World’s Longest Sea Bridge: a Symbol of Economic Prosperity and Political Strategy for China
In a ceremony attended by southern China’s government and Communist Party brass held in the city of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, President of People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping officially opened the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB) on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Spanning over 34 miles (55 kilometers) and holding the record of the world’s longest sea crossing, the HZMB was described by Xi as a representation of Chinese power, ambition, and innovation.
The completion of this mega-bridge marks the end of a two-year delay and an overrun in budget cost by billions of dollars. Construction of the HZMB began in 2009 and was originally due to be completed in 2016. Development of the project — a joint effort between the Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong with Guangdong Province — was founded on the belief that connecting Zhuhai, a major region of mainland China, with China’s two thriving special administrative regions would form a technological hub capable of competing with the Silicon Valley of the United States. Hong Kong’s secretary for transportation and housing, Frank Chan Fan, stated that the HZMB would allow for “a more proactive role in the development of the Greater Bay Area.”
HZMB is a “dual three-lane carriageway” comprised of three main sections. The longest stretch is a 14.2-mile steel and concrete bridge that connects Zhuhai and the first artificial island. Between the two artificial islands is an underwater tunnel that allows the passing of large cargo vessels and tankers in the Pearl River. Finally, the second island containing a customs and immigration terminal ends in Hong Kong. For the Hong Kong International Airport, which is planning on building a third runway, the opening of the HZMB would mean decreased congestion and increased accessibility to more individuals.
Zhang Xinsheng, chairman of Shell China, states that “this is a historic mega-project which will have a huge positive impact on the country’s future development.’’ Previous transportation between the regions would have required arduous and tedious boat travel that was extremely weather dependent. The HZMB offers a much stabler alternative to travel by sea while simultaneously cutting travel time from 3 hours down to just 30 minutes. The sea bridge is built strong enough to withstands threats like Super Typhoon Mangkhut, which battered the region last month.
The bridge will be accessible through a shuttle with tolls ranging from 60 to 300 yuan ($8-43). According to Frankie Yick Chi-ming, the lawmaker representing the transport sector, the costs are more than acceptable because drivers will save a significant amount in fuel costs if drivers use the bridge to get to the cities on the west bank.
From the perspective of the Chinese government, it seems that the hopes for the HZMB are economic and geopolitical. On the one hand, the policy enhances the professional service industry zone of western Pearl River Delta as a platform for development. By allowing private car drivers from Hong Kong drive into Guangdong for short trips, experts hope that this will boost multi-stop tourism. Also, the bridge serves as both a physical and metaphorical binding of the former colonies.
Despite the praise that the Chinese Government has layered on about the finalization of the HZMB, it may have come at a cost to certain groups. Hong Kong occurs to many as one such actor that receive as many benefits as the other districts. There has been a considerable amount of criticism towards Hong Kong investing up to HK$120 billion (US$15 billion) to the construction of the project when there was little public demand for greater connection to either Macau or Zhuhai. This is coupled with the fear that the city, which already hosts a large number of non-residents, will be swamped by tourists from mainland China.
Additionally, a slew of ethical issues is associated with the HZMB as well. For example, at least 11 workers were known to be killed during the period of construction, with over 250 injured and 19 people facing criminal charges over faked concrete tests. Environmentalists have also pointed out that the presence of HZMB and wastes generated during both the use and construction of the project may lead to significant harm to endangered Chinese white dolphins in the area.
Also of note at the opening ceremony was the attendance of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who walked in side-by-side with President Xi and sat with Xi’s administration — a break from the longstanding protocol for the leader of Hong Kong to not walk and sit with officials of the mainland. When asked about the meeting, Lam responded that she “did not read too much into that…. The others were very nice to me, including the two vice-premiers. They told me to sit closer and walk closer.”