Chinese President Xi Jinping and other central government dignitaries are said to be descending upon Guangdong province over the coming weekend. There they will inspect cities, enterprises and universities in the southern economic powerhouse, and possibly preside over the opening of the world’s longest bridge.
Citing multiple sources, newspapers in Hong Kong reported on Wednesday that the highlight of Xi’s packed schedule could be officiating at the inauguration ceremony of the 55-kilometer Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge on October 23.
The record-breaking transport link, lauded as a new engineering wonder and one of the largest man made structures on Earth, includes a 6.7-km tunnel under the Pearl River estuary that is connected via two artificial islands to a main bridge.
Two more reclaimed islands house immigration and customs facilities at either end of the new link.
Travel time from Hong Kong to its sister city of Macau on the western bank of the river as well as the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai will be cut from a one-and-a-half-hour ferry ride to a 30-minute hop on bus.
Other reports say public and national security operations in cities in Guangdong, especially in Zhuhai where the bridge authority is based, have been on high alert this month.
Divers and patrol boats are scouring the seabed for explosives, technicians are checking the interior and exterior of the bridge, and snipers and jamming vehicles will be deployed to ensure absolute safety for VIPs on Tuesday’s inauguration day. The Hong Kong Police Force is also said to be on standby.
It is said that Deputy Premier Han Zheng, a standing member of the Communist Party’s Politburo in charge of the daily running of Hong Kong and Macau, will also accompany Xi, when the top leader is expected to ride the bridge in his bullet-proof limousine.
Reports indicate that Xi is unlikely to drop by Hong Kong, who paid a high-profile visit to the city in July 2017 to mark the 20th anniversary of the British colony’s return to Chinese rule.
Chief Executives of Hong Kong and Macau, Carrie Lam and Fernando Chui, will also attend the ceremony.
On Wednesday Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong sent invitations to local and international media outlets to cover the bridge’s opening, though no details about Xi’s itinerary or the list of officiating officials were given.
The way the information about the bridge’s belated inauguration was disseminated – after major works were finished at the end of 2017 and the bridge had lain vacant for almost a year – suggests that the end-of-October launch date could be a last-minute decision from Beijing after Xi had agreed to shuffle other commitments in order to be available for the opening.
Meanwhile, the chief designer of the bridge, Meng Fanchao, said during a recent media briefing that the project would be strong enough to withstand monster gales with extreme speed of up to 360km/h and was built to be in use for more than a century.
He dismissed concerns that the maintenance costs for the bridge would be astronomical, saying that the bridge was designed to last for 120 years.
Hong Kong alone has splurged HK$120 billion (US$15.3 billion) on the project, and Meng said he remained confident that the costs could be recouped, despite concerns about lukewarm patronage due to cumbersome immigration procedures and the lack of a feeder line to the technology boomtown of Shenzhen.
Meng also added that while different governments on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Macau had had disputes over technical and safety standards, they were eventually able to settle for the highest sets of standards in the end. Construction of the bridge started in 2009.
Travelers might be advised not to expect a swift, hassle-free ride across the bridge in the initial days of its operation.
Coach operators in Hong Kong are already fuming over the city government’s inability to confirm exactly when their shuttle buses can start plying the bridge. Their anger is based on their need for an exact start time so as to make manpower and logistics arrangements and to apply for cross-border permits.
The bridge is a right-driving expressway, different from the prevailing left-driving arrangement in Hong Kong.
A one-way bus ride to Macau may cost HK$65 (US$8.3) per person, and private car divers with cross-border permits to use the bridge will need to pay a toll of 150 yuan (US$21.6) for each trip, according to a tentative pricing regime gazetted by Hong Kong and Guangdong authorities.