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David Wertime

China’s Online Commenters Greet First Aircraft Carrier With Doubt, Disdain

China has just taken another step in the direction of becoming a military power. On Tuesday, it put into service its first aircraft carrier, named the “Liaoning” after China’s northeastern Liaoning Province. According to the Ministry of National Defense, the carrier’s entry into service “has important meaning for raising the level of the modernization of China’s overall naval combat power, enhancing defense combat capabilities, developing the ability for far-sea cooperation in the face of non-traditional threats, and effectively defending national sovereignty [and China's] security and development interests.” {{1}}[[1]] 对提高中国海军综合作战力量现代化水平、增强防卫作战能力,发展远海合作与应对非传统安全威胁能力,有效维护国家主权、安全和发展利益,具有重要意义。[[1]] 

That mouthful certainly sounds like a big step. But China’s netizens appear to believe their country has taken a much smaller one. As television host Zhang Quanling (@张泉灵) tweeted to her nearly five million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, “I spent an afternoon looking at these materials, and from the aircraft carrier matter it’s even clearer to see that China is still a developing country. Among the five permanent members of the U.N. security council, China is the last to have an aircraft carrier. Among the four BRIC countries, China is the last to have an aircraft carrier. In Asia, even Thailand has one. Today’s China [now] has its first aircraft carrier, [so] from now on we don’t have to be coming from behind. This is worthy of praise, but a long way from jubilance!” {{2}}[[2]]看了一下午资料,从航母这件事情上更可以看出中国是一发展中国家。在安理会5个常任理事国中,中国最晚有航母。金砖四国,中国最晚有航母。在亚洲连泰国也有一艘。今天中国拥有了第一艘航母,现在还未后来居上。值得鼓掌,离欢呼还远着呢[[2]] Her post appears to have received a generally supportive reception and has been retweeted over 2,500 times. 

Other netizens also sought to contextualize the acquisition. @少林小三哥 complained, “I can’t find the excitement. The little Japanese brought these into the battlefields in the ’30s or ’40s.” @Dukk淇 also combined evident dislike for Japan with dissatisfaction at the state of China’s military, writing: “Can this be used in war? Where are the planes? Useless. The little Japanese had about 20 of these by the ’70s.” @KINGKONG8333 sighed, “We’re only better than a few small African nations.”  

Indeed, one question on netizens’ tongues was: Where are the planes? The images released online did not show any planes onboard the carrier, and the New York Times recently reported that Chinese experts aver the carrier, purchased from Ukraine, will be used only for training in the short term, with no planes yet able to land on its massive back. @不满的机器 mused, “Without aircraft…is it still an aircraft carrier?” @栖居的行者 tweeted sadly, “Ah, an aircraft carrier without planes is a lonely one.” 

A small minority of netizens greeted the decision with the jubilance that Ms. Zhang professed herself unable to muster. Hu Xijin (@胡锡进), editor of the conservative Global Times, tweeted: “Congratulations to China for putting its first aircraft carrier into service. This is a great day in the history of the Chinese navy. China is experiencing a beginning that holds meaning for the entire human race. Our thoughts and our hearts should catch up with these changes. It’s likely history will show this aircraft carrier moving China away from war, and not the opposite. ” {{3}}[[3]]祝贺中国首艘航母服役。这是中国海军史伟大的一天。中国在经历一个有全人类意义的开始,我们的思考,我们的胸怀得跟上这些变化。航母很可能在让中国历史性地远离战争,而不是相反。[[3]]

While Hu argued the carrier would increase regional peace, a small number of netizens seemed emboldened by the acquisition. @烈火1977 wrote, “Go to the Diaoyu. See if the Japanese boats still dare to collide [with ours].”

From all available information, it’s clear the Liaoning is not yet ready for prime time. That was the sticking point for many netizens, who showed the admixture of patriotism and cynicism so often found on China’s Internet. They seemed to want to become a military power without going through the growth steps necessary to do so. @润东之火 expressed hope the carrier does not “just become a tool for domestic performances.” @西山剑之扬眉剑出鞘 demanded to know, “Can they use it? Do they know how to use it? Do they dare to use it?” @都百炼生 seemed to challenge China’s navy: “If you’ve got skill, go to Diaoyu for military training. Otherwise, you’re the same as the model sitting on my windowsill.” {{4}}[[4]]有本事去钓鱼岛练兵 要不就跟我窗台上的模型一样 [[4]] @ 思绪纷绯 was more ambitious: “I await a wholly Chinese-made, nuclearized…carrier-based stealth fighter aircraft carrier.” {{5}}[[5]]期待,纯国产、核动力、电磁弹射、舰载隐身战机航母。[[5]]

If online reaction is any guide, China’s military faces pressure from both sides. Its foes, neighbors, and uneasy allies prefer that China’s military slow its rate of growth. Domestically, however, it cannot move fast enough to please many commenters. @halisport summed it up this way: “This should be the beginning, eventually the number of Chinese aircraft carriers should be commensurate with our national power.” Could other aircraft carriers be on the way? @中隐于校 jokingly (or hopefully) theorized, “It would appear we will make at least 34 carriers, with each province and administrative region getting one named after it.” @进口酒运营商 was eager to help: “I hope there comes a day when I can donate an aircraft carrier to the nation.”  

With its citizens harboring that level of ambition, China’s government–including its military–will be hard pressed to manage expectations over the coming years.

Chinese naval sailors and officers looking at the ready. Via Weibo

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
  • Jeff in China

    The boat builder turned it over to the Navy. It’s up to the Navy to arm, equip and train the forces. Right now it’s just a freighter.

  • Jeff in China

    The boat builder turned it over to the Navy. It’s up to the Navy to arm, equip and train the forces. Right now it’s just a freighter.

  • Guess

    It shows that China is not really interested in war.

  • Guess

    It shows that China is not really interested in war.

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  • Sun

    Is Chinese or Ukrainian?

  • Sun

    Is Chinese or Ukrainian?