The Chinese Navy: The return of Admiral Zheng He

China today is the world's second economic power, and the first exporter. It has a tradition stretching back more than 6 centuries, periodically interrupted by threatening continental decline. A look at the Middle Empire’s past and current maritime potential. 

1 – The Emperor and the Admiral 


In 1405, under the appointed command by the emperor of admiral Zheng He, the Ming Navy set sail from the port of Longkiang at the mouth of the Blue River near present day Shanghai.
The 317 ships were armed, with a total of 27,000 men on board: marines, soldiers, doctors, interpreters, astronomers, agronomists, and various learned individuals from all disciplines; businessmen, jurists etc.
Going through the Strait of Malacca they set down briefly at Chittagong in Bangladesh, Calicut in India, and after the strait of Hormuz, Zheng He (also known as Sanbao Miao or Sanbao Taijian) took his fleet through the strait of Bab el-Mandeb in the Red Sea.

The 7th mission reached Zanzibar and the coast of Tanzania. During that period China was the most powerful maritime presence in the world, with unparalleled naval technology.
With the death of Zhu Di in 1424, his son could not resist the influence of the large number of “continentalists” in the court. In 1436 the new Emperor ordered the destruction of the ships and the closure of the shipyards. The workers were appointed to the modernisation of the “big canal”. In 1500, an imperial decree forbade anyone, under penalty of death, from building a ship with more than two masts. Then in 1644 the Manchu arrived...
The imperial Chinese Navy was then dormant for many centuries...... 

baochuans missions

Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria compared to one of Zheng He’s boachuans.

The seven expeditions of admiral Zheng He 


2 – In 2010, China’s Merchant Navy is now well revived - the Underground River

In 1949 the fact that the Chinese Merchant Navy no longer existed was not the only worry of the communists who came to power. China’s foreign trade at the time was that of a battered country that had been at war for more than a decade and had endured occupation by the Japanese and civil war.

Today it has become the world’s second economic power, the first biggest exporter and second biggest importer.


When the commercial trade of a country, determined by geographic and historical circumstances, is happening almost entirely by sea (up to now), it is not easy to imagine the extraordinary effort the country had to make to get where it is today. How did this merchant navy come from nothing to ranking fourth, soon to be third in the world? Like an underground river, it grew from the 1970s onward and shot into the limelight in the 1990s.

1 - cosco COSCO :

In 1961 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) created its first shipping company, the China Ocean Steamship Corporation – COSCO – buying two second-hand ships.
In 1970 COSCO commissioned 25 ships with a total capacity of 200,000 tonnes.
In 1978 the national fleet was estimated by Lloyds to be 102 ships with a total of 324,000 GRT. (2)
But this was quite a diverse fleet and 85% of the ships were 20 years old.
In 1985 COSCO took off, buying six second-hand container ships from MAERSK, marking the beginning of a rapid ascent.
In 2003 COSCO became the 9th largest shipping company in the world with 171 vessels and 3.5 million containers transported.
In 2005, it made a gamble that was to pay off, being the first to buy 4 freight-containers each with a capacity of 10,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units). (3) 

2 - csc CSCL/ CSG :

The company was founded on July 1st 1997 with the merging of 3 regional companies: the Shanghai, Dalian and Guangzhou shipping company, with its headquarters at 700 Dong Da Ming Road in Shanghai. It is one of the key public companies in the development of China’s Merchant Navy and it is under the direct administration of the central government.
The fleet in total is comprised of more than 440 ships with a total carrying capacity of 20.18 million tonnes.
China Shipping Group controls three companies listed on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchange:

  • China Shipping Container Lines
  • China Shipping Development
  • China Shipping Haisheng

CSG branched out into natural gas companies, integrated logistics, air cargo, naval construction and repair, container construction, terminal management, financial engineering, human resources, trading, catering and information technology.

3 – Hong Kong: the large Chinese port and its navy

Economists and maritime experts wonder if Hong Kong’s merchant navy and its port logistics should be added to the potential of China. The Chinese people and the government in Beijing stopped wondering about this long ago.
It is interesting to see how the People’s Republic of China has reclaimed, over time, the majority of Hong Kong’s fleet and its impressive multimodal infrastructure.

Hong Kong’s companies

 1 - oocl OOCL :

The China Merchant Shipping Company has an eventful history. It was founded in 1873 on the impulse of viceroy Li-Hongzhan to combat the western monopoly that had arisen due to unfair treaties. Divided during the revolutionary turmoil, 80 of its 95 ships were sent to Taiwan. In 1950, Beijing re-instated it in Hong Kong, making it China’s maritime interface abroad.
In 1956 the fleet of the CMS started to be reconstructed. In 1997-1998, China Merchant Shipping was re-structured with the collaboration of 12 companies. Its infrastructure was transferred to China Merchants International Holding Co-ltd (CMIH).
In 1980 CMS created a new subsidiary with two 10,000 tonne oil tankers, the Hong Kong Ming Wah Shipping Co.
In 1988 the latter bought 50% of Orient Overseas Containers Ltd (OOCL), created by the ship-owner TUNG Chao Yung, upon whose death was succeeded by his son in 1982, TUNG Chee Wah Yung, whom we shall see shortly. The company was bought back in its entirety in 1997 by CMS.

2 - wws World Wide Shipping :

In 1989 the president of World Wide Shipping Sir Yue Kong PAO died. The biggest ship owner in the world, with a fleet seven times the size of that of Onassis, Pao was a good friend of DENG XiaoPing, to whom Newsweek gave the title “King of the sea.” In the same year CMS bought back 25% of WWS. (4)
3 - hutchinson Hutchinson Whampoa :

Founded in Hong Kong in 1861 by British man John Hutchison Duflon (it was originally two companies), in 1977 it became Hutchison Whampoa, one of the three world leaders in industrial handling. In 1969 it created the Hong-Kong international terminal, HIT.
In 1979 HSBC sold its 22% stake to DENG XiaoPing’s ‘protégé’ LI Ka-Shing, Beijing businessman who controls, among others, Hong Kong’s port complex.

Beijing’s policy at the time of Hong Kong’s retrocession

To carry out Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s (SAR) plan efficiently after the takeover in 1997, ship owner TUNG Chee Wah was appointed Chief Executive of the SAR, supervised by LI Ka-Shing and a member of Sir Y.K. PAO’s family, all three appointed by Beijing.
After two terms in office in 2005, TUNG Chee Wah resigned. Not long before his resignation the “Governor” TUNG was elected vice-president of the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). This was a very prestigious but honorary post that was well deserved by TUNG. 

4 – The big Chinese ports and port regions

port_hong_kong port_qinglao
Container terminal in the port of Hong Kong

Le port de Qinglao (Tsintao)



5 – Accompanying strategy of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)

 “Maritime power goes hand in hand with businesss, and business follows the most advantageous routes. Military power has always been accompanied by business to help it progress and to protect it.”
In his work “The Influence of Sea Power upon History”, the father of U.S. naval thought Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914) explains that the British Empire’s greatness was due to its maritime supremacy. He therefore urged the US to establish solid positions on the main sea routes around the globe.
This is exactly what the Chinese are doing and their armed wing is the PLAN, or People’s Liberation Army Navy, otherwise known as the Chinese Naval Army.
With 70 surface ships and 30 submarines (three of which are nuclear), it is still quite modest in comparison with the US Navy. Its marine infantry, however, is the second biggest in the world. The arsenals will follow...






PLAN Naval base south of Hainan Island (satellite photo)

PLAN vessel in New Zealand 



6 - Conclusion

The result of 40 years of effort is impressive and befitting of the Middle Empire, possibly soon to become an Asian Empire - an unsettling thought, in particular for its neighbouring countries. But other problems lie up ahead. 900 million people from inland China must be integrated and brought up to the same economic level as those living on the coast, otherwise the Communist Party will have trouble maintaining the unity that is so precarious in China. Without returning to the Warlord Era, certain provinces like the Guangzhou are in dangerous waters. The overdevelopment of the big cities due to people leaving the rural areas is worrying – these cities are getting out of control. In Chongqing (Sichuan) the ex-minister for foreign trade Bao Xilai (5) is in the process of restoring order (best of luck to him).
Nevertheless, the increase of the inland population’s buying power will increase consumption, which will generate a considerable rise in the flow of trade. If all Chinese people want to eat chocolate and drink coffee like westerners, cocoa and coffee ports will have to be built especially...
But China is aging – look at the population pyramid. Maybe one day it will return to dormancy. Until then, however, it is a country that will have to be reckoned with.

© RCI – Alain Villefayaud -2010

Notes :

(1) In 1972 I visited the port of Shanghai which was sabotaged in 1949 by the Kuomintang. The port facilities were still dilapidated and bleak; the loading boats laborious. The traffic was mostly from inland water shipping and the flags present were from mainly communist and certain Asian countries.
(2) Gross register tonnage (GRT) is a measurement of the transport capacity of a ship. Also measured in cubic metres. One GRT is equivalent to 100 cubic feet or approximately 2.832 m3.
(3) TEU: twenty-foot equivalent unit is a unit of measurement for containers - norm ISO-668-1995 – (see article “100 million containers” in Logistics)
(4) I knew Sir YK PAO well (his interview in the paper edition of Logistics News at the time can be seen at the bottom of the page – there is also an article about him in History).  He was very attached to Hong-Kong and to its distinctive identity. He died before the retrocession. Close to DENG Xiaoping, he was a highly autonomous lawyer in Hong-Kong, but above all a Chinese man who loved and respected China.
(5) See article on Bao Xilai in Interviews.

Sites Internet :'s_Liberation_Army_Navy


  • WORLD TRADE AND LOGISTICS NEWS: 4th quarter 1982 – Interview with Sir Y.K. PAO

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