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The Liaoning is heading to Hong Kong amid 20th anniversary handover celebrations

The aircraft carrier symbolizes China's global military ambitions

CNN  — 

China’s only operational aircraft carrier sails into Hong Kong this week, giving the world its first up-close look at the pride of China’s navy.

The Liaoning will dock in Hong Kong on Saturday July 7, in one of the largest symbolic displays of Chinese military force in the former British territory since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Thousands of Hong Kong residents queued Monday for a chance to get one of 2,000 tickets being offered for tours on board the ship, which carries fighter jets and helicopters.

The Liaoning arrives one week after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit to the city since coming to power in 2013.

Beijing on Tuesday released new photos of China’s only aircraft carrier conducting exercises on its way to Hong Kong – a rare insight inside the usually secretive vessel.

The vessel set off from Qingdao, in China’s east, on June 25, according to Chinese state media.

While the Liaoning remains China’s only operational aircraft carrier, a second China-made carrier was launched in April. It will be officially commissioned at a later date, once construction on it is finished.

The consecutive visits of Xi and the Liaoning are part of anniversary celebrations in Hong Kong, commemorating 20 years of Chinese rule.

Fighter jets sit on the flight deck of the Liaoning prior to a night training exercise on July 1.

Winning hearts and minds?

The anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from the United Kingdom is marked every year with large protests, including the Occupy Central movement of 2014.

Many Hongkongers are concerned about the perceived loss of political and personal freedoms since the Chinese government took back control of the city.

Yvonne Chiu, assistant professor in the department of politics at the University of Hong Kong, said sailing the Liaoning into Hong Kong’s harbor was partly a political gesture.

“It shows to Hong Kong and the rest of the world that Hong Kong is very much part of China,” Chiu said.

But Chiu added there was an aspect of soft power at work as well, with residents given a rare chance to step on board the Liaoning in Hong Kong between July 8 and 9.

Sailors transfer a J-15 fighter jet into the hangar bay during a training exercise on July 1.

“There’s no quicker way of whipping up some nationalist sentiment and pride than to rally around a big military symbol,” Chiu said.

“(It’s) an ongoing concern about whether Hong Kong people are sufficiently patriotic, so rallying around an aircraft carrier, it can only help.”

However, those who get on board won’t be allowed to take photos, the Hong Kong government said.

china aircraft carrier pacific drills cctv von_00000024.jpg
China's aircraft carrier prowls the Pacific
01:06 - Source: CNN

Technology outdated

Launched with great ceremony in 2012, the Chinese government originally bought the Liaoning from the Ukrainian government in 1998.

The Chinese Navy is said to be building a force with “blue-water capability,” able to operate in oceans around the world in a similar way to the US.

China is rapidly increasing its military budget, currently the second largest in the world, raising spending by 7% in early 2017.

The J-15 fighter jets sit on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Liaoning prior to a training exercise on July 1.

China’s aircraft carriers lag behind the capabilities of their US counterparts. Sam Roggeveen, a senior fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute told CNN in April both of China’s carriers were technologically outdated.

“(They still have) what they call the ski jump, which is the 15-degree incline at the front of the ship … to give aircraft more lift,” he said.

“The reason that’s important is that it’s very much a second-best solution for launching aircraft off a carrier. The Americans use what’s called a catapult, which slings aircraft off at much higher speeds.”