A Chinese state-owned newspaper has denied international media reports claiming that two People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) pilots were killed during the test phase for the J-15 carrier-borne combat aircraft.
Several international news outlets cited a 27 August report by the Xinhua state news agency of a commendation order signed by President Xi Jinping for Liaoning 's J-15 squadron, including Commander Dai Mingmeng, who was honoured as a "Heroic Test Pilot" at a ceremony convened by the Central Military Commission.
The reports alleged that the commendation mentioned two pilots from a J-15 squadron who were killed while conducting aircraft trials related to Liaoning 's air operations. This revelation was hailed as rare admission of Chinese operational military fatalities, since such accidents are rarely reported in the country.
In a report published on 7 September, People's Daily journalist Yan Jiaqi quoted military sources as saying that the citations are incorrect and that the persons who died were not pilots in the carrier wing but "comrades" who died while working on the J-15 project. The report also emphasised that the deaths were not related to the carrier tests. However the paper has stopped short of elaborating on the fatalities.
The report also partially blamed microblogging sites in China for proliferating what it calls the "inaccurate reports".
Liaoning recently came out from dry dock after four month's maintenance in the Dalian shipyard and is expected to sail back to its home port near Qingdao in the eastern coastal province of Shandong.
The report in the People's Daily gives a different version of events from what was stated in an English-version report carried by the PLA Daily , which said: "The [commendation] order spoke highly of the squadron in the exploration and development of the J-15 fighter jet. Two test pilots of the squadron sacrificed their lives during the tests."
Both media outlets are closely connected to the state and are likely to be controlled by the same strict censorship policies.
The party's media mechanism might have miscalculated the amount of attention drawn to the details on the pilots' death to the point that it has overshadowed what is possibly the actual intention of publicising the commendation order signed by Xi - to highlight the valour and competency of China's carrier strike wing. The latter version by People's Daily could be an attempt to diffuse this unwanted attention.