The 55-km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge that cost more than US$15 billion to build is constantly underused since its opening in October. Photo: Xinhua

Known as the “Greater Bay Area,” it’s Beijing’s grandiose masterplan to fuse Hong Kong further into the Chinese economy, but residents of the former British colony have shown minimal interest in the idea.

On Xi Jinping’s drawing board of a new economic and innovation dynamo, Hong Kong and Macau are tied to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, as well as seven other cities in neighboring Guangdong province, to form a city cluster to give San Francisco, Tokyo and New York a good run for their money.

Yet Xi’s brainchild of constructing such a megalopolis has had a luke-warm response from residents and businesses in the former British colony, who are largely unmoved by the ballyhoo by central and local governments.

One example of this lack of enthusiasm is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which has been devoid of traffic immediately after its hyped inauguration in October. The 55-kilometer bridge-tunnel complex that snakes through the Pearl River estuary that cost HK$120 billion yuan (US$15.3 billion) and nine years to build is now mocked as a bridge to nowhere, because car-owners and lorry companies at both ends either do not have the permits to use it or are driven away by high toll fees and red tape in customs clearance.

Traffic is hard to spot on the mega sea-crossing linking Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai. Photos: Xinhua, AFP

The mega sea-crossing’s empty lanes have prompted Hong Kong’s former chief executive Leung Chun-ying to call for a relaxation or the total scrapping of a license vetting regime under which vehicles from Hong Kong must apply for a special plate to enter Guangdong.

Leung, now a deputy chairman of China’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told a forum held by DBS in Shenzhen on Wednesday that barriers must be pulled down to allow all vehicles from his city to cross the mainland border freely, but the southbound traffic from Guangdong to space-starved Hong Kong should still be capped.

The dearth of traffic on the cross-border transport infrastructure is not the only problem worrying Leung, who admitted it would be “a long haul” to rally the city, especially the young, behind Xi’s Greater Bay Area vision.

His other policy recommendations unveiled at the Shenzhen forum, including issuing Chinese identity cards to all Hong Kong residents of Chinese descent, as well as special mainland travel permits to expats and non-Chinese residents of the city, have again been interpreted in Hong Kong as politically motivated.

“There are aways some in Hong Kong who are scared [by Beijing’s initiatives], given the city’s political environment, but those with an open mind should seize the opportunities,” said Leung, extolling the virtues of the regional development plan.

Hong Kong’s former leader Leung Chun-ying sells Beijing’s Greater Bay Area plan at a recent forum in Shenzhen. Photo: Asia Times

HK entangled in politics 

Hong Kong continues to lurch from one political crisis to another amid the mistrust of Beijing that still runs deep among its residents, which is further compounded by belligerent calls for independence from some disenfranchized youngsters.

Leung’s tenure from 2012 to 2017 saw the most turbulent pro-democracy movements in the recent decade, and his headstrong handling of sensitive issues while cleaving to Beijing’s mandates made him the least popular leader since 1997.

Hong Kong’s post-handover decades have been punctuated by protests and economic stagnation, during which time it has been overtaken by mainland cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou as measured by annual economic output.

Guangzhou and Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province now boast GDP larger than that of Hong Kong. Photos: Asia Times

Hong Kong is no longer the largest city economy in the Greater Bay Area – it booked a total gross domestic product of 2.4 trillion yuan last year, up 3%, against Shenzhen’s 2.42 trillion and year-on-year growth of 7.5%. Shenzen is now a tech boomtown and home to Tencent, DJI, Huawei and BYD.

Nor is Hong Kong’s per capita GDP or income the highest in the region, as the gaming hub of Macau leads in both indices.

While further integration into the Chinese economy, especially the affluent Pearl River Delta, holds the key to rekindling Hong Kong’s growth and cementing its status as a financial and trade hub, many worry that the process will inevitably eliminate Hong Kong’s uniqueness.

The city’s autonomy and freedoms are preserved by the “one country, two systems” constitutional framework under which Beijing has agreed not to change for 50 years, a pledge that will expire in 2047.

The Bay Area initiative was unveiled at a time when Hong Kong was becoming less relevant economically, making it easier for Beijing to assimilate it to make it just “another Chinese city,” void of the values and liberty it used to represent.

Read more: Grand plan to pull HK, Macau closer to China

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