Hong Kong, Macau and the nine municipalities in Guangdong province that comprise southern China’s Greater Bay Area continue to innovate, expand and develop.
The Pearl River Delta in southern China’s Guangdong province has long been a hugely productive place. Naturally fertile, it attracted early settlement and agriculture, then became a regional and international manufacturing and trade hub that has powered the development of some of the world’s most dynamic cities.
Today the metropolises of Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macau (also spelt Macao) are testament to that history, while around and between them new urban centres, just a few short decades ago mere villages, have risen at incredible speed. (These are Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Huizhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing.) Together they form an almost unbroken megalopolis, one of the most densely populated and urbanised environments on the planet. In 2015, the World Bank Group said the Pearl River Delta had surpassed Tokyo to become the largest urban area in the world in terms of size and population.
Now, that area is the focus of an enormous new growth spurt, badged as the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area (GBA) and endorsed by Xi Jinping, China’s president. This aims to bind the nine mainland municipalities surrounding the delta closer together with the Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong, yoking them to a vision of shared opportunity for the GBA’s estimated 86 million inhabitants, spread over 56,000 square kilometres (roughly the size of Croatia).
Setting out the vision
In February 2019 the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area laid out seven areas of development: developing an international innovation and technology hub; expediting infrastructural connectivity; building a globally competitive modern industrial system; taking forward ecological conservation; developing a quality living circle for living, working and travelling; strengthening cooperation and jointly participating in the Belt and Road Initiative; and jointly developing Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau cooperation platforms.
Hong Kong’s contribution to these areas is seen as pivotal. “Being the most open and international city in the GBA, Hong Kong serves as one of the core engines to help drive regional economic development in the GBA under the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’,” said a government spokesman for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area Development Office under Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau.
According to government figures, the GBA’s combined GDP last year was approximately RMB13 trillion (£1.5 trillion). Growing this will mean capitalising on the existing strengths of the delta’s constituent parts and, where necessary, developing new ones.
“Hong Kong will promote the development of high-end and high value-added financial, commercial and trading, logistics and professional services; make great efforts to develop the innovation and technology industries; and establish itself as the centre for international legal and dispute resolution services in the Asia-Pacific region,” the spokesman added.
However, according to Victor Kwok, assistant research director of think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation: “Hong Kong is facing some sort of bottleneck in terms of economic growth.” He is hopeful for the future though, comparing the GBA with other great bay regions of the world – for example New York, San Francisco and Tokyo.
Kwok counts off the various factors that have helped such regions thrive: “One, world-class universities and research institutions; two, international finance centres, where companies gather capital; and three, being backed up by a strong supply chain that connects to a larger market. We have all three elements for success,” he concludes.
Words can be powerful, but nothing cements a commitment to a shared destiny – or indeed to a supply chain – like a bridge, and here Hong Kong can point to the long-awaited completion back in 2018 of the 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB).
Though car traffic has been noticeably light so far, a government spokesman highlights the 1 July launch of the ‘Northbound Travel for Hong Kong Vehicles’ scheme. “This scheme provides a more convenient way for Hong Kong residents to self-drive to Guangdong via the HZMB for business, visiting families or sightseeing, marking another major milestone in enhancing the connectivity among the cities of the GBA.”
But the HZMB is far from the only major bridge project to be constructed in recent years. In 2019, the Nansha Bridge was added upriver of the existing Humen Pearl River Bridge, connecting Nansha on the west bank of the river with the Humen district of Dongguan on the east. Farther up again, closer to the heart of Guangzhou, the Huangpu Bridge was finished in 2008.
Next year should see another monster project completed, this one downriver, midway between the Humen and HZM bridges. The Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge will be a series of bridges and tunnels spanning almost 50 kilometres, carrying eight lanes of traffic and predicted to shrink that journey to not much more than 30 minutes.
Rail projects have ballooned too. The West Kowloon terminus to the High Speed Rail (Hong Kong Section) has given Hong Kong its first seamless rail link with the mainland to add to the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) pedestrianised gateways to China through the Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau border control points in Shenzhen.
Other projects are set to emerge as part of the Northern Metropolis development, a residential and economic development with a focus on innovation and tech, while the MTR is considering a Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Express Railway which would tie together a direct Hong Kong International airport (HKIA)–Shenzhen Bao’an International airport connection with Hung Shui Kiu-Qianhai cross-border services.
Then there are possible lines associated with the mammoth Kau Yi Chau Artificial Islands project. There are doubts over this project’s viability, but if built, links might then connect the new islands with Hong Kong Island West, North Lantau and coastal areas of the New Territories’ Tuen Mun district.
Widening the web
As for gateways to the world, the region boasts three major international airports in HKIA, Guangzhou Baiyun International and Shenzhen Bao’an International, as well as the smaller Macau International plus six domestic airports. Traffic has fluctuated wildly since the start of the pandemic, but on 2018 figures, HKIA was the eighth busiest airport in the world, with Guangzhou 13th and Shenzhen 32nd.
HKIA’s third runway has been in operation since June 2022, with the now-middle runway closed for upgrading work. All three, plus Terminal 2 (also undergoing renovations), are expected to be in service together in the mid-2020s. IATA has predicted HKIA will be handling more than 100 million passengers per annum by 2030. Meanwhile, Guangzhou Baiyun plans to add a third terminal and possibly two more runways to reach a capacity of up to 120 million passengers later this decade.
Cargo-wise, HKIA has been the world’s busiest airport for nine of the last ten years, handling more than five million tonnes annually, with Guangzhou Baiyun in the top 20 and Shenzhen Bao’an in the top 30.
When it comes to ship traffic, the Port of Hong Kong was for many years the busiest in the world, but today is sixth on the list, according to 2019 World Shipping Council figures, shifting 19.8 million TEU (20ft equivalent units, a volume denoting the standard-size container). Meanwhile, the sprawling Port of Shenzhen, which straddles Hong Kong to include western and eastern areas, has seen a meteoric rise to third with 24 million TEU. In 2021, the port began an expansion at Yantian, on its eastern side, which may add as much as another three million TEU.
Passenger ferries have been an important mode of transport in the past, with various routes from Hong Kong Island, the China Ferry Terminal and direct from HKIA, to Macau and other major urban centres around the delta. It remains to be seen how these fare as alternative modes of transport become more available.
Build it and they will code
With transport links evolving, interest is turning to other necessary physical infrastructure. Here the intended growth in innovation and technology is a clear priority, with the government describing it as a “major development engine of the GBA”.
“A key initiative is the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Innovation and Technology Cooperation Zone (Cooperation Zone),” says the government spokesman, “which is being pursued jointly by the governments of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The Cooperation Zone will leverage the comparative advantages of Hong Kong in basic research, and Shenzhen in prototyping and advanced manufacturing, with a view to developing it into an international innovation and technology hub.”
This initiative will see various sites developed on both sides of the border. Key among them on the Hong Kong side will be the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park (HSITP) in the Lok Ma Chau Loop and nearby areas that will form the San Tin Technopole, itself part of the Northern Metropolis.
However, there is possible tension here between the emphasis on innovation and technology, and the 2019 Outline Development Plan’s mention of “taking forward ecological conservation”, as much of the land earmarked for the Northern Metropolis is highly valued for its biodiversity and ecosystem services. Critics question whether more innovation hubs are needed when many already exist, whereas biodiverse natural landscapes are disappearing fast.
MICE work if you can get it
Finally, as major destination cities for business and leisure travellers, all the major cities of the GBA have convention centres and stadia, important to residents too as venues to showpiece important cultural and economic events.
Hong Kong has two major venues already heavily used: the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and AsiaWorld-Expo next to HKIA. However, adding to these soon will be the Kai Tak Sports Park, a new 50,000-seat venue for concerts, sporting and business events that’s due for completion in time for 2025’s National Games, co-hosted with Macau and Guangdong.
Shenzhen also now has two large exhibition spaces: the Shenzhen Exhibition and Convention Centre in Futian, and the newer Shenzhen World Exhibition and Convention Centre, next to Bao’an International airport; while Guangzhou has the vast Canton Fair Complex, perhaps the world’s biggest convention centre.
It’s clear that despite the already historically successful urban centres in the Pearl River Delta region, with their excellent facilities and infrastructure, and famously driven and creative populace, China’s aspirations for the GBA show no signs of slowing down. The message is broader, bigger and better – the end result designed to be an integrated economic region beyond compare.
Words: Steve White