The 34-mile bridge is $1.5 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. Part of this may be due to the complexity of the project, which includes a main 18-mile sea bridge and a 4-mile underwater sea tunnel with artificial island entrances. Wikimedia Commons/Siyuwj

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is little more than propaganda announcing the unity of China and her former colonies, despite their very different historic, legal, and even transportation backgrounds.

At the Hong Kong Science Museum, a large display of 3-D scale models, information panels, and photos near its entrance shows off one of the city’s latest projects: the *24-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which is set to become the world’s longest sea bridge when it opens later this year.

Despite this architectural achievement, the display area is mostly empty. The occasional adult can be seen reading information panels about how the bridge was built and new construction techniques. Kids, meanwhile, flit through the display, pressing some of the buttons and light switches before they get distracted by something else.

The actual bridge is also failing to generate much excitement.

While the project has been an enormous and in many ways impressive undertaking, it has also been mired in several scandals. Most notably, it’s $1.5 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. Part of this may be due to the complexity of the project, which includes a main 18-mile sea bridge and a 4-mile underwater sea tunnel with artificial island entrances.

Together, the bridge will connect three very different places: Hong Kong, a former British colony and international finance hub of 7.3 million; Macau, a former Portuguese colony that is minuscule in size but dwarfs Las Vegas in gambling revenue; and Zhuhai, a mainland city with a population of 1.6 million. While already well-connected by land, air, and sea, the bridge creates a more direct road link intended to shorten travel times.

China hopes to unite these cities and the other metropolises of the Pearl River Delta like Shenzhen and Guangzhou into a megacity cluster under the “Greater Bay Area” scheme with transit links like the bridge playing an important role—although it has yet to release many details.

However, for many Hong Kongers, the bridge is just the city’s latest white elephant in a lengthy list of unnecessary projects designed to show that the Hong Kong government—a quasi-democratic, executive-led bureaucracy—is accomplishing something. Excitement has dimmed even further ahead of the bridge’s opening as traffic predictions are down by as much as 26 percent, according to the South China Morning Post, as another rival bridge on the Pearl River Delta also nears completion.

But the bridge’s true purpose is not to connect three already very connected places. Instead, its true purpose seems to be to serve as a piece of infrastructural propaganda to announce the unity of China and her former colonies, despite their very different historic, legal, and even transportation backgrounds. Somewhat tellingly, the bridge comes with a lengthy set of rules for use, with the average Hong Konger unable to simply get on the bridge and drive from end to end.

***

Some weeks earlier, from her office in Hong Kong’s legislative complex overlooking Tamar Park and Victoria Harbor, legislator Claudia Mo describes a convincing meta narrative for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.

“It was introduced as something—it’s almost sentimental. It’s about blood politics. We’re all Chinese. We’re all great descendants of the dragon,” says Mo, a former member of the Civic Party.

“Essentially it boils down to… Hong Kong-China integration. Hong Kong has done its job basically in history. Hong Kong used to be China’s gangplank [to the world]. Now if Hong Kong wants to survive on, develop on, it needs to integrate with the mother country, or else.”

Mo’s take on the bridge may have a flair of the dramatic, but her feelings echo that of many Hong Kongers in the years after the city’s handover to China in 1997 and increasingly since 2014’s 79-day pro-democracy protest, known as the “Umbrella Movement.”

While China pledged to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 under the “one country, two systems,” agreement with the United Kingdom, it has been slowly chipping away at Hong Kong’s legal and political system according to external assessment by the European Union and the U.S. State Department. Confidence in the “one country, two systems” model hit an all time low in May, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Survey Program, with just 40.5 percent of respondents expressing positive views.

It is one reason why in the four years since the Umbrella Movement, offshoot localist and pro-independence groups have gained traction with many younger Hong Kongers, who take issue with encroachment by Beijing on Hong Kong political space. Many of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement went on to form the political party Demosisto, which frequently criticizes the Beijing’s interference in the legal and political system.

In this context, a bridge tying Hong Kong to China has been met with either indifference or distrust, especially by younger and more political residents, according to Hong Kong Legislative Councillor Kwok Ka Ki, another member of the Civic Party.

“A lot of people, particularly the younger generation, regard [the bridge] as a means of trying to blur Hong Kong with the Mainland,” he added. “All this infrastructure, the rapid railway, this bridge, expanding or increasing number of border crossings, give the impression and general effect to regard we are just next to the mainland, we are just part of this big country. For the young people they are indifferent or they aren’t happy to see that bridge.”

In addition to completing the bridge, Hong Kong will also soon see the opening of an express rail line to Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the mainland. Controversially, immigration officials from mainland China will be have jurisdiction over part of the train station.

The decision has made many Hong Kongers nervous, particularly following the high profile kidnapping of five booksellers in 2015 by Chinese security agents and that of billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who vanished from a Hong Kong hotel room in 2017 and reemerged in Chinese detention.

Other Hong Kongers, he said, are simply indifferent or only see the “scandals” including faked concrete tests, the death of seven construction workers, as well as the death of a number of dolphins living around the construction site and possible design flaws which have been extensively reported in the local media. The massive budget overruns are also unpopular given that Hong Kong, one of the most unequal societies in the world, could use its extensive wealth to improve social welfare, healthcare, and education programs. (The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge Authority, heading the project from China, initially replied to an emailed inquiry on behalf of CityLab but did not reply to questions about concerns with the bridge expressed in the Hong Kong media. The Hong Kong Transport and Housing Department said that budget overruns are due to the “the complicated conditions” of building on the open sea as well as increased construction costs.)

***

Despite these many public relations setbacks, the Hong Kong government has been fairly consistent in its talking points on the bridge and what it will accomplish since the first feasibility study was published in 2003. First and most importantly, it says, the bridge will dramatically reduce travel times between Hong Kong and Zhuhai. For example, driving from Zhuhai to the Hong Kong airport will drop from four hours to 45 minutes, according to the Highways Department.

Hong Kong has also touted the bridge as an important way for Hong Kong to reinforce its status as an “international shipping and aviation center”; unite with and help to develop the western Pearl River Delta; and promote regional tourism.

Whether it will fulfill its promises, though, is less certain. Like many large cities, Hong Kong has a mixed track record of success when it comes to transit projects. A survey of three major Hong Kong transit projects by the OMEGA Centre for Mega Projects in Transport and Development in London showed that while the airport express rail, opened in 1998, has been extremely popular, the undersea Western Tunnel connecting Hong Kong Island and Kowloon has been used less than its older, rival tunnel further east due to the high fee associated with it.

The West Kowloon Rail Link to improve transit to the New Territories, a more sparsely population mass of Hong Kong territory, has also been used less than expected, according to OMEGA. The study found that “no data on actual or forecast revenue are available, although actual ridership numbers have been significantly below forecasts.”

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, however, is in many ways in a category of its own compared to other transit projects as it is led by an authority based in China, not Hong Kong, and it is being run jointly with China and Macau. And in a city known for red tape, there are a lot of rules—likely another reason why the project has had difficulty drumming up excitement.

For one thing, one cannot simply drive down the bridge from end to end. A Hong Kong driver hoping to use the bridge on a regular basis will be required to first get a special permit depending on their starting point and ending point. They will also be required to change their driving direction before getting on the bridge, as Hong Kong and Macau drives on the left while mainland China drives on the right.*

The rules for getting a permanent permit vary dramatically depending on the direction of traffic. To get one of 300 long-term permits to drive to Macau depends on residency status or the location of a registered businessi—although a certain number of cars each day can drive without a permit.

To get one long-term permit to drive to Zhuhai, however, depends on economic ties, and in a possible first for a piece of Hong Kong infrastructure, political ties to mainland China. The applicant must have paid over 100,000 RMB (around $15,000) in taxes in China, work for a “recognized high tech enterprise,” have donated over 5 million RMB (around $748,225) to a provincial charity, be a member of the National People’s Congress (China’s “rubber stamp” legislature) or the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing  (a group of around 236 people in Hong Kong), according to a report by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

The vast majority of Hong Kong residents, however, will likely end up taking a private hire car or a special bus from the port of Hong Kong to cross the bridge. It’s hard to say if their lives will be intensely impacted as regular ferry service already exists to Zhuhai and Macau.

While details of the scheme are few and far between, it will have to contend with any number of clashes, whether it’s a difference in the direction of traffic to the standards of media scrutiny. Integration will likely be met with even greater skepticism than the bridge by Hong Kong’s younger and more politically engaged generation as city residents may also find themselves increasingly questioned on their loyalty to mainland China in order to access certain public goods. But much like the bridge, practical complications will likely be outweighed by the deep propaganda value—and whatever the outcome, Hong Kong will still be handed the bill.

Corrections: A previous version of this story listed an incorrect length for the bridge project. The article also misidentified which side of the road drivers use in Macao, Hong Kong, and mainland China. It also listed an outdated party affiliation for Claudia Mo—she is an independent who left the Civic Party in 2016.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. Life

    Inside the Movement to Derail Amazon HQ2 Incentives

    New York and Virginia politicians and activists could still make changes to Amazon HQ2 packages—or at least stop the next bidding war from mirroring this one.

  3. A photo of British Prime Minister Theresa May announcing her government's Brexit deal outside No. 10 Downing Street
    Equity

    Britain Finally Has a Brexit Deal. Everyone Hates It.

    Amid resignations, it's clear the U.K. government massively misjudged how leaving the European Union would play out.

  4. A photo of a small small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley that sold for $1.8 million in 2014.
    Equity

    Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning

    As cities wake up to their housing crises, the problems with single-family-home residential zoning will become too egregious to ignore.

  5. A man holding a toddler walks past open-house signs in front of condominiums for sale.
    Life

    Millennials Are More Likely to Buy Their First Homes in Cities

    New research finds that Millennials are 21 percent more likely to buy their first homes near city centers than Generation X.