HONG KONG — The world’s longest sea bridge opened on Tuesday, snaking 34 miles across China’s Pearl River estuary to form a pillar of Beijing’s plan to merge 11 cities in its southern region into one megalopolis.
At 20 times the length of California’s Golden Gate Bridge, the six-lane crossing will link a regional economic zone of 70 million people, with a combined annual GDP of $1.51 trillion—almost twice that of the San Francisco Bay Area, and larger than the national economies of Australia, Spain or Mexico. The nine-year construction project joins a recently launched high-speed train to cut travel times and boost business ties between mainland Chinese manufacturing cities and the financial hub of Hong Kong as well as the gambling enclave of Macau.
The links are part of a plan to create an integrated region that officials have dubbed the “Greater Bay Area.” The bridge will put Hong Kong, Macau and the Chinese city of Zhuhai within an hour of each other. Emphasizing the importance of the project, President Xi Jinping was the guest of honor at the official opening Tuesday, declaring the bridge open after speeches from senior officials from the cities heralding a new milestone in their partnership.
Mr. Xi’s plan to build out China’s Silicon Valley will need more than infrastructure to succeed. Hong Kong and Macau are both former Western colonies promised a high-degree of autonomy until the middle of this century: They have their own legal and political systems and residents are afforded greater freedoms than their mainland counterparts. In Hong Kong especially, concerns are rising that those rights are being eroded and that Beijing’s ultimate aim is to swallow up the city into the mainland.
Steps toward further integration face complications such as differing legal and taxation systems as well as varying levels of internet freedoms. China still operates a relatively closed capital account, while Hong Kong and Macau are free ports with their own currencies and no capital controls.
Hong Kong has paid about $15 billion toward completion of the bridge and the associated construction costs. In return, the city “will assume a more proactive role in the development of the Greater Bay Area,” said Hong Kong’s top transport official, Frank Chan, citing tie-ups in trade, finance, logistics and tourism.
Some Hong Kong lawmakers question whether the investment will pay off and whether political strings will be attached.
“We are still highly skeptical about what the bridge will bring Hong Kong,” said Alvin Yeung, head of the Civic Party. “This is another symbolic project to put Hong Kong in the mainland picture.”
The question of who can use the Y-shaped bridge, which opens to traffic on Wednesday, underscores the challenges of integrating three different systems. In Hong Kong and Macau traffic moves on the left side of the road; in mainland China people drive on the right. The solution? Cars switch sides of the road at a specially built merge point, located at the viaduct at the mouth of the bridge link in Hong Kong. Private vehicle owners also need to obtain separate licenses for each city, which are subject to stringent quotas, making it impractical for most drivers.
During construction, the project was marred by the deaths of a number of workers and a graft investigation into falsified concrete tests.
The project consists of three cable-stayed bridges, with connecting roads and a sea-crossing tunnel that route through artificial islands. The government has said that is it built to last a century and to withstand earthquakes and megastorms. The bridge remained unscathed after a supertyphoon called Mangkhut sucked out office windows and uprooted hundreds of trees across the city on Sept. 14.
President Xi has made it clear that developing southern China into a high-technology region is a priority, a goal made even more important by the escalating trade dispute with the U.S. and as the nation’s rate of economic growth slid to 6.5% in the third quarter, the slowest pace since the global financial crisis.
Guangdong province, where nine of the 11 Greater Bay Area cities are located, is where China’s economic liberalization began 40 years ago. Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, served as governor there at the time, sent by Beijing to implement reform policies in the city of Shenzhen.
While occupying only 1% of China’s landmass—still twice the size of the San Francisco Bay Area—the Greater Bay Area produces 37% of the country’s total exports and 12% of GDP, according to an August 2018 report by HSBC. The bank expects nearly 45% of China’s tech firms will be based in the province by 2025.