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This 24-kilometre long, $6.7 billion bridge is a symbol of China’s ambitions and troubles.

This 24-kilometre long, $6.7 billion bridge is a symbol of China’s ambitions and troubles.

Hong Kong (CNN) – Even in a country known for its huge, record-breaking infrastructure, this project is an eye-catcher. At 24 kilometers long and eight lanes wide, with artificial islands and an underwater tunnel, China’s $6.7 billion Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge is ambitious.

To much fanfare in the country’s state media, bridge builders recently set a new world record by laying more than 22,600 square meters of asphalt in a single day, the equivalent of more than 50 basketball courts.

Although it sounds strange, it is not the longest sea bridge in the world. That honor goes to its 54-kilometer neighbor, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, just 32 kilometers away.

Some observers see the building of these giant bridges so close together as a testament to China’s growing ambitions on the world stage and the problems it faces in making them a reality.

Like its Hong Kong sibling, when the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge opens to traffic next year after eight years of construction, it will be a pillar of China’s master plan to transform the Great Bay, one of China’s largest and most populous bridges. world, in an economic and technological center capable of rivaling San Francisco, New York or Tokyo.

It is ambitious and, like the bridges themselves, is simply colossal. The Greater Bay Area is home to 68 million people, occupies 35,000 square kilometers and includes 11 cities: Hong Kong, Macao and nine other cities, including Zhongshan and Shenzhen. Shenzhen alone is home to more than 12 million people, not to mention dozens of multi-billion dollar companies like drone maker DJI and social media company Tencent, which have helped earn it the nickname “China’s Silicon Valley.”

Beijing hopes the bridges will help unite cities physically and conceptually in this huge and diverse region. Travel times between Zhongshan Airport and Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport – the third busiest in China, handling more than 37 million passengers in 2019 – are expected to drop from two hours (using existing highways).

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But many observers believe the bridges are also meant to serve another political purpose, merging what are now vastly disparate regions β€” Hong Kong a former British colony, Macau a former Portuguese colony β€” into a single Chinese identity. According to some critics, the scale of this project dwarfs even that of Bridges.


The new bridge will undoubtedly bring “real economic value” by significantly reducing travel times between cities and traffic, says Austin Strange, a specialist in Chinese foreign policy at the University of Hong Kong.

But he added that there is a secondary dimension as well, which is comparing it to China’s efforts with the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Beijing spends billions financing infrastructure projects such as ports and highways in countries around the world.

This project is seen as an attempt by China to increase its economic and political influence on the world stage, and some critics accuse it of pressuring smaller countries by giving them loans that it cannot repay.

Although the bridges, which are being built on Chinese soil, do not raise debt problems, observers say the scale of the project sends a message.

β€œIt is clear that the Chinese government is heralding the bridge as a world-class achievement,” Strange says. “Infrastructure is a key part of China’s reputation in global development, and it is also a key link between how China handles domestic and international development.”

The Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge project includes artificial islands and an underwater tunnel.

However, the profound impression the bridge makes on the rest of the world will depend in part not only on its size, but on its success and popularity among travellers.

Otherwise, you risk exposing yourself to a criticism often leveled at some of the largest Belt and Road projects: You are dealing with an expensive white elephant.

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Finance professor He Zhiguo of the University of Chicago said that like the bridges connecting the shores of San Francisco Bay, the Chinese megaproject is likely to reduce travel times dramatically.

However, only the citizens of Zhongshan would benefit, as the quiet city, which is neither a commercial center nor a tourist area, offers little incentive for others to visit.

He also said that estimates of the impact on travel times and costs needed to be taken into account, as projects could easily be inflated. “That’s my concern. But without knowing more, I think it’s not a bad idea,” he said.

Bridges over murky waters

Despite Beijing’s ambitious vision of the Greater Bay Area, many bumps in the road have already arisen.

The idea was first mooted in 2009, but experts say development has been hampered by the disparate nature and barriers between some of the cities involved.

The region has three borders: mainland China and the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, which are now semi-autonomous special administrative regions of China, each with separate immigration systems, legal systems, and even currencies.

In addition, residents hold three different passports and ID cards, and speak two different forms of Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin).

They even drive on different sides of the road, presenting endless obstacles for those hoping to take a carefree road trip with one another.

Critics say some of those problems came to the fore when Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge’s sister project, the $20 billion Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, opened in 2018.

This bridge connects Zhuhai, in mainland China, with Macau, the gaming hub, and Hong Kong, the major financial hub.

Even in 2019, a year after its launch, it was still struggling to attract traffic, logging just 4,000 trips per day, according to the Hong Kong Department of Transportation. (For comparison, Europe’s Channel Tunnel, which connects France and Britain, attracted an average of more than 8,000 vehicles per day in March this year, according to its website.)

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Experts attribute the tepid response to the need for travelers to obtain various visas and vehicle registrations to travel between the three locations, especially since high-speed ferries already criss-cross the three cities on a daily basis and leave central stations more often. From the border areas where the bridges begin.

Traffic on the Hong Kong Bridge was reduced to just hundreds of vehicles a day during the Covid pandemic as each of the three districts closed their borders as part of a strict “zero Covid” policy, though usage has increased since then. During the Labor Day weekend this month, state media reported as many as 9,000 vehicles crossing daily.

Meanwhile, the debate over bridges goes beyond purely financial issues.

Some see the bridges as a political act. Opponents criticize the Hong Kong Bridge as a way to force assimilation and impose control on the city, which was rocked by pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019.

An aerial view of the world’s longest sea bridge, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, in Zhuhai City, south China’s Guangdong Province, March 19, 2019.

Don’t worry, there will be traffic jams.

However, bridges also have their fans.

Xiao Geng, director of the Institute of Policy and Practice at the Shenzhen Campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge will help level the two areas.

“The western part of the coast is not as developed as the eastern part, and there is also a large discrepancy in real estate prices between the two,” Xiao said.

He also said that the bridge is different from its predecessor, which was surrounded by “fundamentally different” systems for the three sites, which held people back by increasing travel costs.

He said the latest bridge would connect two mainland Chinese cities that were already subject to the same regulations.

“Don’t worry. There will be traffic jams,” he said.

Additional reporting by CNN’s Sarah Lazarus.