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The world’s longest bridge-tunnel brings China even closer to Hong Kong. Not everyone is pleased.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has opened one of the world's longest bridges, linking Hong Kong and Macau to the Chinese mainland. While Beijing says the bridge will boost economic growth in the region, critics say it's another example of China's tightening grip on former British colony Hong Kong. (Video: Reuters)

HONG KONG — After delays, ­almost a decade of construction and swelling costs that reached $20 billion, the world’s longest sea crossing — connecting Hong Kong to mainland China — opened to traffic Tuesday as the latest megaproject with Beijing’s stamp.

The reviews for the 34-mile span?

China’s president, Xi Jinping, led the cheerleading about the political symbolism and business benefits of the ribbon of steel and concrete linking the mainland city of Zhuhai to the former British colony of Hong Kong and the once Portuguese-held Macau.

In bustling Hong Kong, however, many wondered why they shouldered so much of the cost with so few tangible benefits.

After all, the trip to the mainland from Hong Kong on the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is only about 30 minutes faster than crossing over existing bridge routes. In Macau, the upgrade is clearer: A ferry was the only way to reach the mainland.

But that’s not seeing the full picture, say Chinese officials.

The bridge-and-tunnel route is seen as a cornerstone of China’s “Greater Bay Area” plan, which aims to connect the lucrative hubs of Hong Kong and Macau with 11 other southern Chinese cities. The idea is to draw more tourists and workers from the mainland region — home to more than 60 million people — to the semiautonomous cities.

On Tuesday in Zhuhai, Xi declared the span officially open as digital fireworks exploded on a screen behind him and officials ticked off another made-in-China world record. (The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, for example, is 23 miles long, and the Eurotunnel under the English Channel is 31.5 miles.)

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Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, lauded the “once in a lifetime” project as a connector that will tie Hong Kong closer to the mainland. 

Few in Hong Kong see it that way.

Residents here have lamented the steady encroachment of mainland China into the city’s affairs, including efforts seen by activists as trying to roll back the enclave’s traditions of relatively open expression and freewheeling commerce.

Critics also balk at the rising number of tourists and workers coming from Chinese cities into dense Hong Kong and the even more crowded gambling hotspot, Macau.

Taxpayers in Hong Kong had to foot almost half the bill for the new connector. And it’s not easy for anyone to just pop onto the span.

Travelers will need to go through a complicated system to get permits from all three cities — a process that could take nearly two weeks — and will also have to get insurance in all of them.

Online comments on a Hong Kong government video explaining the process mock the supposedly simple procedure for being unduly bureaucratic, and note that Hong Kong residents can simply take a ferry to Macau, for instance, without any such requirements. Permits for private cars to cross the bridge will also be limited initially to just 5,000.

“It is very odd. It crosses that much of the sea, and yet ordinary people cannot use it. What’s the point of that?” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong. “This project is so obviously a political symbol. I’m sure Beijing knew clearly that we didn’t quite need it and that it was not necessary for the time being.” 

The bridge, she added, is a “permanent fixture and permanent reminder that Hong Kong is forever and ever connected to the vast hinterland” of mainland China. 

The project has also come under fire for shoddy labor standards and adverse environmental impacts. Over the course of construction, 19 workers died and dozens were injured, with some falling into the sea after a work platform collapsed

Since construction sped up in recent years, the number of famed Chinese white dolphins who call these waters home has dropped from about 80 in 2012 to 47 in 2017, according to Taison Chang, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. Environmental mitigation efforts done before construction failed to keep the dolphins in the area, he said, but work on the project proceeded anyway.

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“We can clearly see that the dolphins in North Lantau area almost disappeared in the whole area, close to the bridge construction,” he said. “No one can really stop the project after [its proponents] got the necessary environmental permits to go ahead with the bridge.” 

The bridge’s completion comes as China under Xi is extending its grip over Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million that was given special status when it was handed back from the British to China in 1997.

Under the “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong’s economic and political systems are supposed to remain untouched for 50 years — until 2047 — and distinct from mainland China’s, allowing the territory to retain its own government, judiciary, currency and so on. 

A flurry of infrastructure development, however, has served to physically bind the regions in a more tangible way. In late September, an $11 billion high-speed rail link opened between Hong Kong and mainland China, cutting the time between the territory and major Chinese cities. 

Beijing hopes the links will spur development in these southern cities that have historically led economic growth in China — particularly amid an ongoing trade war with the United States.

Xi this week visited southern China to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the economic reform policy spearheaded by Deng Xiao­ping in the late 1970s. Speaking Monday at Gree Electric Appliances in Zhuhai, Xi emphasized the importance of “self-reliance” and of the “real economy,” rather than the “virtual economy.”

“Manufacturing is a key to the real economy, and the core strength of manufacturing is innovation, the control of core technologies,” he said. “We must seek innovation by relying on ourselves, and I hope all enterprises will work in this direction.”

Hong Kong is at the center of that plan, with infrastructure links that will ease travel, particularly from the mainland into the city.

Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, is also pushing for a land reclamation plan that would be the costliest infrastructure project here yet, creating an artificial island that would be home to more than 1 million people. The island would be close to the new sea crossing. 

“It is all connected — the reclamation, bridge, high-speed rail,” said Mo, the pro-democracy lawmaker. “It is all telling Hong Kong that you are part of China, you are very much part of it, and you can’t get out of it.”

Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.

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