“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said on Saturday.

Xi’s visit included a military parade of more than 3,100 troops from the People’s Liberation Army, the largest such review since the handover. Tens of thousands of pro-democracy supporters showed up to protest during his stay.

Both last week’s military parade and today’s arrival of the Liaoning come amid a tense political environment  Calls for greater democracy and autonomy have grown in the past few years, and the 2014 Umbrella Movement of pro-democracy demonstrators shut down parts of the city for 79 days. The movement got its name from umbrellas protesters used against tear gas fired by police.

The Liaoning is a refurbished Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class cruiser initially launched in 1988. China rebuilt it and commissioned it into its navy in 2012.

China began building a second carrier in April. It is expected to go into service in 2020, part of a naval plan to operate globally.

The Liaoning’s arrival showcases China’s increasing military presence, particularly in the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims with several countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

Recent satellite images from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., show China has nearly finished building three major military facilities on artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands chain.

China’s military has been growing rapidly over the past two decades. In 2016, its defense budget was around $146 billion, the second largest in the world and about a quarter of what the United States spends.

While many in Hong Kong are concerned about the Beijing government’s growing influence over their vibrant port city, the enormous carrier also has been met with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Crowds began lining up overnight this week for the chance to receive one of 2,000 tickets to board the Liaoning during its five-day port call.

At the welcoming ceremony for the carrier’s arrival, Hong Kong’s newly inaugurated chief executive, Carrie Lam said, the ship would help Hong Kong recognize China’s military accomplishments.

“I believe this can let citizens experience the country’s military development, especially the development of the naval force,” Lam said. “This will greatly enhance Hong Kong citizens’ understanding and recognition of the country.”

By Thomas Maresca
USA TODAY

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