Hong Kong public – and some mainland people – flock to view the pride of China’s navy
Visitors to the Liaoning were allowed to take photographs of the carrier, but militarily sensitive equipment was covered up
The People’s Liberation Army launched a full charm offensive in Hong Kong on Saturday, inviting the public on board China’s maiden aircraft carrier and opening up its barracks to entertain visitors.
Poor weather, long queues and rough ferry rides did not dampen the mood of more than 1,000 people who boarded the Liaoning, which anchored off Tsing Yi on Friday as part of celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China.
Visitors who snapped up free tickets last Monday for the event were allowed to shoot photos and videos with their mobile phones on the Liaoning after the PLA lifted an initial blanket ban on photography. They were also served freshly baked buns and sold memorabilia.
The massive vessel, stretching more than 300 metres in length, is on a five-day port call in Hong Kong.
Visitors were taken to the ship on shuttle ferries from the Central pier.
Security screening was stringent – visitors were banned from bringing food, drinks, cameras and even newspapers and magazines on board.
After a 40-minute ferry ride, passengers were put on a shaky platform that raised them up to the aircraft hangar, with PLA Navy personnel forming a human chain around them for safety. An open lift then took them up to the flight deck where eight J-15 carrier-based fighter jets and two helicopters were on display – less than half of what the Liaoning is capable of carrying.
All engines, radar systems and other parts of the aircraft considered militarily sensitive were kept covered.
A Beijing-based military expert said the Liaoning, designed for training purposes, would not be fully armed during such visits.
“Visiting Hong Kong to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover is also part of its mission, so it’s not necessary to carry so many aircraft,” the expert said.
“Engines were covered up, hinting that some of the J-15s may be still using the Russian-designed AL31 engines, or [they are] equipped with the most advanced home-grown WS engines.”
But other equipment, such as missiles and aircraft optics, were within touching distance for the excited visitors.
Some tripped over the cables of the arresting gear on the deck, as they were no warning signs.
One particularly patriotic visitor was seen kissing the rain-soaked deck in his enthusiasm.
Elderly people were able to walk around the deck with ease, as it was coated with anti-slip paintwork.
Mrs Lam, 81, said she had set off from her home village of Tai Kong Po in Yuen Long at 7am for the chance to see the carrier.
“I have never seen a ship this long,” she said, pointing to the take-off strip on the deck.
Among the military fans soaking in the experience was Arthur Zhuang, a University of Hong Kong student from Beijing.
“I have read a lot about the Liaoning, but today it’s all about seeing the details up close,” the 20-year-old said.
Sailors from the Liaoning are also allowed to tour Hong Kong.
One of them, a private who did not give his name, said he would board a ferry at 8.30am on Sunday and then report back for duty by 6pm. Cash expenses were capped at HK$500 per person, he said, and asked visitors to recommend places to visit.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said Chinese marine personnel were allowed to go ashore for sightseeing during port calls, but they had to return before midnight.
“Unlike the American navy, the PLA needs a more disciplined system to keep their sailors in line,” Li said.
An officer already out on the streets said he wanted to walk around Hong Kong and get a taste of local snacks, especially the famous “silk stocking milk tea”.
“We saw the beautiful Victoria Harbour from the ship last night and we felt it was especially beautiful,” she said. “Today we came out to continue to get to know the beautiful Hong Kong.”
A total of 2,000 non-transferable free tickets were snapped up by permanent Hong Kong identity card holders for the ship visit on Saturday and Sunday. Another 1,600 free tickets were given to select groups.
Hong Kong businessman Xu Zengping, who bought the carrier in 1998 for Beijing, said he was so proud to see the Liaoning visit Hong Kong.
“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,” said Xu, who is struggling to pay off debts left by the ship deal.
“It was worth making all the effort in those days.”
Watch: Hongkongers get first glimpse of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier
The PLA also opened up its Stonecutters Island and Shek Kong barracks on Saturday. About 20,000 ticket holders were set to visit the Stonecutters base over the weekend. Another 8,000 tickets were handed out for Shek Kong.
The naval base at Stonecutters is hosting guided-missile destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan and guided-missile frigate Yantai, which are part of the Liaoning battle group. They are also open to the public.
Visitors included a 78-year-old retiree who arrived when the rain was the heaviest.
“It was terrible, but I really wanted to see the ships,” she said. “My parents went through the invasion by the Japanese. At that time China’s guns and ships were very backward. Now I’m very proud of the country’s progress.”
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan