By Bridge and Bullet Train, Hong Kong Is Bound Tighter to China
Posted September 23, 2018 12:51 a.m. EDT
HONG KONG — After months of debate and political discord, passengers started boarding high-speed trains at a new station in Hong Kong on Sunday morning, the formal launch of a multibillion-dollar transportation link that will tie the former British colony more closely to the rest of China.
Another project, the world’s longest sea bridge, is expected to open later this year. Like the train station, it is both an impressive engineering feat and a source of controversy. It will span the mouth of the Pearl River, linking Hong Kong with the mainland city of Zhuhai and the former Portuguese colony of Macau, the world’s biggest gambling hub.
Hong Kong officials say the projects are critical to economic development and will speed the movement of goods and people through the region, which the Chinese government wants to bind more tightly together. But many residents are concerned about what a Greater Bay Area, as China calls its vision of a more closely knit Pearl River Delta region, will mean for the city’s unique identity.
Large-scale building projects, like the highway that linked Hong Kong with Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, in the 1990s, helped secure the region’s status as a global manufacturing center. But analysts say the benefits of the latest projects are less clear, and some suspect that China’s desire to tighten its hold on Hong Kong trumped other concerns.
“I think it was obvious from the beginning that most likely political considerations were at least as important as economic reasons,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Both projects have seen delays, cost overruns and other complications. Environmentalists fear the bridge will hasten the extinction of endangered Chinese white dolphins. At least 10 workers have been killed in accidents during its construction, and 19 people face criminal charges in Hong Kong over faked concrete quality tests, which have raised questions about the structure’s integrity and required costly re-examinations.
The high-speed rail station, which cost $10.8 billion, has been deeply contentious in Hong Kong because it will host Chinese officers who will enforce mainland laws in part of the terminal.
Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese control in 1997, has its own laws under a model called “one country, two systems,” with more robust protections for individual rights than in mainland China. It maintains a border with Guangdong province, but allowing mainland officers in the new station has, in a sense, moved the border south.
Pro-democracy politicians, legal scholars and activists say that represents a further erosion of Hong Kong’s unique position within China.
“Both of these projects represent the physical connection between Hong Kong and mainland China,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “Of course the train station in particular goes all the way into the heart of Hong Kong with Chinese jurisdiction.”
Such concerns were inflamed this month when the mainland-controlled section of the terminus was handed over to Chinese officials in a brief, late-night ceremony, with no local news media invited. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, denied any intent to keep the event a secret.
Lam was also forced to explain why some mainland officers would work overnight, despite promises they would return to Guangdong when the station closed each evening, and why the station had an additional basement level that had not been disclosed to the public.
The new rail line has been billed as cutting travel time to Guangzhou to 48 minutes from more than two hours, although trains stopping at stations in between will take longer. The line will also allow passengers from Hong Kong to connect to 38 long-haul destinations on China’s national high-speed rail network, including Beijing and Shanghai.
But some potential passengers have balked at the service’s baggage limits, as well as ticket prices that offer little or no discount to flying.
“I don’t think there will be any benefit to me,” said Ling Chiang, 28, a commercial photographer who travels to the mainland about once a month for work. He goes to Guangzhou by train but said he would probably stick with air travel for more distant mainland destinations.
“Why waste time when the price is about the same?” he said. The Hong Kong government estimated in 2015 that more than 109,000 passengers would take the train every day, but this year it lowered the forecast to 80,000. Still, Frank Chan, Hong Kong’s secretary for transportation and housing, said he was confident the project would be profitable from the start.
Both projects represent some of China’s biggest national infrastructure undertakings of the past decade. The high-speed rail system, which began 10 years ago, is the world’s largest, with more than 15,000 miles of track. The country has also built hundreds of dazzling bridges that set records for length and height.
As with the express trains to the mainland, expectations for the 34-mile bridge-and-tunnel project linking Hong Kong to the western side of the Pearl River have been scaled back. A 2008 forecast anticipated 172,000 daily passenger trips by 2030, but the government this year lowered the figure to 126,000.
One reason is that the manufacturing center of Shenzhen, which was cut out of the original plan, is building its own bridge about 20 miles to the north. The span will connect with the city of Zhongshan and is expected to open in 2023.
“This is a competitor to the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge,” said Yang Chun, a professor of geography at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Obviously it will dilute the transportation volume, because they are parallel.”
The Shenzhen-Zhongshan bridge will be entirely within mainland China, meaning users won’t have to go through the border controls maintained by Hong Kong and Macau. They also won’t have to switch from driving on the right side of the road, which is used in the mainland, to the left, the side used in both former colonies. The 14-mile main span of the bridge cost $7 billion, of which the Hong Kong government will pay about $1.3 billion. Hong Kong spent an additional $13.7 billion to build connecting roads, tunnels and an artificial island for its border-crossing facilities. The drive between Hong Kong and Macau is expected to take about 45 minutes — far shorter than the current four hours to drive overland, but not much less than the hour or so it takes to go by ferry.
More doubts about the bridge project were raised in April. Photos of an artificial island where a 4-mile tunnel emerges near Hong Kong’s side of the river seemed to show that concrete tetrapods, structures meant to protect the island from erosion, had drifted away. The bridge authority said they were working as intended, but some engineers were unconvinced.
When Typhoon Mangkut blew through the region last week, some of the bridge’s detractors in Hong Kong expressed hope that the structure would be washed away. But as Hong Kong cleaned up, it was still standing, apparently unharmed.