Hong Kong Connects to the Mainland

The opening of the 50-km Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge on Oct. 23 by President Xi Jinping was predictably accompanied by a full blast of propaganda about its importance in uniting the mainland with its two Special Administrative Regions.

Emphasized were the huge economic and social benefits which are supposed flow from this further interconnecting of the 70 million people of the so-called Greater Bay Area (GBA). Those will have to be very big indeed to generate an economic return, let alone a financial one .The much delayed project cost upwards of US$20 billion with Hong Kong paying out some HK$110 billion (US$14 billion) for its share of the bridge and related infrastructure.

But hyperbole about its benefits has been eagerly picked up by foreign as well as local news organisations as if to want to head off questions about whether it isn't another of the politically-driven prestige projects for which China is noted.

The BBC for example reported that the bridge would cut the journey time between Hong Kong and Zhuhai from four hours to 30 minutes. Such reporting exhibited remarkable ignorance of the geography of the region, and of the existing connections between Hong Kong and the mainland. The reality is that there have long been frequent ferry services from the center of Hong Kong to Zhuhai (as well as even more frequent ones to Macau) which take 60-70 minutes.

The road distance by bridge from Zhuhai to central Hong Kong is 85 km so the bare minimum journey time will be an hour, even assuming little traffic. It will be more convenient for some travelers but isn't a huge change in connectivity. It will at least initially be cheaper than ferries because bridge tolls will be kept low to encourage use. But that further underlines its lack of economic merit.

Nor is a link to Zhuhai, itself a rather minor part of the GBA with only 2 million people and almost as far from the center of Guangzhou as Hong Kong itself. Neighboring Zhongshan has 4 million people but that is also accessible by ferry. In contrast to a bridge which links only to the southwestern tip of the GBA, Hong Kong has two trains and several road links across its northern border which not only link to Guangzhou itself but to the most populous of the other GBA cities that lie on the east bank of the Pearl River, Shenzhen and Dongguan with about 24 million.

Even Foshan, southwest of Guangzhou with 7 million people is already more easily accessible via the high-speed rail link from Hong Kong to Guangzhou South station than via Zhuhai.

The bridge will add something to mainland tourism to Hong Kong, perhaps with more of those going to gamble in Macau also visiting Hong Kong, but it won't be dramatic. The impact on Hong Kong’s port will be minimal. Ditto its airport which already has a direct “In Transit” ferry to Zhuhai which enables travelers going to the mainland to bypass Hong Kong immigration.

Looking ahead, there are also doubts whether the GBA population, which has grown amazingly over the past 35 years as it became a global manufacturing hub, will grow much more. Not only has population growth nationwide almost come to a halt but some labor-intensive industries have been moving inland or overseas – a trend which will speed up if the US's tariff war continues.

Further undermining the bridge’s utility is that another bridge is under construction further north between Shenzhen and Zhongshan and thus directly connecting the most populous part of the GBA to the western side of the Pearl delta.

Hong Kong’s people have shown themselves less than overwhelmed by the supposed opportunities of the bridge. Not only has it cost them an inordinate amount of money, it is a symbol of Beijing’s push for One Country at the expense of Two Systems.

However, Hong Kong officials can’t just blame the mainland. They are as devoted to expensive infrastructure projects with limited economic justification as any Chinese city. They are assured of wasting money by channeling all revenue from land sales, itself a huge part of receipts, into capital works.

The bridge has some economic merit, another of the government’s major projects has negative economic worth. It is spending HK$35 billion on a road tunnel link of just 4 km. Its main function will be to make it easier for civil servants and bankers to drive to their offices in Central, thereby adding to an already-serious air pollution problem. Worse still, this boondoggle has raised the coast and delayed construction of the Shatin-to-Central railway, desperately needed to reduce overcrowding on existing network on which most people rely.

Road congestion in the Central and Wan Chai areas could have been solved at zero cost through road, tunnel and parking pricing, which has proven so successful in Singapore. But the integrated civil servant/big business elite preferred its own interests to addressing traffic and pollution problems, let alone spend taxes on the needs of the masses – public housing, health and hospitals. It is a classic example of just how out of date Hong Kong has become with its 1960s solutions to current problems thanks to vested interests and excessive revenues achieved by squeezing land supplies.