Shenzhen AND HONG KONG:Busy frontier between two blurring worlds
By Charles Lee
Published: October 13 2009 16:13 | Last updated: October 13 2009 16:13
Hong Kong has been a part of China for 12 years, but its status as a special administrative region means it still maintains border controls on travel to and from mainland China.
The high frequency of crossings along this border, though, shows how deeply Hong Kong has become economically integrated with the mainland – specifically, with the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region of neighbouring Guangdong province.
Along with the San Ysidro Port of Entry linking the cities of San Diego in the US and Tijuana in Mexico, the Lo Wu Control Point between Hong Kong and Shenzhen is one of the world’s busiest crossing points.
In 2008, the Hong Kong government recorded its residents making more than 37m departures through Lo Wu. Travel in the opposite direction is much more restricted; overall mainland Chinese arrivals to Hong Kong were 16.8m that year. Once they arrive in Lo Wu, usually by metro train running every 5-8 minutes, Hong Kongers make the crossing on foot.
Lo Wu is one of six land border checks between Hong Kong and the mainland. The other main crossing is at Lok Ma Chau, which is the only one operating 24 hours a day, and travellers can reach it by metro, bus or car.
Dozens of ferries also ply the waters between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. And for destinations on the western side of the Pearl River, such as Zhuhai, Nansha, Zhongshan, travel by these catamarans remains the fastest option.
There are also direct train services, making the 1 hour 50 minute trip to Guangdong’s provincial capital of Guangzhou 12 times a day, stopping along the way in Dongguan, a manufacturing base for foreign companies.
“I still remember the cattle crossing at Lo Wu and then a five-hour bumpy ride to Dongguan,” says Norman Cheng, who has been commuting from Hong Kong for almost two decades to oversee his family’s motorcycle helmet factory there. “Now, it’s two-and-a-half hours door to door – a big improvement.”
The soaring human traffic between Hong Kong and the mainland mirrors the rise of the PRD as “the factory of the world”.
This southern swathe of Guangdong province contains 45m people and had an estimated regional GDP of $269bn in 2006. The PRD accounts for about 83 per cent of Guangdong’s economy, which in turn generates 30 per cent of China’s exports.
Between 1980 and 2006, the PRD’s real GDP growth averaged more than 16 per cent, well above the 9.8 per cent for all China. The area has been “the fastest growing portion of the fastest growing province in the fastest growing large economy in the world”, wrote Michael Enright and Edith Scott in their 2007 report for the Hong Kong government, The Greater Pearl River Delta.
Much of the fuel powering the PRD’s potent manufacturing sector was, of course, supplied by Hong Kong. In the 1980s and 1990s, businessmen from the former British colony began pouring money, know-how and facilities into the region to take advantage of China’s economic reforms.
To encourage the influx, Chinese policymakers set up two of the country’s first special economic zones near Hong Kong, in Shenzhen and Zhuhai.
The tightly controlled border rapidly loosened up. Since then, crossborder co-operation has been spectacularly successful.
Hong Kong-based companies not only own many of the factories in the PRD, but also sell their managerial, logistical and financial expertise to all sorts of enterprises in the region.
Professional advisers are regular commuters alongside factory owners, truck drivers and shoppers.
And although the PRD’s export-driven economy has been hit by slowing foreign demand, its ever-closer integration with Hong Kong has not been interrupted.
This year, the Hong Kong government installed 10 express immigration channels at Lo Wu. Optical readers can scan and process smart identity cards, allowing travellers to pass through within eight seconds.
A much grander project about to get under way is a 29-km bridge linking Hong Kong with Macao and Zhuhai. Construction is due to begin next year and, when the road connection is completed in about 2016, the drive across the mouth of the delta will take 30 minutes.
Hong Kong’s boundary with the mainland is certainly not what it was 30 years ago when China began to open up.
It does not separate two vastly different worlds any more. Amid the blurring lines, however, it is easy to forget that it is a real frontier.
“People think it is the same country and consider the border trivial,” says John Supan, a US businessman who commuted between Hong Kong and Shenzhen for three years before returning to the US this year.
“Treat it like any other international border and make sure all your documents are in order. If not, you won’t get through.”
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