April 7, 2012: The Chinese Navy has learned how important morale is at sea. Until recently, Chinese warships rarely spent more than a week away from port but since 2008, China has been sending "Naval Escort Task Forces" to participate in the anti-piracy patrol 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 have, over the last two years, developed a morale program for the long voyages. This involves appointing a morale officer and some 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. Two years ago 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 establish a base for shore leave in the region. 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.