The 50,000-ton carrier was towed from its dockyard just after 9am on Wednesday following a ceremony in the northern port city of Dalian, where its predecessor, the Soviet-built Liaoning, also underwent extensive refurbishing before being commissioned in 2012, the Ministry of National Defense said.
Development of the new carrier began in 2013 and construction in late 2015. It's expected to be formally commissioned sometime before 2020, after sea trials and the arrival of its full air complement.
Vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission and Communist Party Central Committee member Fan Changlong presided over the launch, which came just three days after the anniversary of the People's Liberation Army Navy's symbolic founding in 1949.
Also attending was navy commander Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong, a former commander of the South Sea Fleet responsible for defending China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
Reports of the launch said a bottle of champagne was broken across the ship's bow and other craft in the port sounded their horns in celebration.
Like the 60,000-ton Liaoning, which was purchased from the Ukraine, the new carrier is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov class design, with a ski jump-style deck for taking off and a conventional oil-fueled steam turbine power plant. That limits the weight of payloads its planes can carry, its speed and the amount of time it can spend at sea relative to American nuclear-powered carriers.
The main hull of the new carrier has been completed and its power supply put into place. Next up are mooring tests and the debugging of its electronic systems, the Defense Ministry said.
China is believed to be planning to build at least two and possibly as many as four additional carriers, with one of them, the Type 002, reported to be already under construction at a shipyard outside Shanghai. They are expected to be closer in size to the US Navy's nuclear-powered 100,000-ton Nimitz class ships, with flat flight decks and catapults to allow planes to launch with more bombs and fuel aboard.
Along with their role in protecting China's maritime interests, Chinese naval strategists see the carrier program as "about having naval power commensurate with China's international status, to impress both external and domestic audiences," said Michael Chase, an expert on the Chinese military at US think tank the RAND Corporation.