The Chinese navy sailed eight warships into Hong Kong on Friday, Beijing’s biggest show of military force since the former colony’s 1997 handover from Britain.
The port call appeared to be aimed at boosting patriotism in Hong Kong, but analysts also said China was apparently flexing its naval muscles to send a message discouraging Taiwan from any thoughts of independence.
“We are always on call,” said Yao Xingyuan, commander of the battle group. “If necessary, we have the ability to preserve the stability of the Taiwanese political situation.”
Yao said the two destroyers, four frigates and two submarines will stay in Hong Kong through Wednesday to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army’s navy. The ships will sail through Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor when they depart, giving the territory a good look at them, but he wouldn’t say where they would go next.
A spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army said the vessels are en route to a training exercise at an undisclosed location. Chinese sailors will be allowed to tour Hong Kong in civilian clothing.
The port call comes with many Hong Kongers angry about Beijing’s decision to rule out full democracy here anytime soon.
About 100 Hong Kong residents visited one ship Friday morning, waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags as bands played patriotic music.
“As a Hong Konger, as a Chinese, I want to welcome my own navy,” said Man Yu-ming, a 45-year-old insurance agent.
China and Taiwan have been governed separately since the Communists took control of the mainland in a 1949 civil war but Beijing claims sovereignty over the democratically ruled island, and has said any formal declaration of its independence could lead to war.
Beijing has been uncomfortable with what it views as pro-independence leanings of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who won a narrow re-election in March, a day after he was slightly wounded in a mysterious shooting.
Political scientist Joseph Cheng at City University of Hong Kong said the port call is also designed to boost Hong Kong’s lukewarm nationalism. Most of the territory’s 6.8 million people are Chinese, but many have misgivings about the mainland’s authoritarian government.
Many in Hong Kong have been demanding the right to directly elect their leader in 2007 and all lawmakers in 2008 and had their hopes dashed on Monday, when Beijing ruled out such reforms.
The eight vessels are the biggest group China has sent here since the 1997 handover. Just two warships visited during a port call in 2001.
The PLA has stationed troops here since the 1997 handover, but they generally stay inside their barracks to avoid alarming Hong Kong citizens.