Crowds in Hong Kong line up to see China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning

Members of the public pose for photographs in front of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) ship during an open day at the PLA navy base in Hong Kong, China, on July 8, 2017.
Members of the public pose for photographs in front of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) ship during an open day at the PLA navy base in Hong Kong, China, on July 8, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Hundreds of people in Hong Kong lined up on Saturday (July 8) to visit China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which is making a five-day port call here to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.

The ship's visit is part of efforts to raise the profile of China's military and inspire patriotism in the semiautonomous city, analysts and officials said. Hong Kong has been the site of large street protests in recent years as calls for increased local autonomy and even independence grow.

Young people are increasingly likely to call themselves "Hong Kongers" instead of "Chinese," which local officials say they want to change.

The carrier's visit is intended to send several messages, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"The first, to Hong Kong society, is to remember that you are Chinese and Hong Kong is part of China," he said. "The second message is to be proud of being Chinese, because now we are a powerful force to be reckoned with, on par with the United States."

Last week, President Xi Jinping of China reviewed troops at a military base here and delivered a tough speech warning against crossing the "red line" of challenging central government authority or Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong.

The Liaoning and three accompanying ships, the frigate Yantai and the destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan, sailed through the Taiwan Strait en route to Hong Kong this past week. Self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory, dispatched aircraft and ships to monitor the group's passage, its Ministry of National Defence said.

The port call also comes as China hopes to exert authority over its claims in the South China Sea. In May, China complained after a United States Navy ship sailed within 12 miles of an artificially built island that China claims in the South China Sea. The US Air Force said two B-1B Lancer bombers flew over the South China Sea on Thursday while on a training mission from Guam.

The Liaoning's visit to Hong Kong is its first port call outside mainland China and the first time the 999-foot ship has been open to the public, military analysts say. Residents waited overnight for 2,000 tickets, while 1,600 more were distributed through local organisations.

At the Central district piers along Victoria Harbor on Saturday, two distinct crowds mingled. To one side, groups of young people, including many expatriate workers, met to board junks for leisurely cruises during which they would drink and swim in isolated bays. On the other side, patriotic ticket holders waited for rides to board the Liaoning, which was at anchor to the northwest of Hong Kong Island.

"This shows our country is growing up," said one man, who would give only his surname, Ouyang, and was from the city of Foshan, in neighboring Guangdong province. "We can compete with the United States now, because you bully us."

Dickie Wong, 41, a financial analyst, said the aircraft carrier's port call would inspire Hong Kong residents to feel more Chinese.

"I think they want to show everyone, not just Hong Kong people but everyone in the world, that China's military is strong enough to have a huge aircraft carrier," he said.

Mr Wong was given four tickets by a relative, but his family was turned away because his two children were under age 11 and not allowed to board the aircraft.

The Chinese Navy did not allow members of the media to visit the ship, citing national security.

For those who could not secure tickets, the ship could be glimpsed by travelling to Hong Kong Disneyland on Lantau Island, squeezing through a fence and walking along a slippery concrete breakwater for several minutes.

"I and the people of Hong Kong are very honoured to have it come here," said Eric Cheng, 37, an insurance worker who took the Star Ferry to Disneyland Resort Pier, which gave a close look at the Liaoning. "It's not many Chinese who see it this close." He added, while pausing from taking photos of the Liaoning, "We feel more Chinese."

Not everyone was happy about the Liaoning's arrival. Some newspapers documented the exhaust belching from the ship, and the photos were reposted widely on social media.

The ship, which was once known as the Varyag, was built in a Ukrainian shipyard in the late 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it languished in the Black Sea until it was brought through the Bosporus straits, around the Cape of Good Hope to China. It was ostensibly purchased for use as a floating casino in the Chinese territory of Macau, although it was later revealed that the buyer was a front for China's navy. The ship was retrofitted in the port city of Dalian in northeast China and commissioned in 2012.

China first home-built aircraft carrier was launched in April, and is undergoing equipment testing and trials, the Ministry of National Defence said. The ship was based on the design of the Liaoning, complete with ski-jump ramp for aircraft takeoff.

Within 20 years, China will most likely have four or five aircraft carriers, said Richard A. Bitzinger, coordinator of the military transformations program at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

"The Liaoning is like training wheels for the People's Liberation Army Navy," he said. "It will help train up a cadre of pilots and let them get smart on deck-based carrier operations."