By Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett
October 27, 2018

Chinese president Xi Jinping led a phalanx of senior Communist Party officials to China’s southern Guangdong province this week to commemorate the 40th anniversary of China’s opening to trade with the West, and preside over the launch of a spectacular 34-mile bridge connecting the former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macau with the mainland city of Zhuhai.

Xi’s visit was an homage to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “Southern Tour,” in which Deng visited Guangdong’s Hong Kong-invested factories to underscore his determination to end China’s isolation from the West following Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. But Xi dashed hopes that he might use his visit to unveil a new wave of economic reforms, loosening restrictions on foreign investment and scaling back government involvement in China’s private sector. Instead, China’s “core leader” reaffirmed Beijing’s support for state-owned enterprises, and renewed his call for “self-reliance” on homegrown technologies.

Xi opened the bridge to great fanfare in a ceremony in Zhuhai Tuesday. The structure, which spans the Pearl River delta and is the world’s longest sea crossing, is an astonishing feat of engineering. It took nine years to build and cost more than $20 billion. Designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes, the bridge required 400,000 tons of steel—enough to build 60 Eiffel Towers. To allow the passage of cargo ships, the connection ducks into an undersea tunnel that runs for four miles between two artificial islands. All told, it cuts travel time between Hong Kong and Zhuhai from four hours to 30 minutes.

The bridge’s opening inspired impassioned discussion in mainland media about “The Greater Bay Area,” the Xi administration’s grand plan for stitching Hong Kong and Macau together with nine other mainland cities to create a single urban cluster rivaling the dynamism and innovative power of urban centers like the San Francisco Bay area, greater New York, and Tokyo.

But there was far less enthusiasm for the bridge in Hong Kong, where many wondered why their city had to foot more than half of the bill for a project for which few residents saw a compelling need. It’s unclear how many drivers will actually use the bridge given that, to do so, they must obtain three separate permits from Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland Chinese governments; buy special car insurance for the mainland and Macau; and register with authorities in Zhuhai. Beyond the bureaucratic hassles, many Hong Kongers are fed up with mainland meddling in the city’s affairs and the rising onslaught of mainland tourists. A recent study by Hong Kong’s Lingnan University and Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University found that in the past year fewer than half of Hong Kong’s residents have set foot in “Bay Area” cities outside their home city or Macau.

My worry about the “Greater Bay Area” rhetoric is that it glosses over fundamental differences between southern China’s major cities. Hong Kong is mainly a financial giant, but a tech pygmy. Macau is the world’s most lucrative gambling destination—but from an economic vantage has little else to offer. Shenzhen and Guangzhou, while both tech powerhouses, are culturally distinct: the vast majority of Guangzhou’s population speaks Cantonese, while Shenzhen is a migrant melting pot populated mostly by factory workers from other regions who speak Mandarin inflected by their hometown dialects. It will take a lot more than a fancy bridge to unite this far-flung region.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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