The $20 billion bridge connects the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau to the city of Zhuhai in mainland China, connecting 70 million people.
Tens of thousands of mainland tourists flocked to Hong Kong using the bridge when it first opened in late October — more than 100,000 visitors traversed the bridge at its peak on one single Saturday, according to local media.
The bridge took nine years to complete and has been a sticking point for Hong Kong, which was assured by Beijing in 1997 that it would maintain its own economic and legal system when the British handed it over as per the One Country, Two Systems policy.
But beyond the influx of mainland Chinese visitors, critics say the bridge and other multi-billion Chinese infrastructure projects in the territory are symbolic of Beijing’s continued encroachment into the special administrative region.
Tensions ‘can’t be covered by fancy infrastructure’
The 55-kilometre Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge includes portions that are underwater and link to artificial islands, and the mammoth project was plagued by delays, budget overruns, injuries, as well as a significant decline in rare wildlife and reported worker deaths.
According to Chinese state media outlet China Daily, it was built to facilitate the development of industries that rely on direct road connections such as food transportation.
But analysts argue the project has also been driven by Beijing’s ambitions to solidify its presence, rather than merely transport convenience.
Hong Kong and Macau are semi-autonomous regions, separated from mainland China not only by distance, but through their different social and economic systems.
Kevin Carrico, a China-Hong Kong expert from Macquarie University, told the ABC the increased symbolic proximity on display thanks to the bridge has unnerved some locals in Hong Kong.
“In my experience what people are deeply concerned about it the erosion of freedoms and the gradual encroachment of Beijing’s influence and interference,” he said.
“These are all very real sources of tension and conflict that can’t be covered over with some fancy infrastructure projects.”
‘No gifts are ever free’
The mega bridge has become a symbol of national pride and accomplishment for Beijing with President Xi Jinping calling it a “key instrument of the nation”, according to Chinese state media.
State media reports add the project is a part of a larger Greater Bay Area project, designed to weave Hong Kong and Macau into mainland China by involving them in China’s national development strategy.
The area is intended to be developed into an international centre of “scientific and technological innovation”, while still adhering to the principles of the One Country, Two Systems policy.
However Dr Carrico said Beijing’s decision to heavily invest in these projects demonstrates its desire for more control in Hong Kong.
“They are also symbolic of the idea of Beijing’s superiority as the giver of infrastructure and economic gifts,” he said.
“But of course they remind you that no gifts are ever free or unreciprocated.”
In September this year, governance of a section of Hong Kong was officially handed over to mainland China, meaning its national laws are now in effect there.
This was due to the opening of a new high-speed rail link that runs a shorter route from Hong Kong’s West Kowloon to mainland China.
Official government documents state that mainland Chinese personnel, laws, and jurisdiction are in place within the new rail link’s terminus to ease logistics through immigration and customs.
However, pro-democracy critics have firmly rejected these claims.
“It shows that our way of living is under threat and it’s further from our expectations,” Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 Umbrella Protests, told the ABC.
‘We’re all under the rule of Beijing’
Under the One Country, Two Systems policy, Hong Kong is able to enjoy a number of liberties which are not shared elsewhere in China, such as democratic processes, political autonomy and freedom of information.
However, these freedoms have increasingly been threatened over the years due to increased involvement by Beijing.
Earlier this year, Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao cancelled an event in Hong Kong due to alleged threats from Chinese authorities, and the Asian news editor for the Financial Times was refused a renewal of his work visa after hosting a talk by an independence activist.
“In the future there will be no Hong Kong, there will only be Greater Bay area people,” Mr Wong said.
“Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, we’re all under the rule of Beijing.”
The ABC has contacted the Hong Kong and Chinese governments for comment but they have not responded at the time of writing.