The leaders of the former colonial territories of Hong Kong and Macau hailed the opening of the world longest sea-bridge on Tuesday as the start of growing "integration" with the rest of China.
President Xi Jinping made a one-line statement after walking into the ceremonial hall alongside Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam, which political commentators said suggested she has won the strong approval of Beijing.
"I declare the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge officially open," Xi said, amid a digital fireworks display on the screen behind him. He left the stage soon afterwards.
Lam said the bridge represented Xi's announcement of further economic cooperation and the "integration of Hong Kong and Macao into national economic development," made in his annual report to China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).
She said the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau would soon integrate into a "dynamic and internationally competitive" economic area, now that the bridge is open.
Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the continuation of its status as a separate jurisdiction for 50 years after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
But just 20 years after the former British colony became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, its freedoms are eroding in the face of a series of high-profile interventions by Beijing in its political life, including the disqualification of democratically elected lawmakers and of would-be election candidates on the basis of their political views.
Hong Kong also last month banned the separatist Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) under colonial-era laws aimed at preventing sedition, and refused to renew the visa of a foreign journalist who gave a platform to HKNP leader Andy Chan.
Political commentator Willy Lam said Lam should, according to Chinese protocol, have walked behind several members of the Politburo present at the ceremony.
"Inviting her to walk alongside the president indicates she has his special blessing ... This is a symbolic expression of support for Carrie Lam after she received a lot of criticism ... and popularity decline," he said.
Lam also said she looked forward to the shortening of travel distances between Hong Kong and the rest of China, adding that the bridge "provides a very favorable and sound foundation for the construction of the Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau Bay Area."
Her comments were echoed by Macau chief executive Fernando Chui, who said the bridge was meaningful politically, economically, and socially, providing a stronger basis for Macau's integration into the Greater Bay Area.
Obstacles to travel
When it opens to the public on Wednesday, the bridge will still present considerable obstacles to drivers wishing to drive to China, however, with a permit likely to take 12 working days to obtain, critics have said.
"After you have gotten the permit, you then have to ... find an insurance company to insure you in all three places, then book your insurance cover at an online platform in Macau at least 12 hours before departure," political commentator Lam Kei said in a commentary for RFA's Cantonese Service.
"Driving from Hong Kong to Macau, staying for 12 hours and not staying overnight, will cost at least HK$1,500, even if you apply two weeks in advance," Lam Kei wrote, calling the process "an excessively time-consuming scam."
"And that's without even talking about the politics or the safety issues with this bridge."
Vehicles driving from Hong Kong and Macau to Zhuhai in Guangdong province will need to switch sides, while simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China will greet motorists. Only the yuan will be accepted as payment for fees, Lam Kei said.
"This isn't about making things convenient or profitable for people; this is about politics overriding one country, two systems," he wrote. "It is a clear demonstration of the Chinese Communist Party's regression to an economy overridden by politics."
Land rights activist and lawmaker Eddie Chu agreed, saying that Beijing has sponsored a number of high-profile, cross-border infrastructure projects linking Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland in recent years.
"We have seen five or six key, cross-border infrastructure projects of this kind since 1997," Chu told RFA on Tuesday. "They have all been clearly loss-making, but have gone ahead regardless, which shows that political considerations are overriding economic ones."
"This infrastructure has been used as a pretext for stepping up data controls over Hong Kong, whether that be the joint immigration checkpoint at the high-speed rail terminus, or the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge. It's the same thing," he said.
Construction of the bridge began in 2009 and has been dogged by delays, budget overruns, corruption prosecutions, and the deaths of construction workers.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng, Jing Yuan and Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.