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The Chinese Public Celebrates A War Ship It Doesn’t Know Very Much About

China’s media and general public are abuzz about the country’s first aircraft carrier, a converted Soviet-built behemoth that set off earlier this month on its maiden voyage. But they’re missing some key information, like how much it cost, and what it’s e

Varyag, the first Chinese aircraft carrier
Varyag, the first Chinese aircraft carrier
WANG Xiaoxia

BEIJING -- China is celebrating the maiden voyage of its first aircraft carrier, which took to the seas Aug. 10. The "new" ship is in reality anything but. "Varyag," first known as "Riga," was actually built by the Soviet Union. Its construction began in the mid 1980s. But the Soviet Union fell and the ship was transferred to Ukraine before being bought for "entertainment purposes' by a Chinese company believed to be a front for the Chinese Army. Having spent more than 30 years in a dockyard, the carrier was finally converted as a military ship in the Chinese port city of Dalian.

Though Varyag isn't officially in service just yet, it is receiving quite a lot of attention. Its launch made headlines on most Chinese news sites and the population as a whole seems to have fallen in love with it. Varyag is a boost to Chinese patriotism, after decades of Western domination over the seas since the 19th century. With this new ship, China is experiencing an unprecedented "big power climax" that even the Beijing Olympics didn't generate. Dubbed "Chinese naval nationalism" by the West, it explains why the carrier is receiving overwhelming support not just from the general public, but also from the intellectual elite.

But there have also been a few disappointments to go along with all the excitement. Many Chinese, for example, complain about the fact they still don't know the ship's new name. The media continues to refer to it as Varyag, the name of a Nordic people that migrated to Eastern Europe during the 10th century. Anything that relates to China's national security is highly secret, including the name of a military ship - and its cost for that matter.

So how much did China spend on this aircraft carrier? Not only does the public want to know, it also has the right to know. In a country where civic awareness is growing, especially on national affairs, such issues are gaining ground. A Shanghai newspaper published an article estimating the cost of converting Varyag, but based solely on Chinese military experts' speculations drawn from American examples.

So how do Americans know how much their government spends on its aircraft carriers? Following the idea that "when one doesn't know where their money goes, one doesn't pay," the U.S. government is required to tell its tax payers what their money is spent on. The Department of Defense must make its annual budget public and transparent. All defense R&D spending must be submitted to Congress through detailed reports.

In the United States, even if a project is given the go-ahead, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), also known as the "congressional watchdog" or the "taxpayer's best friend," keeps a check on the operation's possible flaws, as well as the whereabouts of the funds. In 2007, the GAO published a report about excess spending for the Ford Class aircraft carrier and also criticized the R&D department for the delays that caused the cost to increase. The supervision system guarantees that American taxpayers' money is spent on U.S. interests efficiently. Each year, the GAO investigates numerous governmental institutions saving Americans billions of dollars in unnecessary expenses.

Despite its success, even this monitoring mechanism doesn't guarantee efficient military spending. The United States has long had to deal with having only one manufacturer capable of building an aircraft carrier, therefore forcing it to deal with a monopoly. As a result, the U.S. Navy has decided to split its next generation destroyer contract between two shipyards, avoiding a monopoly and building a competitive atmosphere in America's military construction field for the future.

The Chinese, on the other hand, don't have much access to these kinds of key details. How efficient is the new ship? How much did it cost? Was it worth it? Were there unnecessary expenses? They aren't getting any answers. Maybe we'll find out something one day through a conflict, or a war. Or just like we did with the train accident three weeks ago, when we were painfully surprised to learn that the railroads companies operating under government contracts are only moved by profit.

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