China finally has an aircraft carrier. But the hulking gray mass anchored in this small port in Guangdong province is not going to set sail as part of a navy struggling to project its power on the open seas. Instead, the Minsk, bought from the decaying Russian navy in 1995, is being turned into a playground -- to be decked out with exciting battle-simulation video games, a helicopter ride and a hotel for tourists who want to experience the aura of a once mighty fighting ship. Although there is no public transportation on the dirt road through the sugar-cane fields nearby, a steady stream of sightseers has been making its way to see the rusting, 40,000-ton vessel since it arrived in China last fall. The refurbishment won't be completed until at least spring, and guards block the main portal to keep people off the floating fortress. But tourists are already paying $5 each to be ferried around it in motorboats by local entrepreneurs. Ominous exposes in the Western media have claimed that China acquired the Minsk, along with an unfinished Ukrainian carrier bought last year by a Macao company headed by a former Chinese army officer, in a backdoor attempt to establish a naval air arm. Actually, both vessels are slated to become amusement centers. But military officials are sure to scour the old carriers for potential design hints, and the Chinese navy is also known to operate short airfields on which pilots can practice carrier takeoffs and landings. But while Chinese security officials acknowledge that a modern navy includes aircraft carrier battle groups, they say that now is not the time for China to form one. "Anything the Russians would sell them would be junk," said Bernard Cole, a specialist on the Chinese navy at the National Defense University in Washington. He said that if China wanted an aircraft carrier, and if it were willing to spend the money and spark an arms race in Asia, it would be better off buying a new one from Spain, as Thailand did in 1997. For now, the Minsk is a field of dreams for China's military buffs, and many envision the day when their nation will assert what they think is China's legitimate right to dominate events in Asia. Li Jishe, a self-described "military hobbyist" and former warship builder, traveled all day from his home in the coastal special economic zone of Zhuhai to see the Minsk, which in its heyday in the Soviet fleet carried 12 fighter planes, 18 helicopters and a crew of 1,200. Staring out at the ship -- its surface pock-marked with patches of salt-water corrosion -- Li said the Minsk was a sign of the times. "It represents the decline of the former Soviet Union's navy," he said. It also serves as an inspiration. "In the past, Mao Zedong said China didn't produce an aircraft carrier because they are offensive, aggressive. {But} for a country as big as ours, we should have our own sophisticated, large-scale aircraft carrier," Li said. "Aircraft carriers embody a nation's military power." Not everyone was as moved by the Minsk. "It's smaller than I imagined," said another visitor, Huang Dongmeng, one of Li's pals. Built in 1972, the Minsk is less than half the size of the newest, 102,000-ton American carriers. Still, Huang said it was worth his trip. "I was curious." That a carrier built by the Soviet Union in the early 1970s at the height of Chinese-Soviet hostilities could end up anchored on a tributary of the Pearl River in southern China as a tourist attraction shows how much both countries have changed. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union served alternately as China's Communist Big Brother and as serious adversary. Now, Russia is a struggling democracy with an economic crisis that can't afford to maintain its once great military. China, meanwhile, has large reserves of hard currency after two decades of swift economic growth, making it a perfect buyer for weapons Russia wants to unload. That synergy has resulted in the sale of some serious weapons to China, including four Kilo-class submarines and two Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyers. It also, indirectly, resulted in the Minsk's finding its way to China. In 1995, a South Korean company bought the Minsk -- with all its weapons systems and engines removed -- from Russia's Pacific Fleet to turn it into scrap iron, but environmentalists blocked the planned disassembly in South Korea. China's state-owned Guangdong Ship Dismantling Co. bought the Minsk for scrap last year and towed it to China. But before it was broken apart, the Shenzhen Ming Si Ke Investment Co. Ltd., a private firm backed by entrepreneurs with experience running video-game parlors, bought the ship for $4.3 million to turn it into a fun zone. Although the entrepreneurs are avoiding interviews and trying to keep details quiet, an adviser to the Minsk project said the company is retrofitting the ship. While the initial response to the Minsk has been more positive than expected, the entrepreneurs have run into some problems. A portion of their outside investment has dried up, and the Varyag -- the larger Ukrainian carrier that will soon arrive in Macao -- could shave off most of their customer base in the Portuguese colony and in Hong Kong. The Minsk project adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, said he is not worried. "Their target group is different," the adviser argued, adding that China's 1.2 billion potential visitors are a sufficient market. CAPTION: Chinese tourists pay $5 apiece to be taken around the salvaged Russian aircraft carrier Minsk. ec