HONG KONG -- A boom in infrastructure projects linking Hong Kong to the surrounding Pearl River estuary is blurring the already hazy border separating the former British colony from mainland China.
Beijing, which took possession of Hong Kong in 1997, sees the city -- and particularly its global financial services industry -- as a linchpin of the Greater Bay Area, an 11-city megalopolis comprising China's manufacturing heartland including nearby Shenzhen, Macao and Zhuhai. This region's collective gross domestic product was 12.6 trillion yuan ($1.97 trillion) in 2021, surpassing South Korea's.
Projects like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, a 55-km system of tunnels and the world's longest sea bridge that opened in 2018, is just one piece of an increasingly complicated jigsaw of infrastructure linking Greater Bay Area cities. Others include rail lines, bridges, special economic zones and massive real estate projects that open up vast economic opportunities for Hong Kong.
Critics, however, say the projects are doing with infrastructure what Beijing is simultaneously doing with legislation -- gradually eroding Hong Kong's autonomy. "It is clear that they really want to dissolve the border," said Ho-fung Hung, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of "City on the Edge: Hong Kong under Chinese rule."
The city was returned to China in 1997 after 156 years of British rule, and was meant to be self-governed. But gradually Beijing has ended any semblance of the "one country, two systems" formula that had been agreed on at the time of the handover. That culminated in a new security law promulgated in mid-2020 that all but erased the special administrative region's sovereignty.
Hung said economic and social integration between Hong Kong and the mainland began as early as 2003, when the free trade Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement was signed by Hong Kong and Beijing.
Official plans to economically integrate the southern cities came in 2017, when Hong Kong signed a framework agreement to deepen cooperation with Macao and Guangdong province.
The following year, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for further integration. "The integration of Hong Kong and Macao into the overall development of the country is the proper meaning of 'one country, two systems,'" he said.
Further integration was halted by the pandemic, as China's harsh zero-COVID curbs closed the border with Hong Kong.
Now, however, as China resumes quarantine-free travel, a new wave of cross-border traffic will quickly take shape as recently completed infrastructure projects unify the two jurisdictions.
"Economic integration is to be accelerated, especially when COVID is now fading away and the border gate between Hong Kong and China is going to open," said Sonny Lo, veteran political scientist and observer of the politics of Hong Kong and Macao.
"In the long run, approaching 2047, we can't expect the territorial boundary for Hong Kong to remain unchanged," said Lo, referring to the end of the 50-year agreement for the "one country, two systems" formula.
Before the transformation
For most of its colonial history, Hong Kong was an enclave of wealth and status surrounded by the poor rural farmland and fishing villages of southern China. This photo shows the rural landscape of Lok Ma Chau, northern Hong Kong, in 1979.
The landscape began to change, however, in the 1980s, as economic reforms transformed the Pearl River delta into a booming industrial zone.
Today, the focal point of the effort to merge Hong Kong with its neighbours is Shenzhen, once a fishing village (seen on the horizon here) that has transformed into a megacity fueled by the growth of technology giants such as Huawei Technologies and Tencent Holdings.
Its integration with Hong Kong has been spearheaded by the Shenzhen Bay Bridge, built in 2007, the Hong Kong Shenzhen Western Rail Link, and the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park proposed in Lok Ma Chau.
A new center of gravity
The new infrastructure has brought development and wealth to an ever wider radius around both cities. However, it also appears aimed at shifting the center of commercial activity and decision-making, which has traditionally been with Hong Kong Island, northward.
The effort to blur the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong began in earnest on Jan. 6, 2018 when, at the request of the Guangdong provincial government, bulldozers began to tear down the iron fence that separated Hong Kong from the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
The decision to get rid of the fence had to go all the way up to the State Council in Beijing for the green light and hinted at further integration between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
Proposed infrastructure developments
Now, China's attention is focused on a new real estate development within the borders of Hong Kong called the Northern Metropolis. Beijing backed-Hong Kong officials candidly say the project is aimed at further tying Hong Kong and Shenzhen together.
"The Northern Metropolis will proactively promote complementarity between the respective strength of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and facilitate development integration between the two cities, with a view to pursuing jointly the creation of a livable metropolis where industrial and ecological spaces would be interlinked," former Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in 2021.
The Northern Metropolis
The ambitious megaproject was first introduced in 2021 in an attempt to turn the area near the border with Shenzhen into an innovation and technology hub. The project was part of the broader effort to shift Hong Kong's center of gravity north, according to incumbent Chief Executive John Lee, who said the government planned to move numerous departments and offices from its current home in Admiralty to the Northern Metropolis. The plan will bring the core of the city closer to mainland China.
The 300-sq. km project would likely take 20 years to be fully implemented due to fiscal strength, legislative amendments and land-use obstacles, according to the government.
The Northern Metropolis is one of the largest real estate deals to materialize in years, with the government earmarking HK$100 billion ($12.79 billion) of investment so far. It will see the property development giants of both Hong Kong and mainland China benefit, all but ensuring smooth political approval.
The Northern Metropolis (continued)
Four local property developers - Henderson Land, New World Development, Sun Hung Kai Properties and Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong Asset Holdings - together own more than half of the land proposed for the project and stand to win big from potential sales and the development of the area.
Brian Wong, co-founder of Liber Research, said the north and northwestern part of the proposed Northern Metropolis are ecologically sensitive areas that are home to winter and migratory birds. Any development could hurt the integrity of the internationally recognized wetland.
"In conjunction with the Northern Metropolis plan, the government is ready to relax development restrictions in the area to promote private development in the wetland," Wong said. He also told Nikkei Asia that the government plans to make the planning and consultation process less democratic, making it hard for the public to oppose any proposals.
Meanwhile, state-backed real estate giant China Resources Land, which has helped develop a majority of infrastructure and property projects in the GBA, late in 2021 signed a strategic partnership agreement with Henderson Land Development, New World Development and two local developers: K Wah International Holdings and Stanley Ho's Sun Tak Holdings. Together, the five have vowed to enhance integration.
The Qianhai-Hong Kong Cooperation Zone
Initially launched in 2010, the 15 sq. km area was designed to promote financial services, logistics and technology development between Hong Kong and mainland China. Qianhai, an area of mostly reclaimed land, sits across from Hong Kong and was marked as a district for cooperation between the two jurisdictions.
In September 2021, the area, also known as the Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Cooperation Zone, was championed by the Communist Party's Central Committee and China's State Council, which expanded the existing area by seven times to 120.56 sq. km. Plans include a convention and exhibition district, a new airport district and further enhancing the Shenzhen Bay port area. Companies operating in the area will abide by mainland law but can enter civil and commercial contracts under both legal jurisdictions.
Shenzhen special project zones
The 3.89 sq. km Shenzhen-Hong Kong Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation Zone sits along the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong and was officially opened in October 2021. The project is part of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao cooperation platform under the national 14th five-year plan.
With total investment of 61.5 billion yuan, and 14 satellite parks, the Zone attracted the Chinese University of Hong Kong to set up a research institute in 2020 joining four other Hong Kong universities that have also set up research projects. Hong Kong signed an arrangement called "One Zone, Two Parks" in Sept 2021.
The idea, according to the Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, is to "focus on the flow of I&T material, capital, data and people between Hong Kong and Shenzhen."
Lok Ma Chau Loop
Development of the riverside plot Lok Ma Chau Loop began in July 2021 after it was greenlit to become the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park. The land was given to Hong Kong by mainland China in January 2017, and its 87 hectares will be turned into a technology park to help the financial hub diversify its economy. The project is run by a subsidiary wholly owned by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, and the park sits next to Shenzhen's special project zones.
Completion of the first batch of buildings is expected to start at the end of 2024. The buildings will be consolidated as part of the Northern Metropolis project. The park, suggested by the government, will be used as a base for scientific research collaboration between overseas and mainland institutions, with the government allocating HK$10 billion to the HKSTPC.
Lantau Tomorrow Vision
An ambitious artificial island project, first floated by the government in 2018, Lantau Tomorrow Vision has been met with controversy and opposition from environmental groups and other activists.
Also known as the Kau Yi Chau Artificial Island project, it will cost roughly HK$580 billion and provide 1,000 hectares of land to build around 210,000 flats. Work is slated to begin in 2025 and is expected to be completed in 2033.
The island is expected to link with the proposed Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Railway, easing cross-border travel and forging closer ties between the cities.
Bridging the gap with rail
The Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Rail Link is a proposed cross-border service that will connect Hong Kong International Airport with Shenzhen's Bao'an International Airport, along with facilitating cross-border services between Hong Kong and mainland China.
The government has dismissed suggestions that the link isn't necessary as express rail links already exist to Shenzhen. "To suggest that we don't need this connection between Hung Shui Kiu and Qianhai, I'm afraid you are going against public opinion," said former Chief Executive Lam. No timeline has been set but the results of the studies are expected to be completed around mid-2024.
Hong Kong West Kowloon High-Speed train station
This high-speed train terminus, opened in 2018, connects Hong Kong to mainland China's high-speed railway network and thus to cities all across China. Guangzhou is 50 minutes away from the station and Beijing 24 hours.
The West Kowloon station sparked opposition in 2018 after it was revealed part of it would be operated under a "cooperation arrangement" with mainland China.
The scheme allows mainland Chinese officers from immigration, customs and railway police jurisdiction over part of the terminal. Critics, legal experts and many pro-democracy legislators said the plan contravened the Basic Law -- the city's de facto constitution.
Hong Kong's Court of Appeal in 2021 upheld an earlier ruling that the arrangement was constitutional. Since then many of the critics have been jailed for their opposition to Beijing.
The government has also floated a joint checkpoint at Hong Kong's international airport that would integrate the airport into China's aviation network.
Land control border points
Before the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, there were three official border crossings between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The past 25 years has seen the addition of five land crossings, with several more planned to facilitate flows of people and promote integration.
Historically, the border between Hong Kong and the mainland not only served as an international boundary that regulated immigration and cross-border mobility but as an ideological line, dividing the liberal free-wheeling politics of Hong Kong and communist mainland China.
In 2019, over 236 million passenger trips were made across the border via land crossings.
The latest boundary control point, Heung Yuen Wai (pictured), was opened in August 2020.
In the first quarter of 2022, a "temporary bridge" was also built under government emergency powers -- bypassing any audit -- to link Hong Kong's Lok Ma Chau Loop and Shenzhen and facilitate mainland assistance as the territory battled its worst coronavirus outbreak.
The Shenzhen Bay Bridge (or Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor)
Construction of this project was included in the Shenzhen municipal government's 10th Five-Year Plan, announced in 2001. The bridge opened on July 1, 2007 -- the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover -- with former Chinese President Hu Jintao officiating the ceremonies.
Shenzhen built the bridge, but its maintenance and operation was lent to the Hong Kong government for 6 million yuan ($886,000) per year.
It was also one of the first ports to be operated under the controversial co-location plan. The total cost of the bridge incurred by the Hong Kong government was HK$3.2 billion ($409 million).
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge
The 55-km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge opened in October 2018, and is one of the most visible symbols of the Greater Bay Area project. It is an engineering feat 20 times the length of the Golden Gate Bridge that stretches across the mouth of the Pearl River.
There was roaring opposition to the bridge's construction from Hong Kong taxpayers, who had to shoulder most (50%) of the $20 billion bill while the mainland and Macao shouldered smaller portions.
Nearly 20 people died and hundreds were injured during the construction of the bridge, which has been dubbed a white elephant because the project does not provide any economic return.
Critics said back then it was an attempt by Beijing to accelerate and deepen the integration of Hong Kong into China.
Hong Kong's economic and political integration with the mainland continues apace. Bit by bit, Hong Kong's sovereignty is being chipped away.
After Beijing imposed the 2020 security law on Hong Kong, the state security agency established an office temporarily taking over the Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay in July 2020.
The office, founded by the Chinese government, is not subject to Hong Kong jurisdiction. Since then, over 200 people have been arrested by national security officers for acts that the authorities deem as secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism, which can lead to life imprisonment.
It represents the latest addition to the steadily increasing presence by China's security services. The Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army is headquartered in Central and owns 19 military sites, which span a total of roughly 27 sq. km, according to the government.
In 2022, ahead of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, Maj. Gen. Peng Jingtang vowed to be combat-ready for any "tough and complicated" contingencies.
But political sticks are accompanied by economic carrots: policies like one recently announced by Guangdong province that will allow Hong Kong residents living in Hong Kong to commute and work in the Greater Bay Area. Paired with increasing infrastructure projects that will boost cross-border flows, Hong Kong's economic uniqueness could soon fade away.
"China has always had a complete, geo-economic, geopolitical, territorial integration strategy," political scientist Lo said. "Physical and territorial integration is inevitable. The question now is a migration and population problem: How can you facilitate movement further up north?"