The Super Sneaky Way China Got Its Hands On Its First Aircraft Carrier
China was proud to launch its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012. This vessel was a refit of an incomplete Soviet Kuznetsov-class cruiser carrier. However, the story of how China got that ship in the first place may as well be a comedy—because the carrier was actually a rogue acquisition for the Chinese military against the wishes of the government in Beijing. And it was undertaken by a basketball player who claimed he wanted to build a floating casino.
The People's Liberation Army Navy first became interested in acquiring an aircraft carrier in 1970, when China was still on bad terms with both the Soviet Union and the United States. However few concrete steps were taken, because the cost and complexity of such an endeavor far exceeded the PLAN’s limited capabilities during the Cold War.
The Soviet Navy did deploy its first carriers in the 1970s: Kiev-class vessels that could launch Yak-38 Forger jump jets of limited effectiveness. By the 1980s, the Soviets began construction of two more promising Kuznetsov-class carriers. These had a “ski jump” ramp, allowing more conventional—and much higher-performing—Su-33 Flanker fighters to take off from it. Like the earlier Kiev class, the Kuznetsov was technically an “aircraft-carrying cruiser” due its powerful armament of twelve P-700 Granit antiship missile systems. This technicality was important, as “aircraft carriers” proper weighing more than fifteen thousand tons (which is to say, virtually all aircraft carriers today) were not legally permitted by the Montreux Convention to transit from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Bosporus Straits.
However, the fall of the Soviet Union left the second vessel in its class, the Varyag, only two-thirds complete in Ukraine, lacking its armament and electrical systems. Construction ceased in 1992, and the cash-strapped Ukrainian government did its best to pawn off the fifty-five thousand tons of inoperable metal rusting in its Mykolaiv shipyard. Russia, India and China all passed.
A two-part series in the South China Morning Post in 2015 revealed the machinations behind how the carrier ended up in Chinese service anyway, two decades later. It turns out the PLA Navy did want the Varyag—the team sent to inspect it recommended purchasing it! But the government in Beijing was worried that acquiring a carrier might increase tensions at a time when it was seeking to further open itself to Western investors.
Instead, in 1996 a group of PLA officers including intelligence chief Gen. Ji Shengde approached Xu Zengping, a former PLA basketball star who had become a successful businessman arranging international events. The cabal’s proposal: to have Xu purchase the carrier as a private citizen, ostensibly to serve as a casino so as to avoid undesirable scrutiny. Then the PLAN could collect it for its own use once the political winds were more favorable.
This cover story is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Remember those Kiev-class carriers mentioned earlier? Two of them are now moored in China, serving as amusement parks. The Minsk was actually purchased by a consortium of video-game arcade owners in Shenzhen for $4.4 million, and has since been moved to Nantong, north of Shanghai. And the original Kiev? Now a floating hotel in Tianjin. However, the more modern Kuznetsov-class Varyag was undoubtedly of much greater practical interest for the PLAN than either of those ships.
Xu was down with the scheme and borrowed the equivalent of $30 million in Hong Kong dollars from a friend to help fund the venture—the first expense of which was to create a $6 million shell company in Macau called Agência Turística e Diversões Chong Lot Limitada, in order to maintain the fiction. (Macau was still in its last years as a Portuguese colony at the time.)
In January 1998, Xu arrived in Ukraine and met with the shipyard owners. After four days of negotiations, in which enormous bribes were offered and fifty bottles of 124-proof baijiu liquor were consumed, he reached an agreement to purchase the carrier for $20 million—well below the cost of a single jet fighter today. He wasn’t able to make the payment until a year later, with a $10 million extra late fee tacked on.
Some international observers smelled something fishy in the arrangement—Xu’s company did not actually have a gambling permit in Macau, nor a listed phone number or address. Ironically, however, a Jane’s analyst interviewed by the Washington Post at the time stated it was “farfetched” that the PLA Navy would try to operate the Varyag due to its decrepit and incomplete condition.
By June 2000, everything was ready to go. The carrier’s four engines were packed in grease seals (they had yet to be installed), several tons of blueprints were sent overland to China by truck, and a Dutch towing company was ready to tug the 306-meter-long vessel all the way back to China. What could go wrong?