China's Soft Power Has Hard Edge as Warship Visits Hong Kong

  • About 3,600 to tour pride of country’s fleet, the Liaoning
  • Ship makes first port call to mark 20 years of Chinese rule

China's First Aircraft Carrier Arrives in Hong Kong

China’s bid to display some soft power in Hong Kong -- with a visit by the country’s first aircraft carrier -- has also showcased its heavy-handed approach to security.

The CNS Liaoning sailed into Hong Kong’s harbor on Friday for its first port call outside the mainland since becoming the pride of China’s budding blue-water fleet in 2012. The diesel warship -- with a complement of advanced J-15 fighter jets -- will host unprecedented public tours this weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier arrives in Hong Kong on July 7.

Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

While the aircraft carrier is among the most impressive symbols of China’s rise, its arrival in Hong Kong also underscores the challenges of converting its industrial and military might into soft power. 

The port visit is for five days. During that time, around 3,600 of the 7.3 million residents of the former British colony -- where dissatisfaction with Beijing’s rule has fueled protests in recent years -- will be allowed aboard. 

The limited access may hinder the Liaoning’s usefulness in softening perceptions of the People’s Liberation Army, which is seen by pro-democracy advocates as a check on the city’s “high degree of autonomy.” Pregnant women, the disabled and children younger than 11 are being excluded for safety reasons.

“They really should double the number of tickets, so that more Hong Kong people can have a chance,” said Cheung Kin-fai, a retiree who was taking pictures of the distant warship from a pier Friday. He said a friend was upset after arriving at the PLA barracks at 3 a.m. only to be denied a ticket.

“It’s a symbol of the strength of the motherland,” said Cheung, 62. “Many young people nowadays have little knowledge of history.”

The Liaoning next to a container ship.

Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Cameras and the media have been banned from the Liaoning. Flights were restricted over the ship, moored about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Hong Kong’s airport.

Willy Lam, an adjunct political professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the port call was designed to support the theme of President Xi Jinping’s visit last week to commemorate the handover. Xi attended the PLA garrison’s largest-ever military parade and urged residents to “believe in the country.”

“The Liaoning visit gives them an opportunity to feel more patriotic and identify with the achievements of the military,” said Lam, who wrote “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?” It also served “to remind Hong Kong people that the PLA is here, not just as a symbol of sovereignty, but can be a potential actor if things here ever get out of hand,” he said.

A spokesman for the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison cited “security concerns” and “sensitive material” for excluding the media from the ship. Allowing journalists onboard would “run the risk of leaking state secrets,” said the spokesman, who only gave his surname, Tang.

Local newspapers such as the South China Morning Post have carried stories in recent days about elderly residents denied access to the ship or how Chinese sailors won’t be allowed the shore leave privileges of their foreign counterparts.

“I don’t feel particularly proud, I just want to take a look because I’ve never seen the aircraft carrier before,” said one woman who only gave her surname, Wang. “It’s a marvelous thing it visits Hong Kong. And do you know this: mainlanders haven’t got a chance to view it yet.”

In contrast, the U.S. Navy has given media tours and allowed children aboard their aircraft carriers during past visits to Hong Kong. Both China and the U.S. have let each other’s officers visit their ships.

Ski-Jump Deck

Security has been intense throughout the handover, with more than a third of the city’s 29,000-member police force deployed. Pens, newspapers and mobile phone chargers were among 14 categories of items banned from Xi’s visit to the PLA garrison.

The Liaoning, a 32-year-old refurbished Soviet vessel, was escorted into Hong Kong by a full carrier battle group. Three ships, the destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan and the frigate Yantai, can be visited by those with tickets to the garrison’s annual open house events on Saturday and Sunday.

Fighter jets onboard the Liaoning aircraft carrier.

Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Such symbolic missions may be among the most valuable uses of the Liaoning. Although the ship’s political commissar declared the carrier combat ready in November, it is hamstrung by a ski-jump deck, diesel propulsion systems and limited access to overseas bases.

Still, the ship has provided a signal of Chinese naval ambitions when sailing through the strategic “first-island chain” -- stretching from Japan to the Philippines -- or completing a circuit around rival Taiwan.

“Part of this is the PLA Navy methodically going through the steps of learning how to operate a carrier, but part is also starting to use the carrier’s deployments and exercises as political signals,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs in Washington. “It can be used as a tool to demonstrate Chinese power and intimidate smaller countries.”

— With assistance by Justin Chin

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