China’s first aircraft carrier emerged from the mist in the waters south of Hong Kong on Friday morning as a four-warship flotilla gave a potent demonstration of Beijing’s might.
The carrier, christened the Liaoning after the north-eastern Chinese province, sailed past half a dozen hulking container ships as it entered Hong Kong waters around 7.30 am.
The ship’s maiden visit to Hong Kong, its first outside mainland China, comes less than a week after the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, toured the city, warning the former British colony must not become a launchpad for challenges to Beijing’s authority.
A Guardian reporter aboard a skiff sailed alongside the Liaoning as it entered Hong Kong, before being waved off by a police boat for venturing too close. Chinese sailors in crisp white uniforms could be seen standing at attention on deck, beside fighter jets and a helicopter.
Mandarin crackled over the marine radio as the Liaoning took on two local pilots, seamen familiar with Hong Kong’s congested waters who would navigate the ship to its anchorage west of the city centre.
Amid calls for greater autonomy and even outright independence from some Hong Kongers, many saw the naval convoy as underlining Xi’s hardline message.
“The Liaoning’s visit is an escalation of Beijing’s efforts to squeeze Hong Kong and is meant to show that the military has a role in safeguarding the Chinese government’s interests,” said Willy Lam, a politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The unsubtle message is that if there is any mass protests or things get out of hand, Beijing will not hesitate to call upon soldiers to quell any perceived rebellion against the Communist party.”
UK and US officials have expressed concern over receding freedoms in the city and the creeping influence of the Chinese officials in the city’s local government. The show of military might served to “remind the west that Beijing is in control and will use whatever means to crush efforts to undermine China’s sovereignty”, Lam said.
Xi also put on a display of martial might during his visit, presiding over the largest military parade since the UK handed the city back to China in 1997. The parade and aircraft carrier visit is highly significant and the Chinese garrison in the city typically keeps a low profile, rarely seen on the streets in uniform.
The Liaoning was escorted by two guided-missile destroyers, a guided-missile frigate and two corvettes from Hong Kong’s naval garrison, along with 20 police launches and dozens of government marine vessels clearing a path.
Fishermen paused their work to snap pictures using their mobile phones as the flotilla passed. Enthusiasts gathered on Hong Kong’s southern hills, highways and apartment balconies to capture the dramatic entrance. About a dozen enthusiastic ship captains prominently displayed Chinese flags as they approached for a closer look.
Hong Kong’s leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, welcomed the flotilla at the city’s main naval base, saying she hoped the visit would instil a sense of patriotism among an increasingly divided society.
“I believe this can let citizens experience the country’s military development, especially the development of the naval force,” Lam said, according to the South China Morning Post. “This will greatly enhance Hong Kong citizens’ understanding and recognition of the country.”
But China’s first aircraft carrier is not entirely its own. The hull was built nearly 30 years ago for the Soviet navy, but the ship was never completed.
The ship’s journey from a Ukrainian shipyard to the Chinese navy was hardly routine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, construction was halted in 1992 and the carrier was put up for sale. It then took six years before a Chinese businessman purchased it for $20m, saying he planned to tow it to Macau and open a floating hotel and casino.
But the purchase and story was a cover, with the ship eventually delivered to the Chinese navy in 2002. The military spent the next decade refitting and upgrading the ship, and it was declared combat ready in November.
China launched its first domestically built carrier in April, but it will not be operational until 2020.
China’s defence ministry contradicted itself over the purpose of the flotilla’s visit, first saying it was part of a “routine training mission”, and later announcing it was organised to mark 20 years since the People’s Liberation Army entered the city at the end of British rule.
Hundreds of eager Hong Kongers camped out overnight, braving sporadic rain and temperatures hovering around 30C (86F) to snag one of only 2,000 tickets to visit the carrier. But tours will be tightly controlled, with no cameras allowed on board and only permanent residents of the city given tickets.
Foreign media has not been invited to tour the ship, leaving the Guardian’s encounter on the high seas possibly the closest glimpse at China’s naval might.