Hong Kong (CNN) In a country known for its record-breaking infrastructure, the project stands out.
With a length of 24 kilometers, an eight-lane road, artificial islands and undersea tunnels, the $6.7 billion Fukanaka Todo is ambitious.
Builders of the bridge, touted by state media, claim to have set a new world record by laying more than 22,600 square meters of asphalt, equivalent to more than 50 basketball courts, in just one day.
But perhaps surprisingly, the bridge isn’t the longest in the world. That title goes to another bridge just 20 miles away, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which is about 55 kilometers long.
Some say building such a massive bridge in such close proximity is a reflection of China’s growing ambitions on the international stage and the challenges of realizing them.
After eight years of construction, the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Expressway, which will open to traffic next year, will be as central to China’s grand vision as its neighbor Hong Kong. The plan aims to turn the Greater Bay Area, one of the largest and most densely populated regions in the world, into an economic and technological base on par with San Francisco, New York and Tokyo.
The eight-lane, 24-kilometer “Shenzhong Expressway” is expected to cost US$6.7 billion.Only 32 kilometers away from the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, the longest cross-sea bridge in the world
Like the bridge itself, the scale of the ambition is nothing short of grandiose. The Greater Bay Area has a population of 68 million and a total area of about 56,400 square kilometers, covering 11 cities including Hong Kong and Macau, and 9 cities including Zhongshan and Shenzhen. Shenzhen alone has a population of more than 12 million and is home to billion-dollar companies including drone maker DJI and social media company Tencent, earning it the nickname “China’s Silicon Valley”.
The idea is that the Chinese government wants to physically and conceptually integrate the cities of this vast and diverse region. Travel time between Zhongshan and Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport (the third busiest in mainland China, with more than 37 million passengers in 2019) is also expected to be cut from two hours on existing roads to 20 minutes.
But many say the bridge has other uses. It was a politically charged attempt to unify disparate regions — the former British colony of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau — into one identity, China. Some critics say the bridge’s size pales in comparison to the size of those speculations.
make a point
Austin Strange, an expert on China diplomacy at the University of Hong Kong, said the new bridge would certainly bring “substantial economic benefits” by reducing commuting times and traffic between cities.
But there’s another side to the bridge, Strange said, likening it to China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy, which is spending millions of dollars on infrastructure like ports and roads around the world.
Many see the BRI project as yet another attempt by China to increase its economic and political influence in the international community. Some accuse China of exerting influence over smaller countries by making loans that are unlikely to be repaid.
Experts say the bridge will be built in China so there is no such debt issue, but the size of the project sends a message.
“The Chinese government is clearly touting the bridge as one of the world’s greatest achievements,” Strange said. “Infrastructure is the cornerstone of China’s reputation in global development and the key to undertaking domestic and international development.”
However, the extent to which a bridge can impress other countries depends not only on the scale of the bridge, but also on the degree to which the bridge is ultimately supported and used by users.
Otherwise, China will face some criticism that some of the BRI’s mega-projects are often viewed as “money rubbish”.
Kaji Kuni, a finance professor at the University of Chicago, said that like the bridge connecting the shoreline of San Francisco Bay, China’s large companies may reduce travel time.
But only local residents of Zhongshan will benefit, he said. Neither a business district nor a tourist attraction, this idyllic town has no particular appeal to lure outsiders.
Projects can easily become bloated, so be wary of the impact on travel times and costs, he said. “That’s my concern.
bridge over rough sea
The Chinese government’s plans for the Greater Bay Area are ambitious, but there have been peaks and valleys.
The idea was first floated in 2009, but experts say idiosyncrasies and barriers between cities in the region are holding back development.
The region contains three boundaries. Mainland China and the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau are now special administrative regions of China, with different entry and exit and legal systems, as well as different currencies.
In addition, residents carry three different passports and ID cards and speak two Chinese languages (Cantonese and Mandarin).
Driving is also divided into driving on the right and driving on the left. Taken together, even trying to easily move between cities by land faces a mountain of obstacles.
Critics say some of these problems were already apparent when the Shenzhen-China Expressway’s sister project, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, opened in 2018.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge connects the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai, the casino city of Macau, and Hong Kong, one of the world’s leading financial centres.
Even in 2019, a year after it opened, the bridge is still underperforming, with only 4,000 people using it a day, according to the Hong Kong Transport Authority (compared to the European Channel, which connects the UK and France). According to the official website, an average of more than 8,000 vehicles passed through the tunnel every day in March this year. )
Experts attribute the slow response to the multiple visa and vehicle registrations required to travel between the three cities. What’s more, high-speed ferries between the three cities already operate daily. The piers where the ferries depart are usually more accessible than the border areas where the bridges enter.
Traffic on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge has dropped to a few hundred vehicles a day amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because all three cities are closed as part of a strict “zero corona” policy. However, it has recovered since the pandemic. State media reported that as many as 9,000 vehicles crossed the bridge in a single day during Labor Day this month.
But the debate over the bridge goes beyond purely financial issues.
Some see the bridge as a political stance. Opponents have criticized the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge as a tool to force Hong Kong to integrate with China and exert influence, which was shaken by pro-democracy movements in 2014 and 2019.
Don’t worry, “there will be traffic jams”
Still, there are fans who support Hashi.
Geng Xiao of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, said the Shenzhen tunnel would raise the bar in both areas.
“The west side of the coast is not as developed as the east side, and the price gap between the two sides is huge.” Xiao Geng said.
Xiao Geng also said it was different from the previous bridge, which was plagued by “fundamentally different” systems in the three cities, keeping people away from high travel costs.
Xiao Geng pointed out that the system will be the same as the new bridge connecting the two cities in mainland China.
“Don’t worry, there will be traffic jams.” Xiao Geng said.