OPINION- A Hengqin Model for Hong Kong? The Idea of “Leasing” Guishan Island from Zhuhai

Some pro-government Hong Kong elites in the two sessions in Beijing raised an idea that the central government should consider and allow the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) to adopt a new Hengqin model, namely leasing the Guishan Island from Zhuhai for some years so that the HKSAR will have more physical space for the development of housing units for 500,000 citizens.

Guishan Island is composed of 10 kilometres and belongs to Zhuhai city’s Xiangzhou district. It is also located 4.8 kilometres south of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. Guishan Island is one of the islands in the Wanshan archipelago. In the 1990s, when the Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok airport was under construction, some workers and Hong Kong people liked to travel to Guishan Island where the sex industry was booming. After the completion of the Chek Lap Kok airport and the Zhuhai government’s anti-prostitution campaign, the Guishan Island has become a tourist spot. 

As early as May 2018, a group of Hong Kong professionals named the Citizens Task Force on Land Resources proposed various options for the Hong Kong government to develop more land, including an alternative of leasing the Guishan Island from Zhuhai.

In 2003, the Zhuhai municipal government toyed with an idea of developing a container port in Guishan Island, which is surrounded by water of 10 to 30 metres deep. It was expected that the container terminal would be able to supplement Hong Kong’s Kwai Tsing container port. In 2017, a think tank named Doctoral Exchange in Hong Kong also proposed the idea of allowing Hong Kong to lease the islands around Wanshan archipelago for the city’s land development. These islands embraced not only Guishan and the Wanshan archipelago but also Dangan. The Doctoral Exchange claimed that reclaiming all these islands would generate 12,000 hectares of land for the HKSAR.

The ideas of leasing the islands in Wanshan archipelago, especially Guishan Island, were raised again in the recent two sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing in May. Pro-government elites in Hong Kong, including the members of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and the New People’s Party, were reportedly re-floating the idea of allowing the HKSAR to “rent” Guishan Island for some years along the Hengqin model in Macau.

The Hengqin model for Macau is slightly different from the Guishan Island for Hong Kong in two aspects. First, Hengqin Island is linked with Macau just by a bridge and it has 106.46 kilometres, but Guishan Island is much smaller and will need reclamation in order to be physically connected with the Lantau Island. 

Second, the Hengqin model proceeded in two stages: Beijing’s approval and Macau’s additional leasehold if the Macau government wants to have more land in Hengqin. On June 27, 2009, the Macau government announced that University of Macau would construct its new campus on Hengqin’s 1 kilometre. At the same time, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) officially adopted a decision to authorize Macau to exercise its jurisdiction over the new campus of the University of Macau, and to let Macau to apply the Macau law in the areas concerned. The Hengqin model is unique, for Beijing allows Macau to lease additional parts of Hengqin until December 20, 2049. This incremental approach to leasing land in Hengqin to Macau is perhaps slightly different from Guishan Island, which is relatively small and which necessitates land reclamation for any possible “additional” lease.

If the Guishan Island is going to be leased by Beijing to the HKSAR, the process would also go through the approval of the SCNPC. However, it is reported in the Hong Kong media that Beijing would consider reclamation surrounding the Guishan Island first so that it would become physically large enough to accommodate 500,000 Hong Kong residents.

Indeed, land reclamation would also be possible after the HKSAR gets the leasehold of the Guishan Island, but the political risk is that opponents of the Hong Kong government would perhaps use legal means to oppose land reclamation, which has become a highly contentious issue in the HKSAR in recent years.

Some critics of the idea of leasing Guishan Island for Hong Kong’s land development have argued that the former was composed of mostly rocky areas and that only its western part can be populated. Moreover, it would take 45 minutes to 1 hour for residents in Guishan Island to arrive the Hong Kong island by sea route, reflecting the relatively “inconvenient” traffic.

Other critics have pointed to the likelihood that Beijing, after its decision to impose the national security law onto Hong Kong, would adopt a softer approach toward the Hong Kong people by using the “carrot” of leasing the Guishan Island to the HKSAR. These critics have maintained that even though Guishan Island would be “rented” to the HKSAR as a “gift,” the central authorities would still fail to win the hearts and minds of many people of Hong Kong.

Objectively speaking, because Guishan Island is located near the Lantau Island, its possible territorial integration into the HKSAR would be beneficial to the land, property and housing development of southwestern Hong Kong, making the development of Hong Kong and Zhuhai much closer and easier than before.

It can be boldly predicted that if Guishan Island were integrated into the HKSAR, a new idea of having a bridge connecting Hong Kong with Zhuhai would perhaps be floated sooner or later. As such, the development of an economic co-prosperity sphere between Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau will be practically feasible, given the fact that the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge has already symbolized the closer socio-economic development of the three regions.

Moreover, given the fact that ongoing Covid-19 has been draining much resources from the Hong Kong government, and that the Lantau Tomorrow Vision is now being put on the backburner at least temporarily, the idea of leasing the Guishan Island to the HKSAR can practically fill in the existing vacuum. No wonder pro-government and pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong have claimed that they lobbied the central authorities hard to consider and approve this “new” idea. Reports in Hong Kong have also mentioned that Han Zheng, the chairperson of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area Coordination Committee, considered the idea seriously during the two sessions in May.

At a time when the September legislative elections are approaching, it is natural that the pro-Beijing and pro-government elites in Hong Kong are gearing up their pre-campaign activities and trying to claim credits once the idea of leasing the Guishan Island would perhaps be adopted and announced by Beijing. After all, Beijing has been adopting a top-down style of policy formulation in the entire development of the Greater Bay Area.

The HKSAR has been dragged into political paralysis because of its internal political wrangling and struggles. Many policy issues have been delayed in the Legislative Council. As such, Beijing has become more determined than ever to intervene in Hong Kong matters, imposing the national security law in view of the indefinite delay of the Hong Kong government in legislating on Article 23 of the Basic Law.

In short, due to the internal political paralysis of Hong Kong, the need for the HKSAR to look for more housing units for its population, and Beijing’s efforts at combining “carrots” with “sticks” in dealing with the people of Hong Kong, it is likely that the idea of integrating Guishan Island into the HKSAR territorially would eventually be adopted. Any territorial integration between Zhuhai’s Guishan Island and Hong Kong would also become an important breakthrough in the socio-economic integration between the HKSAR and the Greater Bay Area.