calamity. Yet considerable secrecy still surrounds the disaster that befell Submarine 361. The commander and political commissar of the Chinese Navy have been replaced; their counterparts in the North Sea Fleet have been demoted for “operational errors.” Eight other naval officers have likewise been dismissed or demoted. Despite this purge, no final or official explanation has yet emerged as to how all seventy seamen on board the sub died as a result of an unspecified accident.


The only addition to the terse eighty-one words of explanation issued on May 2 by Xinhua News Agency has been a June 13 announcement that the accident was caused by “improper direction of the vessel’s operations.” President Hu Jintao has stressed that the PLA Navy must increase its modernization efforts. But modernization within China does not yet include a meaningful degree of freedom of information.


That brief Xinhua report of May 2 revealed only that Submarine 361 was taking part in exercises in the Bohai Gulf when the seventy Chinese Navy sailors on board were killed in an accident caused by mechanical problems. The same report said that the submarine had been towed back to base.


This revelation hardly marked the arrival of glasnost. Leave aside the fact that no one in the Chinese Communist Party’s hierarchy is aiming to copy Mikhail Gorbachev and the reforms that brought down the Soviet Union. The foreign praise for this brief disclosure could only be justified on the patronizing grounds that, since China had previously said nothing, Beijing was now at least saying something. The Chinese had never before reported any military mishaps. Now, at least, they have done so.


For some foreigners, this may suggest progress. At best, however, it represents a very limited advance. The Chinese authorities could not simply ignore the accidental death of seventy servicemen, especially so soon after the twenty-two-week scandal during which they disregarded the looming SARS epidemic.


Ironically, China’s brief disclosure could, at worst, indicate another communist cover-up.


At first sight, the May 2 report seemed to be geared primarily at sending signals to foreign nations rather than to informing the Chinese people. It mentioned that the submarine was conventionally powered, indicating that there had been no accident involving a Chinese nuclear powered submarine. Similarly, the statement suggested that the disaster took place near the Chinese coast, signaling that this was a domestic accident and not an international incident.




Beyond this, the four paragraphs of the statement raised more questions than it answered.


First, the submarine was identified only by its number–361. It was left to foreign observers to identify the vessel as a Type 035 diesel-electric powered submarine, designated by NATO as MING-class. Normally, such submarines are believed to have a crew of fifty-seven, including ten officers. So why were seventy crew members on board the relatively small submarine?


Second, when precisely did the accident take place, and what was the submarine doing when things went wrong? Was the submarine observing radio silence at the time, as submarines often do during exercises?


Third, and most important: What actually happened? The terse explanation given for the June 12-13 purge of top officers reveals nothing on this score. What kind of disaster could have taken place that would kill everyone on board but still allowed the submarine to be towed back to port? The inference is that submarine number 361 did not sink, and did not have to be raised from the ocean bed. Yet if the disaster took place near the surface, why was it that no crew members were able to escape? What were the “mechanical problems” that brought about such a completely catastrophic result?


Fourth, why does China continue to build an obsolete class of submarines? The MING-class submarines are an indigenous Chinese development of the Soviet ROMEO-class submarines, which were first built in the 1950s and are themselves based on the Type 21 German U-boats produced in the later stages of World War II. ROMEOs were also produced in China. Approximately twenty submarines of the MING class have been built in China and are still being produced as replacements for the ROMEOs. The replacement SONG-class is just now beginning series production after more than a decade of troubled development.


The roughly fifty-five SONG, MING and ROMEO-class submarines in the Chinese Navy remain in service because they meet two of the PLA Navy’s strategic objectives. They help defend China’s coastal waters and they could be used to impose a naval blockade on Taiwan.


The basic puzzle centers on an apparent contradiction–that submarine 361 was towed back to base, and yet all seventy seamen on board were dead. The pro-communist Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Pao reported that there had been no explosion or flooding on board, and that all crew members had died from suffocation while still at their posts.


This raises the obvious question– what happened to the emergency breathing apparatus (EBA) with which submariners are usually equipped? What could possibly have happened that would suffocate seventy men at once and leave them no time to take any emergency action?


Two seemingly plausible explanations have been advanced. One is that the batteries which operate the submarines when they are submerged leaked acid, which, in turn, mixed with sea water to produce lethal chlorine gas. The trouble with this theory is that chlorine has a distinctive smell. There would have been time to utilize the EBA, and the submarine still could have made an emergency surface, where the hatches could have been opened.


The other problem with this theory is that crew members were apparently discovered “at their posts.” Chlorine gas produces great pain on contact with lung tissues, which would have produced signs of struggle. In addition, a leakage of battery acid would most likely have been the result of extreme maneuvering that might also have entailed additional damage to the ship.


The other explanation was offered by a “senior Chinese navy official” interviewed by the Boston Globe. Conventional submarines only run their diesel engines on the surface to charge the batteries that run the vessel when submerged. If the diesel engines malfunctioned by continuing to run when the submarine was diving, or when the submarine was surfacing, this would have deprived the interior of the ship of oxygen and suffocated the crew.


Yet would the oxygen loss have happened so quickly and so completely that the crew could not take remedial action? Couldn’t the crew have turned off the restarted engine before too much damage was done? Clearly, if this explanation is valid, then there must have been some other systemic failure that made any remedial action impossible.


There is a related possibility. The extra thirteen members of the crew could have been on board to test new equipment, such as the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system the Chinese are believed to be developing. Essentially, AIP would extend the range of the MINGs by enabling the submarines to use their diesel engines while still submerged. The premature test of AIP could have been one “operational error” for which heads are now rolling in the Chinese Navy.




As things stand, the Chinese communist system has once again operated in such a way as to promote blame over truth, concealment over glasnost, and to maintain public ignorance rather than to provide information. Until much more information is provided, there is no knowing whether the admirals and officers demoted and dismissed in the June 12-13 purge deserved their punishments or were merely the scapegoats for the incompetence of others–or for the normal inefficient workings of the system. Their punishments may indicate a welcome advance of accountability, but, in the continued absence of glasnost, we do not know enough to assert that this is so.


Evidently, a thirty-strong work team from the CCP’s Central Military Commission, led by CMC Vice Chairman Guo Boxiong, is continuing to investigate the accident. Its findings are likely to remain a well-protected state secret. The precise reasons for the death of submarine 361’s crew may never be known.


At one extreme, the seventy Chinese naval personnel may have suffered from the same managerial incompetence and mechanical inefficiency that has, for example, sent thousands of Chinese coal miners to their accidental deaths over the last decade. At another extreme, it is even possible that the official explanation so far provided is itself part of a cover-up. Frequently, submarine disasters result in a sudden sinking following an explosion, as was the case with the Russian submarine Kursk. Conceivably, that happened also on this occasion, although the authorities have skillfully pretended otherwise. The minute degree of Chinese “glasnost” available for submarine 361 cannot yet be taken at face value.


Harvey Stockwin has been reporting and analyzing Asian developments since 1955. Currently he broadcasts a weekly fifteen-minute talk “Reflections From Asia” for Radio Television Hong Kong. He also contributes to the Japan Times and is the East Asia correspondent of The Times of India.