CHINA is set to unveil its latest spectacular jewel in its engineering crown with the opening of the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge on Tuesday.
Stretching an impressive 55 kilometres out across the waters of the Pearl River Delta, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge makes for an awe-inspiring sight. There are stretches of the bridge on which you can’t even see land other than the hundreds of steel cylinders driven into the deep seabed used to form the foundations.
It took developers over a decade to complete, 10 workers lost their lives while working on the project, more than 600 have been injured, and it’s cost the region a whopping US$20 billion.
It was also dogged with corruption scandals, design screw-ups and environmental concerns. All of which have been weathered to make today’s grand opening possible.
But the sheer presence of the bridge has stirred its fair share of controversy outside of mainland China where locals see the imposing structure as a physical manifestation of Beijing’s creeping control and infiltration.
Hong Kongers have expressed disquiet over the project, seeing it as a waste of taxpayers’ money as well as another tactic of mainland China’s to assimilate the territory.
“You can’t see the existing transport connections — in a literal way. But this bridge is very visible … you can see it from the plane when you fly in to Hong Kong, and it’s breathtaking,” Claudia Mo, an independent lawmaker who supports greater democracy in Hong Kong, told CNN.
“It links Hong Kong to China almost like an umbilical cord. You see it, and you know you’re linked up to the motherland.”
Since the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement – commonly referred to as the Umbrella Revolution – Beijing has sought to clamp down on political dissent and exert greater control over Hong Kong politically, economically, socially and culturally.
Critics believe this is an effort to assimilate it and integrate it into the mainland as much as possible before the end of the 50-year “one country, two systems” period in 2047.
Hong Kong was handed back to China by the British in 1997. Under the terms of the handover, semi-autonomous Hong Kong is meant to enjoy freedoms unseen on the mainland, including freedom of expression, association, and elections.
However, the space for political dissent has shrunk in the face of an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping. Beijing resists any challenges to its sovereignty in Hong Kong.
Macau is also a former European colony, ruled by the Portuguese until it was handed back to China in 1999.
The new bridge will bring the three cities closer than ever before, with just an hour’s commute between them.
Author of Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong, Kong Tsung-gan, believes such mega-infrastructure projects are Xi’s tool for “mainlandisation.”
Kong thinks the new bridge, along with the wildly expensive Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, will attempt to create a Pearl River Delta mega-city, meaning “Hong Kong is to be rendered virtually indistinguishable.”
President Xi is expected to be in Zhuhai for the grand opening Tuesday but will not be making the trip to Hong Kong. He is selling the new development as an engineering and economic success; believing the bridge will play a vital role in facilitating the creation of a single market.
But on the other side of the water, people are more sceptical.
“Some might argue that closer ties between a country, such as the PRC (People’s Republic of China), and its newly incorporated territory, such as Hong Kong, are both inevitable and normal,” says Kong.
“But the pattern mapped out here shows not closer cooperation but imposition.”