Beijing’s move to rein in discussion of military affairs on social media will hurt the world’s understanding of its defence aerospace development.
News of the apparent crackdown was floated on a Weibo account associated with the official newspaper of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), the PLA Daily.
“If you love national defence, you need to establish a sense of confidentiality,” it admonished military enthusiasts.
“Whether it is intentional or unintentional, leaking classified information on the internet will do harm to the country and potentially lead to prison terms.”
A follow-up story in the nationalistic Global Times was equally blunt, warning Chinese military enthusiasts “not to become tools of overseas intelligence agencies and leak classified information on the PLA.”
It cited the case of a “weapon” that had yet to enter service appearing on social media. It claimed that its appearance offered foreign intelligence agencies an easy coup.
It added that “several accounts” covering military affairs have been suspended in recent days, including one with four million followers.
Over the last decade, western observers have learned of – and followed – Chinese aircraft programmes largely through local social media platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, and other Chinese-language blogs.
Amid official silence, the world received intriguing glimpses of programmes such as the Chengdu J-20 fighter, Xian H-6 strategic bomber, Y-20 strategic transport, and others.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, enthusiasts used a window in Dalian’s Ikea store to photograph the conversion of the former Soviet Union vessel Varyag into China’s first aircraft carrier, the CNS Liaoning. Photographers hanging around a Chengdu airfield provided rich coverage of the J-20’s early test campaign – this at a time when Beijing had yet to acknowledge the type’s existence.
A more recent revelation occurred in October 2020, when a video appeared on Chinese social media showing the latest iteration of the H-6 bomber, the H-6N, carrying what appeared to be an air-launched ballistic missile under its centerline. This helped confirm views that a concavity under the jet’s fuselage was designed to accommodate a missile.
In addition to major sightings, Chinese social media has also been a source of less dramatic news, such as upgraded sensors or changes to specific weapons.
Given the Chinese Communist Party’s mission to control all information in the country, it is not exactly shocking that it would seek to curtail the military enthusiasts space. Indeed, it is likely that self-censorship is already widespread among enthusiasts.
While outlets such as the Global Times, China Daily, CGTN, and Xinhua can be guaranteed to trot out officially mandated stories, they offer little nuance about the development about specific capabilities of aircraft and systems.
Watching China’s military aerospace sector was never easy. Beijing now wants to make it even harder.