Remko Tanis • 23 October 2018


My cheapskate schlepp from mainland China’s Shenzhen to the free world of Hong Kong used to go like this:

  • Walk 20 minutes to the border checkpoint at Luo Hu.

  • Navigate a shady mall with a disproportionate number of massage parlors and ‘business hotels’ surrounding it.

  • Go up some floors to be processed by Chinese immigration.

  • Walk through a glass footbridge, crossing the little creek that separates mainland China and Hong Kong.

  • Take a few minutes to fill out the Hong Kong immigration and quarantine forms. Stand in line to get stamped in by Hong Kong immigration officials.

  • Board the blue colored East Rail Line of Hong Kong metro for the 1 hour plus ride to Hong Kong Island, while switching my phone from China Mobile to Vodafone HK and indulging on some uncensored, fast internet.

The Shenzhen side at LuoHu of the pedestrian border crossing to Hong Kong. (C) Remko Tanis

Door-to-door over two hours. There’s probably some automation now on both sides of the border to speed up the process, but still: it took a while and really gave a feeling of traveling to a whole other country.

That’s getting less so.

China’s president Xi Jinping today opened the world’s longest sea bridge, spanning 55km between the cities of Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai.

The cities lie in the Pearl River Delta. Trips between them could run up to four hours. The bridge brings that down to 30 minutes, although only buses and commercial vehicles will be allowed to use it.

Local taxis aren’t allowed on it, and only few private cars will get a license to use the bridge, according to the BBC - which has some nice photos of the bridge. More on the first day of operations on the bridge in this piece, and on how to get yourself crossing it here.

So why not let all 120 million people of the Pearl River Delta -which if fully integrated would be by far the largest metropolitan area in the world- use the bridge, which cost USD 20 billion to build?

A border crossing between Shenzhen in mainland China and Hong Kong, only open to local residents. (C) Remko Tanis

Because Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China’s Zhuhai each have their own jurisdiction. Macau, Asia’s gambling paradise where casino revenue royally outshines Las Vegas, and Hong Kong are Special Administrative Regions of China with their own immigration authorities. Both were European colonies: Hong Kong was controlled by the UK until 1 July 1997, while Portugal controlled Macau until 20 December 1999.

Both are now governed by local authorities and have their own laws, which are different and often a lot freer than those of mainland China. Immigration is much easier as well: most foreigners need a visum to visit mainland China, while the borders of HK and Macau are generally wide open.

Their status as Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China ends in 2047 (HK) and 2049 (Macau), at which date Beijing will formally take full control. At least, that’s how it’s written down in the treaties China signed with Portugal and the UK.

Border crossing to Hong Kong at Lo Wu, Shenzhen, mainland China. (C) Remko Tanis

In practice, Beijing isn’t waiting fifty years to make itself felt in the territories. Especially in HK, with its (relative) democratic tradition, this has caused tensions. People fear the increased assimilation efforts coming from the north, which eat away at their freedoms.

There’s worry they will soon live in ‘just another Chinese city’, undistinguishable from nearby Shenzhen or Guangzhou. What’s more: HK as a separate city might disappear into the mega-metropolis that is the Pearl River Delta. Not an unrealistic expectation at all. Local authorities have been promoting the ‘Greater Bay Area Dream’ for a while now - an especially tough sell to mistrusting Hong Kong residents.

To these people, the new bridge is a symbol of China physically binding the territory closer to the mainland. The bridge is an umbilical cord between Beijing and HK. Veteran Asia journalist Philip Bowring warns of a ‘slow death for Hong Kong’s separate identity’.

A Chinese high speed bullet train. (C) Remko Tanis

It doesn’t help that only earlier this month, a new rail line was opened which connects Hong Kong to the mainland’s massive high-speed rail network. Every Chinese city got a high speed rail station over the past decade. And now that includes Hong Kong. At the new high speed terminal in Kowloon, immigration officers from the mainland have jurisdiction. With that, the train station is the first location inside Hong Kong where rule of law means: rule of Mainland China’s law.

Projects like this, that integrate a territory into the infrastructure of new powers that be, might seem normal.

Russia’s president Putin opened a road bridge to Crimea this past May, a territory he gained control over in 2014 as Ukraine lost it.

Speaking to Asian Correspondent on the opening of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, Hong Kong author Kung Tsung-gan points out:

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. But the pattern mapped out here shows not closer cooperation but imposition.