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HONG KONG – China's sole operating aircraft carrier arrived on its first port call to Hong Kong on Friday as part of efforts to stir patriotism amid commemorations of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule 20 years ago.
The Liaoning steamed into port with its escort of two guided missile destroyers and a missile frigate, dropping anchor at a naval base across from the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island.
Authorities are distributing 2,000 tickets for visits to the ships, limited to Hong Kong permanent residents.
In keeping with the high security accompanying last week's formal anniversary of the July 1, 1997, handover, the area surrounding the naval base has been made a no-fly zone from Friday through Tuesday, the South China Morning Post reported. The order bars all aircraft apart from official ones, along with drones, model aircraft, kites and balloons, the paper said.
Last week's celebrations were highlighted by the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who inspected troops of the People's Liberation Army's Hong Kong garrison and delivered a hard-line speech aimed at pro-democracy activists in the territory.
Increasingly riven by political divisions, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule under the "one country, two systems" framework that allowed it to keep its own freedoms and institutions for 50 years. However, many see Beijing as tightening its grip on the thriving financial center by stonewalling calls for democratic reforms and expanding its control over the media.
Chinese authorities are turning to events such as the Liaoning's visit in hopes of stirring pride in China's accomplishments and identification with the Communist government in Beijing.
As the ships pulled in, they were welcomed with gongs, lion dancers, flag-waving greeters and plumes of spray from fire boats.
Rear Adm. Ding Yi, commander of the Liaoning battle group, said the visit would showcase China's progress in developing its navy.
"Our navy group is here in Hong Kong to take part in celebrations, and this will enable our Hong Kong compatriots to enhance their understanding of the development of our military," Ding said after stepping off the Yinchuan, a destroyer.
Addressing the gathering, newly inaugurated Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam thanked Beijing for allowing the carrier's visit, according to the South China Morning Post.
"This will greatly enhance Hong Kong citizens' understanding and recognition of the country," the newspaper quoted her as saying.
Commissioned in 2012, the Liaoning was built from an unfinished carrier purchased from Ukraine. It carries Chinese J-15 fighter jets along with helicopters and was undergoing exercises at sea before arriving in Hong Kong.
China's second aircraft carrier is being produced domestically based on the Liaoning and is undergoing final preparations before its commissioning.