China opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge and tunnel on Tuesday, linking the financial center of Hong Kong, the gambling hub of Macau and western reaches of the Pearl River Delta at the heart of southern China’s economic boom.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is made up of nearly 35km of bridge and road sections, and a 6.7km tunnel between artificial islands to allow shipping to pass unhindered.
President Xi Jinping presided over the inauguration early on Tuesday but said little except to declare the bridge officially open to a burst of fireworks projected onto a screen behind him.
Vice premier Han Zheng said the bridge would help drive China’s strategic blueprint for a “Greater Bay Area” around the Pearl River Delta modeled on other global economic dynamos like San Francisco Bay and Tokyo Bay.
“Standing at this new historical starting point, we firmly believe that the opening of the bridge will further develop the special advantage of Hong Kong and Macau,” Han said in a speech at the ceremony.
The bridge, which snakes across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong’s Lantau island and passes Macau’s glitzy casinos, will begin operations on Wednesday when some bus services begin.
Arrangements are being finalised for trucks and private vehicles that will need special permits to use it.
According to Chinese media, authorities will use facial recognition systems to detect yawning drivers on the bridge, as a safety measure. If a driver yawns three times, an alarm will go off, media has reported.
Hong Kong authorities have defended the bridge’s HK$120 billion ($15.31 billion) price tag, saying it would consolidate Hong Kong’s position as a regional aviation and logistics hub.
Some critics, however, see the bridge as a white elephant that is part of a multi-pronged push by China to exert greater control over Hong Kong, which returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 amid promises to preserve the city’s high degree of autonomy and individual freedoms denied in mainland China.
The bridge was first proposed in the late 1980s, but it was opposed at the time by Hong Kong’s British colonial government, which was wary of development that might draw the city closer to Communist China.