“He Ping Fang Zhou” means “Peace Ark” in Chinese, which is the name of China's military hospital ship. Since its commission in 2008, Peace Ark has carried out dozens of humanitarian missions, treating over 180,000 patients around the world. It has also participated in various international maritime exercises, including the U.S.-led RIMPAC.
At first glance, the front view resembles that of a cruise ship with a wide bridge mounted on top of multiple levels. The side view reveals three enormous red crosses marked distinctly on the all-white body, making clear its intention in relieving human suffering to those who come across.
The 14,200-tonne ship, which has been serving in China's East Sea Fleet, is identified in the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as Chinese hospital ship Daishan Dao. It is the country's first domestically built 10,000-ton level hospital ship, equipped with cutting edge medical technologies.
The ship has over 100 medical staff working in over dozens of clinical and auxiliary departments. It harbors multiple operating rooms, nursing stations and can accommodate roughly 1,000 patients at once. Moreover, it has a blood bank and exam rooms that are capable of diagnosing and treating a variety of illnesses.
So far, Peace Ark has carried out seven of the Chinese navy's “harmonious missions,” aimed at bringing much-needed medical care to people from all around the world free of charge.
Off the coast of East Timor on the Atauro Island, the lives of 9,000 inhabitants rely on a hospital built in 1962, staffed by eight doctors, four nurses and a few midwives.
The arrival of Peace Ark in late 2017 brought supplies along with ultrasound, ECG, X-ray, CT scanning machines and other medical equipment. Staff members set up a variety of clinics covering ophthalmology, pediatrics, gynecology as well as traditional Chinese medicine.
China's floating hospital journeyed to as far as Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, as well as Cuba and Venezuela in Latin America. It docked on the coast of the Indian Ocean, treated patients from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
During its most recent tour in 2018, staff on board examined more than 4,000 people in a week in Port Moresby, the capital of Papa New Guinea.
"Through disaster relief, the ship acts as an ambassador to promote friendship with countries," Li Jie, a research fellow with China's Naval Research Institute, told CGTN.
Beyond regular humanitarian medical assistance, the ship also acts as a medium for cultural exchange.
While on a visit to Tonga last year, a friendly soccer match was held between Chinese and Tongan soldiers. The ship also organized events for teachers and students from Tongan schools to learn about Chinese culture.
Compared to its American counterpart USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, which are remodeled from oil tankers, Peace Ark is one of the handful vessels in the world that is specifically designed for its purpose from scratch. This puts Peace Ark near the top of the list in the world's bespoke hospital ships, according to Shi Hong, executive chief editor of Shipborne Weapons, a Chinese language magazine covering the development of China's navy.
The existence of Peace Ark is also a reflection of the growing capabilities of the PLAN. “The need for this type of hospital ship rises as a navy carries out blue-water missions far away from its base,” Shi told CGTN. “A navy operating near its shores has no need for hospital ship, as wounded personnel can be transported to medical facilities on land."
While traditional sea powers such as the UK, France, and Russia are contracting their ocean-going fleets, including for humanitarian missions, China is gearing up the transformation from a green-water navy to a blue-water force that doesn't just protect its own sailors in naval combat but also saves the lives of those in need, regardless of nationality.