How the world’s largest sea bridge changed Hong Kong for ever

“I announce that the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is officially open”

Not exactly the elaborated speech you were expecting from Xi Jingping as he officially opened the Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macau bridge (HZMB) on 23 October. Perhaps, there was nothing else to add since the colossal bridge might speak for itself.

The world’s largest sea bridge at 55 kilometers came at equally gargantuan costs. Almost ten years of construction time, 420,000 tons of steel and about 48 billion rmb. That’s about 7 billion dollars or 6 billion euros. Perhaps the most overlooked costs were also the most devastating ones. For starters, the development site permanently disturbed local wildlife. The magnificent Chinese white dolphin, which is already becoming a rare sight in Hong Kong waters, seemingly vanished from the waters around Lantau island since construction started. Secondly, an estimated amount of ten workers lost their life in the progress of realizing the behemoth and about 600 others were wounded.

Hong Kong airport to the left with the bridge at the bottom, ending up at Tung Chung to the right.

On the 30th of October, I made a trip to Tung Chung with the intention to take a cable car ride to visit the legendary Tian Tan Buddha. Tung Chung is a town on the northwestern coast of Lantau island and part of the special administrative region (SAR) Hong Kong. It is also essentially one of the starting points of the HZMB.

The effects of the bridge on Tung Chung were very clear; the area was starting to get overrun by tourists from mainland China! The issue only escalated in the following weeks as tens of thousands of short-term tourists flooded the area and indeed even other parts of Hong Kong as well as Macau. Annoying tour operators were running amok with large groups of curious elderly Chinese citizens in their wake. Room rates probably skyrocketed in correlation with the queue times at the Tung Chung cable car service.

A moment of relief as I finally got into the cable car to take momentary refuge from the exuberant masses. The ride from Tung Chung to the Buddha over Lantau island is breathtaking and definitely worth the wait. You even get a glimpse of the HZMB as it makes its way to Zuhai, tying Hong Kong to the mainland like a concrete leash.

The HMZB tunnels underwater on it’s way to Zuhai. With some clear weather you can spot the other side of the tunnel. My cellphone camera was barely able to capture it.
Here’s a map including my vantage point on the bridge for those who are unfamiliar with the geography of the Pearl River Delta.

Interpreting the impact of the bridge

There are many dimensions to approaching the goals and ideology behind the bridge. Of course economic reasoning plays a large role. According to South China Morning Post, travel time from Hong Kong’s largest container port to Zuhai drops by more than 50%. Travelling from Hong Kong’s airport to Zuhai only takes about 45 minutes now instead of the rough four hours. Quite an improvement indeed and obviously beneficial for tourism, retail and overall movement of goods.

Residents of the so-called Greater Bay area (including Hong Kong, Macau and the Chinese province of Guangdong) now have the option to move to either city in the area to work and live. An option which the Chinese government has been keen on promoting in their Greater Bay area integration plan.

What do people of Hong Kong actually feel about being more closely connected to the mainland than ever before? Although Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has been quoted to state that the project will enable the city to play a bigger role in the development of China, many disagree.

Critics point to the fact that Hong Kong people paid half of the construction costs for a bridge they arguably did not desire nor need. The new high-speed railway connecting Shenzhen to Hong Kong in September, a project not void of scandal itself, was a big hit overall but connections to Macau and Zuhai were already established by ferry and far less demanded. Locals groan when facing the massive influx of workers and residents from mainland China. A set quota of 150 people were already allowed to immigrate to Hong Kong every day.

Traffic on the bridge was also limited for private vehicles. An insane maze of bureaucratic paperwork must be navigated before acquiring the permit from all three involved cities to cross the bridge. Why build a bridge that the average person won’t use? Why not use the ferry, which requires significantly less legislative hassle to cross to the mainland? All profound laments.

Is Hong Kong just another Chinese city now?

The biggest head-scratcher might be that officials of both governments are quoted as saying that the bridge is an expression and enforcement of the “One country, two systems” principle. This concept, formulated in the 80’s by China’s leader Deng Xiaoping, basically safeguards the political and economic systems of the special administrative regions, but they are indistinguishably a part of China. In Hong Kong’s case, this situation would last from 1997 to 2047. However sometimes it seems like both governments can barely hold out any longer and the bridge can easily be interpreted as just another clamp down on the city’s freedoms in a series of similar recent events.

A rundown of some recent events:

  • In 2014, protests were held in the city, largely by university students, to demand freer elections. This so-called ‘Umbrella movement’ was arguably a failure since they declined negotiations with the government. Some of the involved participants were jailed.
  • In 2015, five booksellers including a British and Swedish national were seemingly detained in mainland China for selling banned books. They were shown to be in good condition and stated they voluntarily traveled to the mainland. Some of the booksellers who returned cited that their confessions and appearances in the media were staged and scripted.
  • In August 2018, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club hosted a speech by Andy Chan, a founding member of the Hong Kong National Party. In his speech, Chan called China Hong Kong’s new colonial master. The party is a separatist movement seeking independence from China. The FCC was castigated by the government of Hong Kong and PRC.
  • In September 2018, the Hong Kong National Party was banned. The Hong Kong government referred to a speech of Xi Jingping, wherein he underlined that Hong Kong’s independence is a ‘red line’ that should not be crossed.
  • In October 2018, Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for the Financial Times and Vice-President of the FCC in Hong Kong was declined a renewal of his visa. No reason was stated but it is suspected that his role in hosting the Chan talk in August is likely to be the cause.

Today, Washington stressed that it will continue to uphold Hong Kong as a separate entity governed by itself, within China, as formulated in 1992’s US-Hong Kong policy act. Good news for Carrie Lam and the rest of Hong Kong. Only yesterday the US State Department reported on their increasing concerns over the actions in Hong Kong that undermined fundamental freedoms and called upon both Beijing and Hong Kong to uphold the “One country, two systems” principle.

As I look back from Kowloon to the striking view of Central, you can see a vibrant and dazzling city. One can’t help but wonder just how much the metropolis is about to change. The unstoppable creeping change, for better or worse, in combination with a desperate hold-on to a fragile legacy of the past leaves your spirit in turmoil as you turn your back on Hong Kong.

sources: Businessinsder, The Guardian, Bloomberg, Macaomagazine, South China Morning Post, Ejiinsight, The economist, Washington post, Financial times.

Belgian journalist writing on Asia, Culture & Electronic music

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