China is about to open a bridge that’s 20 times longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. It will connect roughly 70 million people in 11 cities.
Yeah, let that sink in for a moment.
The nine-year, $20 billion project will provide citizens of Hong Kong, Macau, and Chinese coastal urban areas six lanes to travel in a region roughly twice as large as the San Francisco Bay area.
Advocates say the crossing will cut end-to-end travel times from three hours to just 30 minutes. It’s also an incredible engineering feat: It reportedly can withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, according to CNN, and will be the sixth-largest bridge in the world. (China has six of the nine largest bridges.)
But experts say the crossing isn’t merely about convenience — it’s another way for Beijing to exert its power. Hong Kong and Macau are mostly autonomous cities that are separated from mainland China in ways that go beyond just physical distance; for instance, they have their own economic and social systems.
“The bridge is aimed at tying Hong Kong and Macau to the motherland,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, told me. “Beijing is extending its long-arm influence in a visual as well as literal way.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will be in attendance for the bridge’s grand opening on Tuesday, has made strengthening Chinese influence a major pillar of his national strategy. While much of that includes extending Beijing’s power around the world, it also means upping its suasion in, or at least near, the mainland.
Vox’s Johnny Harris found this during a trip to Hong Kong this year, where he reported that China was slowly starting to erase the city’s border by “making it a proper part of China.” The new bridge certainly won’t do that on its own, but it will likely help.
The problems of crossing the bridge
The political and cultural differences between the autonomous cities and mainland China also mean that traveling between the two won’t be quite so easy as the bridge makes it sound.
People from Hong Kong, for example, will need special permits to cross the bridge. Most, it seems, will have to park their cars and take a bus to get to the other side, where they will then have to obtain another car to keep driving.
And there are other complications. Drivers in Hong Kong and Macau drive on the left side of the road, whereas in China they operate on the right side. There’s a place for drivers to switch lanes at a merge point, though.
Either way, those in Hong Kong fear the bridge will inundate the city with Chinese tourists; in 2016 the city already saw 20 million more visitors than the UK did.
So if you think the controversy over this crossing is ending soon, I have a bridge to sell you.