Snooping Skyscrapers

By Liu Sha Source:Global Times Published: 2015-1-8 21:59:21

Encroaching high-rises pose security threat to China’s military facilities

A crowd snaps photos of Chinese fighter jets at an air show held at an airport in Zhuhai, Guangzhou Province on November 11. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

A navy base in Dalian, a coastal city in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, recently spent over 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) erecting a 22-meter-high wall around one of its harbors to prevent prying eyes getting a peek of their activities and facilities.

According to a report by Oriental Outlook, a weekly under the Xinhua News Agency, the 800-meter-long wall will help separate a cluster of luxury villas from the naval base.

Although the wall could prevent villa residents getting a look at the harbor, the report said, it could not stop the people in the skyscrapers that stand less than 100 meters away from the military harbor snooping on the navy's operations.

Military facilities like naval bases and airports used to be mostly located in remote or sparsely inhabited areas, but due to the country's rapid urbanization and economic development, some previously desolate areas have become popular with  tourists and real estate developers.

Ma Yifei, a bureau chief in charge of military facility protection at the General Staff Headquarters of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), told Oriental Outlook that many buildings have exceeded the set height limits and now pose a security threat to China's military facilities.

Local governments which are pursuing rapid economic development and eagerly seeking profits by selling undeveloped land will sometimes neglect the security needs of military bases, Liu Zhibin, an editor with, a popular military website, told the Global Times.

With an ever growing number of buildings being built near airbases, the safety of military flights has been threatened.

Over the past 20 years, according to figures released by the PLA General Staff Headquarters in July 2014, 50 percent of military airbases' airspace has been obstructed, causing nearly 100 aviation accidents leading to 10 airbases being relocated.

More than 20 high-rises have been built that violated the set height limits around Hangzhou Jianqiao Airport, which has been an important airbase for more than 80 years in Zhejiang Province, Fu Jun, a military pilot at the airbase, told the Oriental Outlook.

Fu said that fighter planes have to avoid newly built high-rises during flights. "We also have to fly between two commercial buildings occasionally," he added.

High-rises, pigeons, balloons and fireworks near the airport all pose risks to flights leaving and arriving at the airbase, Fu said.

Every year the airbase launches a general investigation into its surroundings and staff talk to local residents about not intruding into the base's airspace. Some signal towers and chimneys of excessive height have been demolished, but as the city expands, Fu worries that the military airport is reaching its limit.

Apart for the safety of flights, according to Liu, the sensitive information that could be collected through the extensive observation of military bases has also aroused concerns among PLA authorities.

Intelligence and safety concerns

Mo Jinyuan, a military enthusiast based in Beijing, told the Global Times that observing military bases can provide a look at  the appearance of the latest ground weapons, planes or equipment.

On some forums where military enthusiasts gather, people share photos of the Chinese military's latest weapons, Mo said, but simply for the purposes of appreciation.

"If these photos were sent to some overseas organizations, they might be able to uncover some key information," he said.

Apart from simply learning about the appearances of military materiel, one can, through extensive observation, discover operational information such as the frequency of certain flights, training and personnel arrangements, Mo noted.

In April 2014, a man surnamed Cao was arrested by police in Shandong Province on suspicion of espionage. China Central Television reported that Cao had sent pictures of China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and its geographic location to overseas intelligence agencies.

Hu Wenjie, a permanent member of the Chinese Military Culture Society, which is approved by the PLA General Political Department, told the Global Times that internal military magazines and observations of military bases are the two main ways that overseas organizations spy on China's military.

Squeezed space

In order to strengthen the security of military installations, Chinese lawmakers revised the law regarding the security of military bases in June 2014, ruling that any activities that threaten operational security and confidentiality are prohibited.

It bans unapproved low-altitude flights over designated military zones and says that high buildings are not allowed to be built too near military airports.

The law also clarifies the definition of "military forbidden zones" and "military management zones," and expands the legal protection offered to military operations by adding border and coast defenses to the definitions.

Li Jie, a senior military analyst based in Beijing, told the Global Times that the detailed new laws will provide guidelines to local governments when they are planning their cities and will also remind the public not to disrupt military operations.

However, as the economy develops quickly and many local governments adopt policies to attract investment, existing airbases, naval bases and military research facilities will inevitably be surrounded by high-rises, Hu said.

Last June media revealed that a local government in the tropical province of Hainan, which overlooks the South China Sea, allowed villas and clubs that were owned by foreign firms to be built inside a military base.

According to the PLA Daily, the local naval authorities had to spend nearly 100 million yuan on demolishing these illegal buildings, but hotels near the base are still posing a security threat to the military facility.

At a military base in Langfang, a city 57 kilometers away from Beijing which is Mo's hometown, Mo noticed that around the base there were many hotels that were invested in and owned by Taiwan businessmen.

"If you stay on the 15th floor of one of the hotels, you will have a clear view of the military base," Mo said.

Ye Tanglin, a city planning expert with the Capital University of Economics and Business, said that when planning cities, governments normally take local military bases into consideration, preserving the land near it.

"But real-life examples showed that many governments care less about this when bidders offer a large amount of money to buy the land," he said.

Ye noted that it is not realistic to put all military bases in remote areas as they were in previous decades. "The population is growing and the central government has been advocating urbanization, a goal that local governments are happy to work toward."

 "For soldiers, pilots and military personnel, commercial environments and the pleasures of city life, such as cinemas and shopping malls, are important," an anonymous source from Weapon magazine, told the Global Times. The source said that several of the biggest aircraft producers in China, like the Aviation Industry Corporation, have lost talented personnel due to the working environment of remote military bases.

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