Integrating the Pearl River Delta

Sunday afternoon, I walked east along the Houhai coast, from Houhai to Sand River (沙河). This is a strip of land that was formerly designated to be part of the Nanshan District Binhai green zone, which connects up with the Shenzhen Natural Mangrove Reserve in Futian District. My interest in the area grows with the audacity of land reclamation in Shenzhen. This area marks a second rezoning of the coastline. The first was part of the effort to build the Binhai Expressway, which connects Nanshan to Futian and Luohu Districts. This second stage was districted later and remnants of that now-obsolete coastline litter the new construction site.

(The curious can check out the Shenzhen’s overall urban plan (1996-2010) maps, while the even more adventurous can go to the Nanshan District overall urban plan. On those maps, I walked along the strip of coast facing Hong Kong. Offline, if your library has any of the Shenzhen yearbooks from the 1980s, there are interesting comparisons to be made. Published in the early 1990s, the last Baoan County Gazetteer is also fun, but harder to find.)

On my walk, I stumbled upon guardhouses that were never staffed by border guards and the chain-link fence that separates pedestrians from Houhai. The entire area had been filled with earth and pumps were busy squeezing out the last of the ocean. Dump trucks rumbled past and people carrying nets biked out to the new coastline. I learned there was a two-week window to catch newborn crabs before they swam out into what remained of the ocean. These baby crabs would be used to stock fisheries in Baoan District. The crabbers carried the crabs in plastic soda bottles that hung around their necks. Eventually, I arrived at Sand River, I came across one of the construction sites for the Shenzhen Western Corridor Bridge, which set me to thinking about the various infrastructures which integrate Shenzhen and Hong Kong. What follows is a longish outline of Shenzhen history as mapped by Shenzhen-Hong Kong checkpoints. You can skip the discussion and go straight to the Western Corridor land reclamation pictures, or you can indulge my sudden urge to document comprehensively the transformation of Shenzhen.

(I’ve just realized that I only use Mandarin and Shenzhen place names in this blog. I promise to start documenting the different names for the sites. I may even talk about what these differences in talk might mean…)

Anyway, the fourth land connection between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the Shenzhen Western Corridor Bridge was completed in January 2006. The corridor itself should be finished later this year. It is a 3.8 km long dual-carriageway 3-lane bridge connecting Nanshan District to Hong Kong at Ngau Hom Shek. The construction is being overseen by OPAC, a San Francisco based engineering firm. Trying to figure out the actual cost of the corridor is somewhat difficult. According to the China Daily, the bridge cost $US 111 million to build. On their webpage, OPAC estimated that the cost of the Western Corridor Bridge would be $US 400 million. The Nickel Institute website quotes the Hong Kong Highway Authority as putting the estimated cost at $US 2.7 billion. Perhaps the China Daily quote refers just to the cost of the bridge, the OPAC quote to the cost of the entire corridor, and the Hong Kong Highway Authority quote to related infrastructure in Hong Kong. What can be concluded is that the corridor is expensive and somebody is making a lot of money from it.

And making money seems to be the point. The Western Corridor Bridge is part of a larger effort to transform the Pearl River Delta into one of the most vibrant economic regions in the world. On August 28, 2003, at the Foundation-stone Laying Ceremony for the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor in Shenzhen, Hong Kong Chief Executive, Mr Tung Chee Hwa said, “Hong Kong and Shenzhen are a key nexus in land transport to the Mainland…The three existing land boundary crossings between Shenzhen and Hong Kong are nearing the saturation point, such that both administrations have agreed to build the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor as the fourth land crossing to accommodate growth. Traffic flows at the three existing boundary crossings have increased greatly over the past five years. The average total daily vehicular traffic at boundary crossings is expected to reach 65,000 vehicles in 2006, far beyond the daily capacity of 42,000 vehicles, which the three existing crossings offer now. Upon its completion, the Western Corridor will provide additional daily traffic capacity of 80,000 vehicles, raising the overall daily traffic capacity to 122,000 vehicles, thereby easing the current congestion. And yet, even four land crossings are considered inadequate to meet the future demand arising from further development. A working group drawn from among officials of the Hong Kong, Guangdong and Macao administrations will convene its first meeting tomorrow to press on with the advance preparations for construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge…”

The figures for vehicular land crossings do not include statistics for all border checkpoints (in order of numbers of passenger crossings)—Luohu, Huanggang, Shekou, Shenzhen airport, Wenjindu, and Shatoujiao. Official Shenzhen customs figures showed entry and exit passengers at the city’s six checkpoints reached 137 million in 2004. Crossings surge during Chinese holidays, especially Chinese New Years, when an estimated 5-6 million people (over a period of two weeks) cross at Luohu alone. During the holiday season, all checkpoints extend hours and increase staff handling document inspection. Each of these crossings has a distinct, but interconnected history that illuminates different aspects of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong nexus as part of globalization. A crude synopsis of the six sites follows and provides a very, very, very rough outline of Shenzhen’s deep history.

(I try to problematize the idea of history with respect to Shenzhen most entries. However, this is the first time in this site that I’m trying to locate Shenzhen with respect to larger currents. I’ve learned how to think about this history from Giovanni Arrighi in his wonderful book The Long Twentieth Century. Helen Siu and David Faure have turned an anthropological lens on this process in Down to Earth: The Territorial Bond in South China. I’ve picked up some online sources that may be helpful and embedded in the following notes. I assume it’s all as reliable as statistics about Western Corridor Bridge finances are.)

In a certain sense, the Luohu checkpoint has been in existence since the leasing of the Hong Kong New Terriories in 1898, when the Sino-Anglo border moved to the Shenzhen River. Previously, the Qing Dynasty had ceded Hong Kong Island and the area south of the Kowloon Mountains to Great Britain in 1842 (end of the first Opium War) and 1860 (end of the second Opium War), respectively. Luohu (Lo Wu in Cantonese) was the first stop on the Chinese side of the Hong Kong-Guangzhou railway, which was built in 1913 and more effectively integrated south-eastern China into the British Empire. So thinking about Luohu leads to thoughts about British imperialism, the transition to the Cold War, and the postsocialist realignment of international political-economies with a focus on East Asia. Suddenly, Shenzhen is neither hinterland nor no man’s land, but vying for the center of global trade. In a recent defense of building the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge and associated costs, the Executive Director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, Joseph Tung, has said that the Luowu checkpoint is one of the busiest land crossings in the world, with more than 90 million people passing through it every year.

The Huanggang Checkpoint opened for 24-hour border crossings Jan. 27, 2003, at which point crossing figures surged from 50,000 to 110,000 per day. Buses to and from the Huanggang Checkpoint, connect Shenzhen to six Hong Kong destinations, including the Hong Kong airport. Since 1995, Huanggang has been the primary conduit between Shenzhen and Hong Kong Disneyland. Until the construction of the Western Corridor Bridge, Huanggang was the newest of the land crossings. It is interesting because it was part of a geographic shift in Shenzhen from “Downtown” referring to Luo Hu to the new “City Business Center” in Futian. The shift began in 1996, when the Shenzhen Municipal Government accepted plans for the new CBD. Michael Gallagher gave a talk about the Shenzhen CBD in 2002. But for a sense of the scale of this transformation and the debate about it, google 深圳CBD and check out all the different sites. Thus, the shift from Luohu to Futian allows for specifying the differences between a Hong Kong centered development in the early 80s to a more diffuse integration of the region, and therefore a more Mainland-centered pattern of economic development.

The most expensive connection between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the Shekou ferry makes 13 round trip voyages a day, except during Chinese New Year, when the number of trips increases to accommodate the numbers of visitors. An additional 8 daily voyages connect Shekou to the Hong Kong airport. Most frequent passengers on the ferry are Shekou-based foreigners. The Shekou Ferry is interesting for a number of reasons, most related to the role that China Merchants has played (by way of Shekou) in the development of Shenzhen. The role of China Merchants then leads back to Luohu and questions of national development first raised during the later years of the Qing Dynasty. As of 2004, China Merchants has posted its own historical archive online, which highlights the role that commerce and international relations have played in modern Chinese history.

Along with Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Zhuhai, and Macau, the Shenzhen Airport is one of five international airports in the Pearl River Delta. In terms of passengers served, it ranks behind Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The five international airports have been built within a radius of 25 km. illustrating the level of competition and inter-city rivalry that has characterized development in the Pearl River Delta, rather than regional cooperation and planning. Moreover, the redundant infrastructure in the Delta has led to serious environmental problems, according to a report by K. C. Ho and C. S. Man.

Wenjindu is primarily a crossing for goods between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. It was opened in 1950, as part of the new Mainland government’s strategy to bring hard currency into the country. Throughout the Mao-era, agricultural products flowed from the Mainland into Hong Kong, a development strategy that has been more fully exploited since Shenzhen’s establishment. So thinking about Wenjindu allows one to question commonly held understandings about China’s so-called isolation during the Mao era outside of the obvious connections with the former Soviet Union and other socialist and third world countries. In the era of Avian flu, Wenjindu regularly appears in Hong Kong news reports as the site where chickens and other poultry cross the border. With suspicious regularity, indeed with an almost ritualized compulsion, Hong Kong public health officials regularly express astonishment on conditions north of the border.

So a rough outline of Shenzhen’s history with respect to the construction, use, and re-appropriation of Shenzhen-Hong Kong border checkpoint infrastructure. It touches upon British imperialism, the Cold War, the East Asian economic miracle, the rise of China as a global player, international epidemics, and the concomitant transformation of the environment. This is how we make our world, one reclaimed special zone at a time.

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