In early 2021, five military medical researchers working for the Chinese Institute of Military Health Management published a report in the journal Military Medicine revealing that 108 of 511 submarine crewmen who took a standard mental health assessment survey which revealed they were suffering from mental stress symptoms because of their busy training schedule on Chinese diesel-electric submarines operating in and near the South China Sea. Since 2006 the Chinese military has been paying more attention to the morale and performance of sailors and officers in order to improve recruiting standards. This was as the Chinese navy was beginning to experience an unprecedented, in Chinese history, demand for qualified sailors to serve on new warships that were being subjected to long periods of time at sea. China recognized that it was not enough to build a lot of new ships that matched Western models in size and capability; it needed sailors with enough practical experience to operate them effectively. That was a problem no Chinese navy had ever had to deal with. Throughout thousands of years as a somewhat united empire, Chinese rulers concentrated on maintaining sufficiently large and capable ground forces to deal with foreign and internal threats. Until the late 20th century China was not dependent on foreign trade to sustain a healthy economy.
In the 1990s Chinese leaders ordered their admirals to recruit and train crews on their new warships to Western levels of skill so that the new Chinese fleet would have the proper intimidation effect. China soon discovered that sending crews to sea for months at a time or just to undergo lots of intense and realistic training at sea required a special kind of recruit.
China always had a lot of fishermen who often travelled far off shore to lucrative fishing grounds. But by the end of the 20th century the Chinese fishing fleet had grown to unprecedented size and boat owners were able to solve recruiting problems by hiring foreigners for less-skilled jobs on the thousands of Chinese fishing trawlers. There were simply not enough Chinese willing to do that kind of work, especially when it meant being at sea for months at a time.
The Chinese navy could not hire foreign sailors and suddenly the morale of Chinese sailors became an issue. This was made clear when China began contributing warships to the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia in 2008. Until the East Africa anti-piracy duty, Chinese warships rarely spent more than a week away from port. Since 2008 China has been sending "Naval Escort Task Forces" to serve off Somalia. There, for four months (plus a month to get to and from China), the two warships (accompanied by a supply ship) look for pirates and escort merchant ships. On those long voyages Chinese officers soon noted that many months at sea put more strain on sailors than the usual shorter training voyages.
To deal with this problem the Chinese developed a morale program for the long voyages. By 2010 this involved appointing a morale officer and providing additional equipment. Noting that some sailors and officers brought laptops with them for game playing, the navy set up "Internet Cafes" on the warships and supplied wi-fi for sailor laptops and smart phones. Limited Internet access was provided (mainly for email) and the PCs in the computer room were networked for gaming. These PCs could also be used for training. The morale officer also organized entertainment using sailors who could sing, play instruments, or otherwise amuse their shipmates.
Earlier, more expensive solutions were tried. In 2010 a Chinese hospital ship arrived off Somalia. It was not there to treat sick Somalis but to provide a rest stop for Chinese sailors participating in the anti-piracy patrol. The hospital ship then visited ports in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles, and Bangladesh to provide free medical treatment for locals and then returned home.
Morale for the Chinese sailors was particularly important because China has not allowed its navy to regularly give sailors shore leave when they visit a friendly port. There are few friendly ports off Somalia. China also refuses to negotiate diplomatic agreements making it easier for their sailors to visit “ports of call” for a few days. All other navies have such arrangements but not China. Instead China launched a special crew support ship. It's a converted cruise ship, with expanded medical facilities to treat any victims of local diseases or those injured on duty. But recreational and entertainment spaces have been left largely unchanged, so sailors can get a few days of rest and relaxation without going ashore anywhere.
The "morale ship" could not be stationed there all the time, so commanders asked for suggestions and what most sailors missed most was an Internet Café type establishment. The Chinese Navy cannot provide much Internet access for its sailors but a LAN equipped computer game room was found to be a good substitute. The "morale ship" is still available occasionally but the Internet Café, an email connection, and morale officer are there all the time.
American sailors were early adopters of PCs and all manner of consumer electronic gear. The U.S. Navy was forced to increase Internet access aboard warships to make long periods at sea, usually three months or more, tolerable. Submarine crews came to depend on taking laptops crammed with popular games to keep them in good mental health while spending months at a time underwater and far from home.
Chinese military medical experts noted all this and believed Chinese submariners would not spend as much time at sea as their American counterparts. That was true but the U.S. Navy has decades of experience recruiting, training and retaining crews for its “nukes” nuclear subs. China was on its own problems with recruiting and retaining a growing force of sailors for non-nuclear subs. This was a unique situation and, as the recent published article revealed, serious problems and publication of such concerns means the Chinese are calling on a large audience to come up with solutions.
Most of the stressed submarine sailors are new to the navy. The stress problems are less common in career officers and NCOs. China has a problem retaining veteran naval officers because the longer training voyages mean more time away from families. It’s worse for enlisted sailors, who initially sign up for two years. Basic sailor training for submariners takes about six months after which enlisted sailors are expected to learn more advanced skills OJT (On The Job). Doing so on a cramped and, in the Southern Fleet (South China Sea and environs) hot, sub is difficult. The air conditioning on the subs was not the best even for northern waters. In the South China Sea Chinese submarine air conditioning didn’t make it comfortable, just less hot. Then there was the constant noise of the diesel engines and other mechanical gear. The submarine sailors could get promoted to petty officer if they enlisted for another four years but the extra pay and status, not to mention additional formal training, did not make life any easier on a fleet boat where the petty officers were largely responsible for providing the new sailors with OJT that did not damage the sub or disrupt operations.
With all this in mind it’s no surprise that 21 percent of sub crewmen, most of them OJT students and their junior petty officer instructors who are only two or three years older than their students, were not staying in the navy.
In Western navies submarine sailors are volunteers and get a year or more of training in class rooms and simulators (mock ups of parts of the sub they will be working in) before spending months at a time on combat cruises. The Chinese military is switching to the Western recruiting and training methods and this scary mental health assessment of submarine sailors may give submarine crews some priority in this conversion process, which will take over a decade to complete.