Chinese President Xi Jinping has officially opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge, connecting Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China today at a time when Beijing is tightening its grip on its semi-autonomous territories.
Xi announced the bridge officially opened at a ceremony also attended by Hong Kong’s and Macau’s city leaders at a new port terminal in the southern mainland city of Zhuhai.
“I declare the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge officially open,” Xi said as digital fireworks exploded on a screen behind him in an indoor ceremony, before leaving the stage immediately. He did not address the audience.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam had earlier spoken to thank Xi for attending in person, praising the bridge’s “magnificence”.
Including its access roads, the bridge spans 55km (34 miles) and connects Hong Kong to Macau and the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai.
The bridge has cost about $20bn (£15.3bn) and seen several delays.
Construction has been dogged by safety issues – at least 18 workers have died on the project, officials say.
It is the second major infrastructure project tying Hong Kong to mainland China to launch in a matter of weeks, after the opening of a high-speed rail link last month, and is part of a Beijing-driven strategy to create a sprawling “Greater Bay Area” economic hub.
Critics say the new multi-billion-dollar sea-bridge is one more way to integrate Hong Kong into China as fears grow that the city’s cherished freedoms are being eroded.
The Mega Bridge will open to regular traffic on Wednesday.
It is part of China’s plan to create a Greater Bay Area, including Hong Kong, Macau and nine other cities in southern China.
The area is currently home to 68 million people.
In the past, traveling between Zhuhai and Hong Kong would take up to four hours – the new bridge cuts this down to 30 minutes.
What’s so special about this bridge?
The crossing connects three key coastal cities in southern China – Hong Kong, Macau, and Zhuhai.
The bridge, designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, was built using 400,000 tonnes of steel, enough to build 60 Eiffel Towers.
About 30km of its total length crosses the sea of the Pearl River delta. To allow ships through, a 6.7km section in the middle dips into an undersea tunnel that runs between two artificial islands.
The remaining sections are linked roads, viaducts and land tunnels connecting Zhuhai and Hong Kong to the main bridge.
There was no ceremony on the Hong Kong side Tuesday, but there was a heightened police presence in coastal areas near the bridge, with officers carrying out identity checks on journalists and members of the public.
Hong Kong residents will only be granted a license to cross into Zhuhai by car if they meet highly selective criteria, including holding certain mainland government positions or making major contributions to charities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
Most people will need to travel the bridge on coaches and buses.
Online commenters in Hong Kong complained about the bridge’s restricted access ahead of the launch.
“Such a huge investment using the Hong Kong taxpayer’s money… yet basically it is not open to us at all,” said one comment on the South China Morning Post website.
But residents in Zhuhai welcomed the bridge.
“I think this bridge will bring great convenience to the whole area of Zhuhai, Hong Kong, and Macao, and promote the economic development of the whole area of the Pearl River Delta,” resident Dang Zheiliang told AFP.
Resident Can Binghua paid a visit to the bridge on his day off.
“Today I’m off duty, so I took my child to see the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge. Now it’s almost open to traffic. It’s magnificent,” he told AFP.
Some Hong Kong media reported that the physical condition of bus drivers would be monitored by cameras, including an alert sent if a driver yawns more than three times in 20 seconds.
China already lays claim to the record for the world’s longest bridge of any kind — the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, a viaduct which is part of a high-speed rail line.
The opening of the high-speed rail link last month also sparked criticism as it saw Chinese security stationed on Hong Kong soil for the first time at the city’s terminus.
Critics accused the Hong Kong government of giving away territory to an increasingly assertive Beijing.
# The bridge has been dubbed the “bridge of death” by some local media. At least nine workers on the Hong Kong side have died and officials told BBC News Chinese that nine had died on the mainland side, too.
Hundreds of workers have also been injured during the construction.
There have also been concerns about the environmental impact.
Environmental groups say the project may have caused serious harm to marine life in the area, including the critically rare Chinese white dolphin.
The number of dolphins seen in Hong Kong waters has decreased from 148 to 47 in the past 10 years, and they are now absent from the waters near the bridge, according to the Hong Kong branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
“The project has made irreversible damage to the sea,” said Samantha Lee, Assistant Director of Ocean Conservation at the WWF. “I am worried that the number will never rise again.”
# The bridge, surrounding link roads and artificial islands cost a staggering $20bn to build – the main bridge alone cost $6.92bn.
Chinese officials say it will generate up to 10 trillion yuan ($1.44tn; £1tn) for the economy, but one Hong Kong lawmaker cast doubt on that figure.
“I am not so sure either how the bridge can sustain itself if not many cars are using it,” Tanya Chan told BBC News Chinese.
“I am pretty sure that we would never earn that construction cost back.”
According to an estimate by BBC Chinese, the bridge will only earn around $86m in tolls per year.
In fact, the bridge’s maintenance costs would already take away a third of this income.
Critics have called the bridge a “big white elephant” that guarantees no economic return. Others have said its main purpose is symbolic, ensuring Hong Kong is physically connected to the mainland.