The longest sea crossing in the world opens on Wednesday. It connects Hong Kong and Macau—two cities with more autonomy and press freedom than the rest of China—to the mainland.
It is also rife with symbolism and controversy.
The 35-mile bridge and tunnel system comes two years late, and after a decade of delays and political wrangling.
The government hopes the sea crossing will integrate the cities around the Pearl River Delta and shorten travel times between Hong Kong, Macau, and the mainland.
Critics have derided the project for its high financial, environmental, and human cost, calling it a political act by Beijing to assert more control in the region.
One lawmaker called it an “umbilical cord” tying Hong Kong and Macau to the motherland.
The ambitious $7 billion project includes three cable-stayed bridges, two artificial islands, and a 4-mile underwater tunnel.
“We were all trying to do something unique that nobody had done before,” says Naeem Hussain, the global bridge leader at the engineering firm Arup, which undertook preliminary design for the project.
The mega bridge is visible from the air and resembles a snake wriggling through the water. The curvy design is meant to keep drivers from getting bored, Hussain says.
Each bridge’s towers have a different shape that represents a cultural aspect of the region.
The Jianghai Channel bridge has dolphins to represent the Chinese white dolphins that populate the waters. The Qingzhou Channel portion has Chinese knots, and the Jiuzhou Channel towers resemble a boat’s mast, a nod to the region’s nautical history.
Even before construction began in 2009, there was local opposition to the plan.
Hong Kongers expressed concern about increased traffic to the city. Environmental groups worried that the bridges would deplete the population of Chinese white dolphins, which was already under threat.
Others called it a waste of money because there were already land, sea, and air routes in the region. During construction, nine workers died.
Still, the government has high hopes for the sea crossing’s economic potential. It’s expected to cut travel time from Hong Kong’s airport to the mainland city of Zhuhai from about four hours to 45 minutes. It connects some of the region’s key industrial hubs in the west to export channels in the east.
The sea crossing is just one of many architectural features that China is using to flex its muscle and demonstrate its ability to build record-setting infrastructure. Most of the world’s longest bridges are in China, including the longest continuous over-water bridge.
Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.