A Bridge Alone Can’t Unify Hong Kong With China

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What’s the most important bit of infrastructure to connect an international metropolis like China’s Pearl River Delta? A demolished border post.

For all the excitement around the opening of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge Wednesday, that’s probably the best lesson to draw from Beijing’s plan to draw Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Dongguan, Foshan and other cities into a single megalopolis. As my colleague Nisha Gopalan wrote last month, “Build it and they will come” is a lot easier said than done.

Take one model for the new link, the Oresund bridge and tunnel that’s joined Denmark’s capital Copenhagen to Malmo in southern Sweden since 2000. Like its Chinese equivalent, the 40-kilometer (25-mile) link opened with high hopes for turning two cities into one combined region. But even after Copenhagen’s housing boom drove some Danes to cheaper property in Sweden, these days there are just 19,000 cross-border commuters — about 1 percent of the region’s 1.8 million-strong labor force. Integration has been losing steam in recent years, according to a 2013 OECD paper.

Oresund is probably the best-case scenario for the 55-kilometer Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. There are six or so key barriers to this sort of integration working: distance and cost; language; culture; legal differences; security worries; and formal border checks. Only the first two really hinder movement between Denmark and Sweden, but the Pearl River Delta is divided by almost everything except the Cantonese language — and even there, outside Hong Kong and Macau the lingua franca is increasingly Mandarin written in simplified characters.

Border checks are probably the most significant barrier. Consider Singapore and the neighboring Malaysian city of Johor Bahru. The city-state manages to build and maintain so many sparklingly clean buildings largely thanks to a migrant army of as many as 300,000 Malaysians who cross the causeway linking the countries each day on foot or scooter.

That mass daily migration is aided by relatively light passport controls and a distance of just 1 kilometer between the two sides — but despite the dreams of property developers, it’s overwhelmingly a movement of low-income workers servicing a richer neighbor, rather than a genuine bilateral integration. Singaporeans are hardly queuing up to move: Just 1,346 availed themselves of a Malaysian program granting special visas to foreign property buyers in its first 15 years.

A Bridge Alone Can’t Unify Hong Kong With China

Even that scale of movement seems unlikely in the Pearl River Delta. There is resistance to immigration among the population in Hong Kong, a former British colony whose freedoms have been eroded since it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Besides concerns that new arrivals will dilute local culture and undermine Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, the city has its fair share of plain old prejudice toward “mainlanders.”

Migration is a fraught topic in local politics, with even the 150-a-day cap on one-way permits from the mainland regularly raising hackles. Rightly or wrongly, a situation in which Hong Kong saw a Johor-style army of guest workers arriving every day via Shenzhen and Zhuhai would be perceived by many locals as the end of “one country, two systems.”

A Bridge Alone Can’t Unify Hong Kong With China

That’s the best reason to doubt the dream of wider integration in the Pearl River Delta. If it did come about — in 2047, when Hong Kong’s special status is due to expire, or sooner — the resulting unification of economic and political systems would probably be driven by the brute force of Beijing, rather than any burning homegrown desire. Many locals and outsiders would consider it the end of Hong Kong.

A vision in which people commute seamlessly between Shenzhen, Guangdong and Hong Kong seems as far away as one in which they criss-cross the transnational U.S.-Mexican border cities of San Diego-Tijuana and El Paso-Juarez without passport checks. Just this week, President Donald Trump promised to send in troops to stop migrants crossing the frontier. Borders aren’t going down in the world of 2018. Quite the opposite.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.