The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB), a mega-size sea crossing that will link Hong Kong to Macau and mainland China, may seem just like an ambitious infrastructure project. But its rising cost, which has reached HK$17.74 billion for the main section, its multiple delays and incidents, which have caused hundreds of injuries and four deaths, show that there is much more to it than simple economic rationale. The bridge is, in fact, a political project.
Mainland Chinese media have recently praised the HZMB as an important step towards the creation of the so-called Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Great Bay Area (粤港澳大湾区). This concept was first announced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in March of this year. As the name suggests, the model for the new metropolitan technology and industrial hub is the San Francisco Bay Area. However, there is a hidden nationalistic agenda behind this plan.
First of all, China wants the Great Bay Area to become the centre of its Belt and Road initiative, a move that Chinese media call a “strategic chess piece” to counterbalance US-South Korea missile defence cooperation. Secondly, it will offset the impact of the recent wave of anti-globalization. The Belt and Road initiative, of which the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Great Bay Area will be the fulcrum, will allow for the utilization of already existing modern infrastructure and the construction of new projects that will ultimately link China to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
The Great Bay Area aims not just at strengthening China’s geopolitical position, but also at influencing domestic politics. In order to implement its plan, the Communist government will push for deeper cooperation between Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland. This point is what should worry the people in Hong Kong. Beijing seems intent on using the pretext of economic development to gradually ‘mainlandize’ Hong Kong and oppose the city’s democracy movement. Chinese media have candidly expressed the connection between the establishment of the Great Bay Area and the suppression of anti-Beijing groups.
According to Chinese media, the project will help to “support ‘one country, two systems’ and oppose people with ulterior motives” (支撑一国两制对别有用心者的强力回击). They accuse a “small number of people” of “vigorously promoting the economic decline of Hong Kong and calling into question the basic national policy of ‘one country, two systems'” ( 鼓吹香港经济衰退，质疑一国两制的根本国策). In the language of China’s state propaganda, the “small number of people” refers to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists.
Hong Kong and Macau will be “essential components” of the Great Bay Area, and their “prosperity and stability” will have an impact on the entire region. It is worth noting that during the Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2014, Chinese state media accused the demonstrators of undermining Hong Kong’s “prosperity stability”, an expression that has become synonymous with subordination to Beijing’s will.
It appears, however, that the Chinese government is now fulfilling a shift from endorsing ‘one country, two systems’ to advocating a new form of integration between the mainland and the two Special Administrative Regions:
The cities … of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Great Bay Area belong to different customs areas, have different legal and administrative systems. The economic development [of the region] requires an innovative approach to the governance of ‘one country, two systems’ in the region, the promotion of regional integration, and the preservation of long-term prosperity … The progress of cooperation in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Great Bay Area requires the elimination of factors that influence free movement and limit rational, systematic division of labour. It requires the removal of regional administrative barriers so as to advance a new practice of ‘one country, two systems’.
It is remarkable that state media are now emphasizing the necessity for a ‘new’ implementation of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. No details are given as to how these goals may be achieved. But it appears that Beijing is signalling its intention to ‘tweak’ the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ to limit as much as possible Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Beijing has never clarified what will happen after 2047, when ‘one country, two systems’ is set to expire. Since Xi Jinping assumed office in 2012, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on dissent and has vehemently opposed calls for more democracy in Hong Kong. Perhaps it is now paving the way for the Communist Party’s direct control of the city. Chinese state media emphasize that the establishment of the Great Bay Area will not just promote the combination “of resources and technological innovation”, but also the synthesis “of organizational mechanisms and legal systems.”
The ambiguity of these reports allows for different interpretations. If one is inclined to think that the Communist Party is moving towards liberalism, then the integration of the Pearl River Delta region might be regarded as a way to introduce Hong Kong-style liberal legal and institutional practices into Guangdong Province. However, more realistically, such statements can be seen as an attempt by the mainland government to prepare the public for further restrictions of the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong and Macau. The outcome of this process might be their full political integration with the rest of China.
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