A tad after 0600 on 7 July, yours truly boarded a skiff in Tsim Sha Tsui and headed around the southwest coast of Hong Kong Island for an at-sea rendezvous. The target of the photographic tryst was Liaoning (CV 16), China’s first ever functional aircraft carrier, plus a task group of three other warships from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The visit of the Chinese carrier had been hyped during the preceding few weeks, and a fever pitch of patriotism had been whipped up. Ostensibly, the ships were in Hong Kong to celebrate the territory’s 20th anniversary of the handover to China on 1 July 1997.
Beijing has a decided sense of unease, perhaps even paranoia, over growing resistance in some quarters to its rule in Hong Kong. Among the young, especially, there is frustration at the lack of political reform and perceived loss of freedoms.
The visit of the 55,000t carrier was therefore designed to inspire patriotism, to let Hong Kongers sense their ‘Chineseness’ and their inseparable destiny as part of China’s future.
Certainly, Chinese media joined in the party line with colourful descriptions like this: their ‘advanced missile detectors and high-tech radar shining like beacons under the morning sun’.
Or this one, ‘It was a gift by the Central People’s government to the people of Hong Kong – a gesture, as Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said, to show great care and support toward the HKSAR.’
A mere 2,000 members of the public were permitted to board Liaoning, and they could do so only if they snared tickets handed out at three PLA camps in Hong Kong a week earlier. Some queued for up to 15 hours to ensure they got their sweaty paws on a golden ticket, whereas this author admits to lining up in the dark and rain for a mere eight hours!
Restrictions were in place. Tickets stated that no cameras were allowed aboard and that photography was strictly verboten.
Nevertheless, the chance to go aboard Liaoning was too good to pass up, and this author duly arrived at 0600 on the first day to undergo tight security checks – no literature, paper, water or food were allowed either – and head out to the carrier anchored in Hong Kong waters for its five-day port call.
Surprisingly, once aboard the ship, visitors were actually given free rein to walk the flight deck and to take photos and videos with their phones. This was a surprising relaxation of the rules and it allowed Hong Kongers to get close-ups of equipment such as J-15 fighters albeit minus weapons and with their engines covered up.
The port call, the biggest in the past 20 years, was designed to inspire patriotism by showing the military prowess of the PLA. However, the irony was probably lost on most residents that this particular 30-year-old carrier was originally built for the Soviet navy.
In a further irony, it was discovered that Liaoning did not meet Hong Kong shipping regulations in terms of emissions. However, the government decreed that the PLA was exempt from such rules.
Liaoning was originally built as the Varyag in the 1980s before being abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed. After languishing for many years, a Chinese businessman purchased the hull, which was stripped of all equipment, to supposedly host a casino in Macau. However, this was just a ploy, with the real reason being to refurbish it for service in the PLAN.
Hong Konger Xu Zengping was the frontman acting for the PLAN, even though he was left heavily in debt after purchasing it for $20 million in 1998. Upon the arrival of the vessel in Hong Kong, he told the South China Morning Post, ‘I have witnessed so many US aircraft carriers visit Hong Kong over the past decades since I moved here 30 years ago. Today, I finally see my country’s aircraft carrier making a port call here. It was worth making all the effort in those days.’
Aboard the carrier on this occasion were just eight J-15 fighters, just a third of what the carrier is capable of carrying. Also on the carrier’s 14,700m² flight deck were a Z-9S search and rescue helicopter, plus a Z-8JH medical evacuation helicopter. A Z-18 helicopter was parked inside the hangar deck, a cavernous area otherwise empty.
The Chinese carrier has 2,626 crewmen aboard, representing some 20 different ethnic groups. There are ten different cafeterias catering to them, including one designed for Muslims. Some 2-3 tonnes of food is consumed daily.
In terms of technology, the two accompanying destroyers were more impressive than the refurbished Liaoning – the Type 052D destroyer Yinchuan and the Type 052C destroyer Jinan. The fourth ship in the task group was Yantai, a Type 054A frigate.
Liaoning is very much a training platform on which a cadre of pilots and sailors will hone their skills. China launched its first indigenously built aircraft carrier on 26 April 2017 but two years of trials will be necessary before that vessel officially enters service.
Liaoning was at the vanguard of a PLA and Beijing leadership charm offensive. However, this degree of openness is all very unnatural for the PLA, which is used to extreme secrecy. This perhaps explains why the author was not permitted to board a destroyer with a camera, whereas all other members of the public were.
However, the public relations campaign seemed to have worked on at least one person, a Hong Konger who was seen kissing the deck of the carrier during his pilgrimage to patriotism.