The disgraced deputy head of the state-owned firm developing China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier may face the death penalty over his alleged involvement in passing its secrets to foreign intelligence agents.
Sun Bo, former general manager of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), has already been found guilty by the country’s anti-corruption watchdog of taking bribes, but at least three sources familiar with the issue have said investigators were looking into allegations that he had passed on confidential information about the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier.
It is unclear what level of confidential information about the Liaoning Sun may have given to foreign intelligence agents, but the sources said he “could even face the death penalty” or “at least a suspended death sentence”.
One source close to the carrier project said: “It depends on the importance of the information Sun passed to the foreign agents.
“If it was highly confidential, then a death penalty is waiting for him.”
Another source close to the Chinese navy said the Beijing leadership may want to use Sun’s case as a “warning” to other senior officials amid President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which has snared more than 1.3 million party officials at various levels of government.
“Sun was not only the deputy party head of the state-owned CSIC, but also the general manager with comprehensive shipbuilding expertise. He was in charge of the shipbuilding company’s aircraft carrier projects for more than a decade,” the naval source said.
“Sun is very likely to face the death penalty because he was the core manager taking care of the Liaoning refitting project.”
China bought the Liaoning – an unfinished Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier originally designed for the former Soviet navy – from Ukraine in 1998, and CSIC spent a decade refitting the vessel before it was commissioned in 2012.
A statement issued by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China’s top corruption buster, made no mention of the Liaoning project.
Instead, it said investigators had wrapped up their investigation of Sun, and the party leadership had approved his expulsion from the Communist Party and sacking for alleged “serious violations of party discipline and causing great damage to the national interest”.
But official statements posted on the CCDI and CSIC websites indicated that Sun’s downfall may be related to the Liaoning project.
One of the statements said the CCDI had sent an inspection team to the shipbuilder on March 6 for a month-long “unexpected and comprehensive investigation” targeting Sun.
A second statement said that on June 10, Chen Ruiping, a member of the CCDI inspection team, returned to the corporation and conveyed “four instructions” to the top management from the Beijing party leadership.
The instructions were based on the results of the previous investigation into Sun, the statement said. They demanded CSIC top management strengthen its political awareness, and step up efforts to maintain “security and confidentiality” when building the country’s “cutting-edge weapons”, which are part of China’s goal to establish “a strong army”.
The phrase “cutting edge weapons” has been used to refer to Beijing’s aircraft carrier project as Xi pushes for China to modernise its navy and become a major maritime power.
On September 27, Beijing appointed Li Jiaying – who played a key role in the CCDI’s earlier investigation into Sun – to head the CSIC’s discipline inspection team, where she is expected to clean up any side effects and damage caused by the Sun case.
The CSIC plays a key role in developing and building naval vessels including nuclear and conventional submarines, as well as aircraft carriers.
It is currently working on the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, at its shipyard in the northeastern port city of Dalian, Liaoning province. The vessel’s design is based on the Liaoning, China’s only fully operational aircraft carrier.
Sun, 57, graduated from Dalian University of Technology and rose through the ranks at CSIC subsidiary Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company, before becoming the conglomerate’s assistant general manager in 2015 under Hu Wenming as chairman.
It is not the first time the shipbuilder has run into trouble. In 2016, Liu Changhong, then head of discipline inspection at CSIC, was investigated by the top anti-corruption watchdog. He was subsequently expelled from the party and it was announced in September last year that he would face prosecution on suspicion of taking bribes.