On the 24th of October, Xi Jinping officially opened the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB). With a length of 55km, it’s hard not to be impressed at what is now the largest sea bridge i
n the world. The bridge connects the two “Special Administrative Regions” to the mainland city of Zhuhai, integrating them into the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone. But it's hard to disregard the obvious political intentions too with the bridge being part of a clear strategy to erode Hong Kong’s sovereignty.
The bridge itself has been frequented with complications. The bridge has been dubbed “the bridge of death” after it has taken and has taken the lives of 18 workers. The original budget has significantly overrun, totalling $18.8 billion, with many locals seeing the bridge as an unnecessary waste of their money. Chinese borrowing for infrastructure projects is reaching dangerous levels. But the government has pushed on regardless, because it has a clear ulterior motive: to force the people of Hong Kong to integrate into the rest of China and surrender their democratic freedoms.
How did it get like this? In the negotiations leading up to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China, Deng Xiaoping agreed to respect the unique circumstances of the region, allowing it to keep its economic freedom and civil liberties. For the first 10 years after the agreement, China respected the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, and relations were amicable. This was primarily because the Communist Party did not want to upset a region whose GDP share was nearly 25% of the whole country. But with the growth of other Economic Zones around Beijing and Shanghai, Hong Kong’s share of national GDP is now only 3%.
With declining economic importance, the issue of Hong Kong is causing Xi Jinping to grow impatient. He has calculated that the economic and diplomatic implications of meddling in the region’s sovereignty are a price worth paying if it can curtail demands for civil liberties and democratic elections.
In 2015, an independent, politically motivated bookshop was forced to close, and its owner served 8 months in prison. More subtly, many authors in Hong Kong now self-censor out of fear of persecution equivalent to that faced by publishers on the mainland. The intent of the government is clear: to make Hong Kong and China indivisible, a clear disregard of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle.
But Xi Jinping knows integration is not easy. When the government tried to pre-select candidates for election in 2014, the umbrella movement erupted. Comprising primarily of young, educated and middle class Hong Kong citiznes, pro-democracy protests spread rapidly across the region. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it sent out a clear message to China and the World: they will not go quietly.
Since the Umbrella Movement, young people have been resistant to attempts to blur Hong Kong and Chinese identity. Only 16% of 18-29 year olds said they felt proud to be Chinese, whilst the general figure is 39%. Refusing to conform to distinctly Chinese practices is becoming an increasingly political statement. To be proudly from Hong Kong, not China, is becoming a symbol of resistance.
In response, Xi is iusing various means to intertwine Hong Kong and China. For example, although Cantonese is the dominant language locally by far, Beijing is promoting Mandarin as the official language. The construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge reflects this strategy too. Claudia Mo, a Pro-democracy campaigner, calls the bridge an “umbilical cord”, a way of forcing the Hong Kong people to feel attached to and dependent on China, rather than as an autonomous, sovereign region.
With this dangerous development, the Chinese government has violated the key principles set out in 1997. It has corrupted democratic elections. It has eroded human rights. It has censored journalists. And it has constructed a bridge neither wanted nor needed by most local people, as part of an “infrastructure propaganda” campaign. It is time that the protests of the Hong Kong people do not go unheard by the international community. The UK in particular needs to reassert the terms of “One Country, Two Systems” for the sake of Hong Kong’s sovereignty.