Propaganda bridge?

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

Bridge to nowhere? (Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge)

The new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in South China is without a doubt a spectacular feat of engineering, construction, and national infrastructure planning. But… is it necessary? Or is this mega-bridge snaking across the mouth of the Pearl River Delta in fact a $20 billion white elephant?

“The delays in the construction of the bridge had given cities in the PRD region time to greatly develop their port capacity, resulting in a situation where many exporters in the delta no longer need to use Hong Kong,” said chief research officer at the Hong Kong-based One Country Two Systems Research Institute, Fang Zhou. “Other PRD bridges will offer lower tariffs than the new bridge, while existing cargo barges to Hong Kong are even cheaper.”

“In terms of time and convenience, the bridge is not so competitive,” Zhou added. […]

The strongest economic benefit of the bridge is that it can enable producers west of the Pearl River move their goods faster to the Hong Kong International Airport. In 2016, the airport has handled around 4.52 million tons of air cargo, making it the top freight transportation airport worldwide for the seventh consecutive year.

Quoting an anonymous engineer:

“The bridge could have an impact on Hong Kongers’ life style when it opens – there could be more people making the decision to find a job, or even live in China when there are more convenient ways to connect the two places.”

That’s an important point, I think. In addition to the propaganda value of binding Hong Kong closer to the mainland, the very existence of the bridge may generate more demand for cross-border travel. It’s easy to underestimate the future traffic that a brand-new, colossal Chinese infrastructure project will generate. A lot of people were skeptical about China’s high-speed rail system back in 2011, but already by 2015 the Beijing-Shanghai line was earning a profit, claiming 130 million riders (one-tenth of China’s population) that year alone.

The blogger Big Lychee is characteristically scornful:

The vast link, with three lanes in each direction, will be the World’s Biggest and Longest Slab of Concrete Over Sea in the History of the Universe. It will also almost certainly be embarrassingly under-used. Of the three cities it connects, only Zhuhai and its hinterland has capacity for extra traffic; Macau’s road network is totally full, as is downtown Hong Kong’s. Apart from buses going back and forth, and presumably some trucks carrying containers full of Hello Kitty phone cases, it is hard to see who will use it, especially given the ‘fast and convenient’ permit system for car owners.

The South China Morning Post laboriously describes the thing as part of the Greater Bay Area Hub-Zone Branding Concept. [Ed: “Greater Bay Area” is China’s scheme to link together 11 cities around the Pearl River Delta into a gigantic metropolitan region with some 67 million people.] But it is actually the other way round – ‘Bay Area’ is an extension of the bridge project, which came first as a symbol if not means of integrating/absorbing Hong Kong into the Mainland.

This will be the second approx-HK$100 billion pointless-infrastructure fiasco inaugurated within a few weeks, following the West Kowloon High-Speed Rail Vibrating Express Line Hub (which at least has some potential use for those of us with an urgent desire to get to Wuhan). It also comes in the midst of the uproar about the Trillion-Dollar Sandpit Lantau Reclamation Wacko Proposal. We are surely hitting Peak Taxpayer-Wealth Destruction Orgy.

Hong Kong Zhuhai Macao Bridge

A damn big bridge

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

Meanwhile, in Asia, massive infrastructure projects continue to get built:

Chinese President Xi Jinping has officially opened the world’s longest sea crossing bridge, nine years after construction first began.

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 cost about $20bn (£15.3bn) and should have opened in 2016. […]

Designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, it 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 link roads, viaducts and land tunnels connecting Zhuhai and Hong Kong to the main bridge.

The bridge was first conceived by Hong Kong construction tycoon Gordon Wu in 1983, apparently inspired by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia. Construction started in 2009 and just wrapped up in February. Talk about persistence.

Fun facts:

Special cameras will be on the look-out for drivers on the bridge who show signs of getting sleepy, among other checks – yawn three times and the authorities will be alerted, local media report. […]

And drivers will have to change which side of the road they are on at the crossing. People drive on the left in Hong Kong and Macau but the bridge is Chinese territory and special merger channels have been built to cope with this.

There’s also this ominous bit: “As drivers cross the bridge their heart rate and blood pressure will be monitored. The information will be sent to the bridge’s control centre.” What?

Video from the South China Morning Post:

Hong Kong drinks the Hemlock

The expat blogger who goes by the name Hemlock has penned an excellent but depressing overview of the incremental erosion of Hong Kong’s liberties and autonomy since 2014, the year of the Occupy Central protests. His most astute point, I think, is that “It’s not about Hong Kong,” by which he means that the chief engine of Hong Kong’s “mainlandization” is China’s leader-for-life and his designs for the country and the party. To Beijing, Hong Kong’s celebrated autonomy and unique culture are mere anachronisms that must be destroyed to pave the way for the territory’s full integration into a revitalized China. In another 20 years or so, it’s likely that Hong Kong will be almost indistinguishable from, say, Chongqing.

I noted the 20-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China last year.

China’s jurisidiction now reaches into Hong Kong

Hong Kong West Kowloon terminus

New high-speed rail terminus in West Kowloon

Hong Kong’s absorption into the Motherland continues apace with the furtive launch of a “co-location” agreement inside a new high-speed rail station in West Kowloon, under which mainland China extends its jurisdiction to a one million square foot patch in the heart of the city:

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials shook hands inside the new station in West Kowloon district on Monday night to mark the new arrangement, which will mean that anyone who commits a crime in the “mainland port area” or onboard trains will be subject to mainland laws, that could include the death penalty for serious crimes.

Big Lychee comments:

It’s not every day you get what might be called a ‘private government ceremony’, but that’s what happened at the One Country Two Systems Sacrificial Midnight Mass deep in the bowels of the West Kowloon Express Rail Station. It was essentially a handover of territory from Hong Kong to the Mainland – an arrangement that would be unconstitutional if the documents that outline the constitution meant anything, but they don’t so there’s no point in worrying about it, and obviously the press aren’t going to be invited. […]

Many Hongkongers look at the high-speed rail link and see little use for it other than a possible one-off jaunt to Wuhan out of curiosity. Its main mission is simply to prove physically that Hong Kong is a part of China, and its secondary purpose is to divert your tax dollars into the construction industry’s pockets. But to the extent it will serve as a transport system, it will be an efficient funnel through which Mainland tourists can be vacuumed up and disgorged into Tsimshatsui and the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone Project. (Or not efficient, from a baggage point of view.)

Tycoonarchy

Asia’s financial hub is dominated by a handful of hoary plutocrats:

Many of Hong Kong’s richest families are preparing for a generational changing of the guard. Unfortunately for the UK colony turned Chinese “special administrative region”, the sons and daughters who will inherit Hong Kong’s biggest fortunes will continue to dominate an economy defined by rent-seeking monopolies. […]

As the old saying has it, the hardest million dollars you will ever earn is your first million. Hong Kong’s next generation of tycoons never had to earn their first million, let alone their first billion. The city’s property, ports, electricity and supermarket sectors, to name just a few, have been locked up by just eight families.

Hong Kong’s monopoly madness extends far down the economic food chain to its licensing systems for taxis and public minibuses. The number of taxi licences has not increased since 1994, while those for minibuses has been frozen since 1976.

Or, as a remarkable Time Out Hong Kong article from 2012 that was apparently spiked and later reinstated put it:

Here is your typical day in Hong Kong: after buying your groceries from Li Ka-shing, you hop on to one of Cheng Yu-tung’s buses to take you back to your Kwok brothers’ apartment to cook your food with, you guessed it, gas supplied by Lee Shau-kee. […]

Hong Kong was originally founded to serve the interests of business, not of its population. Government ownership of land was aimed at keeping taxes low. The tycoons did not devise this system; they have simply milked it (with a vengeance) while the government has done little to counterbalance their growing domination or address the broader impact on the economy and society. Since the 1997 handover, the government has been noticeably more proactive in serving the tycoons’ interests.

Crime in Hong Kong

This is about as bad as it gets in the Big Lychee:

A suspected Hong Kong triad member accused of making an elderly man drink a can of Coke at knifepoint was arrested in a police raid on Monday.

The 44-year-old man with a pigtail was picked up at a Portland Street guest house in Mong Kok at about 10.30pm and arrested for possessing an offensive weapon.

In the early hours of Tuesday, officers escorted the hooded and handcuffed suspect to his public housing flat in Wong Tai Sin for a house search.

The Hongkonger – believed to be from the Sun Yee On triad – is a part-time bouncer at a Tsim Sha Tsui entertainment venue controlled by a gang leader nicknamed “Sai B”, according to a police source. […]

Police are still looking for the elderly victim who was allegedly stopped on the street by the suspect and ordered at knifepoint to drink a can of Coke at the junction of Arran Street and Canton Road in Mong Kok at about 5pm on Friday.

Ok, I’m being a little facetious. Sometimes the other kind of coke is involved, as in this recent drug bust:

Hong Kong police have broken up a crack cocaine factory at a luxury flat in Yuen Long, seizing the largest haul of raw drug materials in 10 years and arresting four men, one of them Peruvian.

The ingredients – thought to have been flown into the city from Peru – could have made batches of the drug worth HK$59 million, officers said on Sunday. […]

Police said they believed it was the first time a luxury flat had been used as a base for making drugs.

“One of the reasons the syndicate chose to rent rather luxurious premises was that it provided a front to make it less suspicious and more difficult for us to detect [the factory],” Chief Superintendent Ma Ping-yiu, of the Narcotics Bureau, said.

Still, it’s a pretty safe city overall, even when you account for the risk – which, let’s face it, is present in any large metropolis anywhere in the world – that you may occasionally be forced to consume a refreshing but very high-calorie beverage at knifepoint.

Well, that answers that

From Hong Kong rag The Standard:

When news broke that British politician and human rights activist Benedict Rogers was refused entry at Hong Kong International Airport, I suspected our Immigration Department didn’t make the decision, but carried out an order from a higher authority.

It’s now perfectly clear the decision had come down from Beijing. It’s simply stunning.

Rogers was quoted by an internet news website as saying the Chinese embassy back home in London had warned him via a third party, after it learned about his plan to visit the former Crown colony. The third party reportedly relayed the embassy’s concern that Rogers may visit the student leaders serving jail sentences for their leading roles in protests. Later, he was told his SAR trip would impair the Sino-British relationship, so he would be denied entry.

The Foreign Ministry was straightforward about it. Yesterday, the blunt statement by a spokeswoman was basically related to two points: one, Beijing retains the authority to decide who can come to Hong Kong; and two, Rogers was barred because of fears he would intervene with the SAR’s internal affairs and judicial system. In hindsight, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s response prior to the spokeswoman’s statement appeared to be redundant. […]

The issue is that while the decision was made by some policymakers in Beijing, it did more harm than good to Hong Kong, because one of the SAR’s greatest assets is its international reputation, which makes the place distinct from other mainland cities.

The move was like throwing rocks into waters that Hong Kong’s leader is struggling to calm.

I think a little bit of reciprocity is in order. Is there any reason, at this point, not to respond in kind by having the next visitor from the PRC politely turned back at Heathrow customs?

Too edgy for Hong Kong

British national with lots of opinions discovers that his kind ain’t welcome in Hong Kong:

A British human rights activist who is vocal in criticising China and advocating for democracy in Hong Kong was barred from entering the city on Wednesday.

Benedict Rogers, the deputy chair of the UK Conservatives’ human rights commission, flew into Hong Kong on Wednesday morning on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok.

Update: ‘The idea of Hong Kong people running Hong Kong is dead,’ says British activist denied entry to the city

Rogers told HKFP at around 1:50pm that Hong Kong Immigration had denied him entry. No reason was provided to him.

I’m surprised they didn’t say “You yourself know the reason.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui, who met Rogers in the UK earlier this month, said he understood that the Chinese embassy has warned Rogers that he will not be allowed to enter Hong Kong, despite causing no security threat.

“Now the warning from the embassy has come true, it means that the Hong Kong government has given up its autonomy on immigration to the central government,” said Hui.

This detail is telling:

As he was escorted to his flight out of Hong Kong, Rogers said, he turned to the immigration officer taking him to the plane and thanked him for treating him well. “I said: ‘Does this mean “one country, two systems” is dead? Is it “one country, one system” now?’

“He looked at me actually very sadly, almost with tears in his eyes, and said: ‘I’m just doing my job. I can’t comment.’”

But:

Hong Kong’s immigration department said it did not comment on specific cases, but went on to dispute Rogers’ version of events, saying its staff member who had escorted Rogers to the gate had not heard his comment on “one country, two systems”.

Reciprocity. Maybe the British government should turn back the next Hong Kong national who arrives at Heathrow Airport, unless a satisfactory explanation is provided.

More on the various ways in which Hong Kong as most people know it is over.

20 years later

Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China 20 years ago (July 1, 1997). This has occasioned much commentary among China-watchers. The NY Times ran a good piece by Keith Bradsher marking the anniversary:

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule two decades ago, the city was seen as a model of what China might one day become: prosperous, modern, international, with the broad protections of the rule of law.

There was anxiety about how such a place could survive in authoritarian China. But even after Beijing began encroaching on this former British colony’s freedoms, its reputation as one of the best-managed cities in Asia endured.

The trains ran on time. Crime and taxes were low. The skyline dazzled with ever taller buildings.

Those are still true. Yet as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches on Saturday, the perception of Hong Kong as something special — a vibrant crossroads of East and West that China may want to emulate — is fading fast.

Never-ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.

Caught between rival modes of rule — Beijing’s dictates and the demands of local residents — the authorities have allowed problems to fester, including an affordable-housing crisis, a troubled education system and a delayed high-speed rail line.

Many say the fight over Hong Kong’s political future has paralyzed it, and perhaps doomed it to decline. As a result, the city is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale — for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.

Hong Kong is still an incredible place, but my own sense is that the city is locked in terminal decline, for the reasons Bradsher talks about. This chart is relevant:

Of course, it was both inevitable and desirable that Hong Kong would lose some of its relative economic clout as mainland China built itself up into the world’s second-largest economy. But the mainland’s newfound wealth also allows China to assert control over Hong Kong by buying everything in it. And the city’s liberties are gradually being stripped away as its new overlords wield an increasingly heavy hand.

It’s not really surprising, and there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it. But there it is. Anyway, here are some photos I’ve taken in Hong Kong over the years: