Beijing Is Foisting a White Elephant on Hong Kong
The massive Greater Bay Area project is about China's needs, not Hong Kongers.
The world’s longest sea bridge runs across the mouth of the Pearl River, connecting Hong Kong to its fellow special administrative region, Macau, and to Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland. Set to open this year, the 34-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is a key component of the Greater Bay Area, an ambitious scheme to integrate Hong Kong, Macau, and nine of Guangdong province’s biggest cities, including Zhuhai, the provincial capital of Guangzhou, and the tech hub Shenzhen.
Yet few people in Hong Kong are rejoicing about this. Since being officially endorsed by the central government in Beijing in 2016, the Greater Bay Area has become a mantra for Hong Kong officials and business leaders who see it as a solution for all of Hong Kong’s problems.
This exuberance contrasts sharply with the lukewarm sentiment among regular Hong Kongers, especially the young, who are more and more hostile to any projects proposed by an increasingly autocratic Beijing-connected leadership.
Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been a strong supporter of massive economic plans. Chief among this is the Belt and Road Initiative, ostensibly based on the ancient Silk Road but with both land-based and maritime components running from Asia to Europe.
The initiative has attracted a lot of attention for its ambitious aims but is starting to receive heavy criticism for projects in developing countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka that have left the hosts heavily indebted to China.
The Greater Bay Area is another of the central government’s ambitious projects. While the idea of joint regional development originally came from meetings between Hong Kong and a few Guangdong cities several years ago, the plan was granted official recognition when it was mentioned in the 13th Five-Year Plan in 2016 and then announced by Premier Li Keqiang in his annual work report in 2017. The Greater Bay Area is intended to create the world’s biggest bay area, covering more than 21,000 square miles and a population of 68 million and comparable to the Tokyo Bay and San Francisco Bay areas.
There is nothing wrong with furthering regional cooperation. But just like the Belt and Road Initiative, the true purpose of the Greater Bay Area is not to provide economic benefits to locals but to bind a reluctant Hong Kong closer to Beijing. Claudia Mo, a Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator and former journalist, argues that the Greater Bay Area is a push toward an unwanted union. “It’s a carefully calculated political scheme to integrate and melt Hong Kong into the mainland and forget about all the ‘one country, two system[s]’ promises,” she said.
Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, when Hong Kong was handed over to China by the United Kingdom in 1997, the territory was guaranteed a certain degree of autonomy until 2047. Hong Kong possesses a partially elected legislature, an independent judiciary, and rule of law, as well as a free press and civil society, none of which are enjoyed by Hong Kongers’ supposed compatriots across the bay on the Chinese mainland. All this is upheld by Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which is the city’s mini-constitution, but this is coming under threat.
A detailed Greater Bay Area master plan was supposed to have been released in May by the central government but was delayed due to concerns regarding the trade war with the United States. In August, Beijing announced several measures for Hong Kong, but an overarching document still has yet to be released.While the Greater Bay Area project has yet to be officially launched, two massive infrastructure schemes related to it have been or are almost complete.
One of these is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which cost more than $20 billion and was beset by construction problems that raised serious safety concerns. Several workers died and hundreds were injured during construction on the Hong Kong portion of the bridge; as is common with mainland Chinese projects, the death and accident toll on the other side is unknown.
The other is Hong Kong’s new high-speed rail line, which is expected to open on Sept. 23. However, passengers at the Hong Kong terminus will clear customs and immigration manned by 800 staff from mainland China, not Hong Kong.
This means that for the first time since 1997, mainland law will be officially enforced on Hong Kong soil despite fierce opposition from the region’s legal figures and opposition politicians. This marks a significant challenge to the one country, two systems arrangement in which Hong Kong maintains full authority over its territory.
Hong Kongers fear that this precedent will lead to further imposition of Chinese mainland laws on Hong Kong soil. Some also worry that Hong Kongers will face restrictions in the terminus, such as being unable to access Facebook or Google—both of which are banned in the mainland—or being arrested for clothing with political slogans.
Like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, the high-speed rail line is a white elephant. It has been heavily criticized for its $10.75 billion cost, which was worsened by budgetary overruns and delays. All this for just a 16-mile journey to neighboring Shenzhen in Guangdong—already reachable by one-hour bus rides or on Hong Kong’s East Rail.
These projects don’t address the actual needs of Hong Kongers. Their main purpose is not to benefit Hong Kong but to tie Hong Kong to China under the disguise of an economic project.
Over the last few years, Beijing has chipped away at Hong Kong’s distinct status under the one country, two systems arrangement. While this has mostly happened in the political and judicial spheres with Chinese authorities influencing local court rulings and stymieing electoral reform, the Greater Bay Area plan is an attempt to further dilute Hong Kong’s distinctions through the economy.
Chinese officials and state media, as well as Hong Kong government officials who depend on Beijing’s patronage, have spared little effort in promoting the Greater Bay Area. In Hong Kong, officials and businesses have extolled the project as a panacea for everything from housing to jobs.
The city’s former leader Leung Chun-ying even urged Hong Kongers to shed their identity by embracing being “Bay Area people.” Jonathan Choi, the chairman of a major local business chamber, took it even further by saying that in the future, there will “no longer be Hong Kong people but Bay Area people,” in an interview in May with a local newspaper. That stands in stark contrast with the Hong Kong identity survey, which shows young people increasingly and strongly identifying as Hong Kongers and just 3.1 percent thinking of themselves as Chinese.
Officials are even encouraging Hong Kongers to move to Guangdong to alleviate the shortage of affordable housing, which conveniently overlooks the Hong Kong government’s long-standing failure on this front. Local media, especially the English-language South China Morning Post, frequently carry articles about the Greater Bay Area. One such article even quoted Chinese youths likening Shenzhen to New York, Tokyo, and Paris. That’s a nice thought but hard to swallow for anyone who has actually been to any of those cities.
All this has been met with little enthusiasm from Hong Kongers. Not surprisingly, not many locals are eager to move to a place where one cannot access uncensored internet or media or enjoy the freedoms and rights that Hong Kongers still have, at least for now. This is something that the government and corporate supporters of the Greater Bay Area project conveniently fail to address.
Philippe Le Corre, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Relations, also sees Hong Kong’s unique status diminishing within the Greater Bay Area. “It seems the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement is becoming empty with the central government trying to make Hong Kong an ordinary Chinese city,” he said. “Hong Kong might be able to remain one of the main cities of the [Greater Bay Area], but it will lose out to Shenzhen, which now has a larger population, a big airport, and is attracting a growing number of Chinese and international companies.”
Le Corre is also skeptical about the Greater Bay Area surpassing the Tokyo Bay and San Francisco Bay areas. “I think those predictions are vastly overstated. The GBA is based on the construction of new infrastructure, [much] of it unnecessary and detrimental to the environment of an already over-industrialized and over-built region,” he said.
In a report issued by the accounting firm KPMG last year, one corporate executive even suggested open borders between Hong Kong and the mainland using the European Union’s Schengen Agreement as a model, allowing for freedom of movement. The KPMG report, which was done by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce—a previous employer of mine—claims to offer a “market view” of the Greater Bay Area.
But in the EU, all countries share certain norms, such as democracy and the rule of law, whereas Hong Kong’s rule of law and political freedoms are in stark contrast to the mainland’s single-party authoritarianism and harsh censorship laws.
Another sign of the Greater Bay Area’s political importance is that though Hong Kong and Guangdong were the originators of the idea, the two have been reduced to taking orders from Beijing. The Greater Bay Area is an unabashedly top-down plan, with Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng announcing in May that the Greater Bay Area strategy had been “personally planned, mapped out, and promoted” by Xi himself. Han, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership body, has been tasked with overseeing the Greater Bay Area.
“The Beijing leadership certainly sees Hong Kong as a kind of runaway territory. [To them], Hong Kongers have proven to be ‘disobedient’ and ‘ungrateful.’ This top-down approach shows Beijing’s determination to cleanse Hong Kong. It’s the end of Hong Kong in the making,” Mo said.
Just as the Belt and Road Initiative is increasingly seen as a geopolitical strategy for China’s benefit rather than an economic initiative to help developing countries, the Greater Bay Area is not about regional prosperity but about tightening Beijing’s control over Hong Kong. If it goes ahead, the end of the one country, two systems agreement might happen well before 2047.