Hong Kong’s Director of Highways went to Zhuhai yesterday to meet the officials of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge Authority to address public concerns over the mega-bridge that links the three cities. Daniel Chung Kum-wah is expected to issue a statement about his meeting.
Concerns over the structural safety of the bridge emerged on April 3 after an aerial view of the construction showed suspected problems with one of its artificial islands. According to a photo taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and posted on the Facebook group page called UAVHongKong, some of the concrete slabs used to fortify the island appeared to have been washed away.
What has happened in the week since then has raised concerns not only over the bridge but also differences in how Hong Kong and the mainland manage a public relations crisis like this – “one bridge, two systems”, you might say.
On April 4, on its website, the bridge management company issued a statement that the reports in the HK media (speaking of a danger to the bridge) were “inaccurate”. It said that the structures on the bridge had passed inspection and fully met the standards of prevention and water flow.
“Engineering of the bridge took six years of preparation work and eight years of difficult and unsurpassed construction,” it said. “On February 6, 2018, it smoothly passed inspection … its quality is excellent. We thank members of the society and the media for their concern. Please let everyone be at ease.”
The mainland media is presenting the bridge as a global triumph of engineering and a symbol of the growing closeness of Hong Kong and Macao with the mainland.
Late last year, I was interviewed about it by a mainland television station. I said that the colossal amount of money might have been spent more effectively to build schools, hospitals, roads and other public facilities in poor areas of central and western China. The lady reporter became angry; she said such a reply was useless, would be discarded and that I should reply again in the correct manner.
On April 4, the Hong Kong Highways Department issued a statement: “The HyD will continue to communicate with the HZMB Authority and monitor the works of the Main Bridge with a view to ensuring that its quality meets the relevant requirements.”
Yesterday (Sunday) the deputy director of the management company, Yu Lie, said that the concrete blocks had not drifted and were placed in such a way to get the best results. “We have our ways to do it and you (Hong Kong) may have your ways to do it.”
In Hong Kong, large public projects like the bridge are subject to intense public and media scrutiny, especially when they cost billions of dollars. In the mainland, such debate is not permitted, except in specialized academic journals which are not read by the general public.
In the mainland, such a debate is conducted internally, before the start of a project. Once a project is approved, it is not challenged publicly. The mainland considers the ceaseless debate in Hong Kong – and many countries – as wasteful and counter-productive and a major reason why they have fallen behind China in construction of infrastructure and large public works projects.
But Hong Kong is financing more than 40 percent of this bridge; its drivers and residents will account for a large proportion of the users. So the project cannot escape the normal scrutiny here.
The differences in handling the safety issue do not bode well for the future. The operation of the bridge involves the three parties; who will dictate the future management?
Several important issues remain unresolved. One is what laws and regulations will be applied in the event of accidents or incidents? Another is: when there are differences in weather at either end, who will have the authority to close the bridge?
A third is the financing. Before construction began, the projections were of 9,400-14,000 cars a day, a rate of return of 8.8 percent a day and repayment within 20 years. But the Hong Kong side is unwilling to accept a large volume of vehicles from the mainland, so the flow will be considerably lower and the repayment period greatly extended.
A fourth is the maintenance of a bridge 55 kilometers long that will be subject to extreme weather, typhoons and the fierce currents of the Pearl River. The maintenance costs will be substantial.
How will ‘one bridge, two systems’ resolve all these challenges?
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