The construction site (foreground) for the West Kowloon terminus of the high-speed rail link connecting Hong Kong to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is seen in Hong Kong on July 27, 2017. Photo: AFP / Isaac Lawrence

Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement with the Chinese government, the 7.3 million people living in Hong Kong are supposed to be protected from the political repression and arbitrary detentions that are commonplace on the mainland. 

With the impending opening of a HK$84.billion (US$10.8 billion) high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and the southern mainland city of Guangzhou, however, that may no longer be the case. With a joint immigration checkpoint in Hong Kong, mainland officers will be empowered to enforce criminal law, in addition to customs and immigration rules, on trains and at the Hong Kong terminus. 

The deal – approved last week by the Executive Council, the advisory body to the city’s chief executive, its highest-ranking official – has met with fierce opposition from the city’s pro-democracy faction. They warn that the new rail link, scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2018, could be an express vehicle not just for passengers but also for mainland-style interrogations and incarcerations that would be an egregious breach of the human rights guaranteed in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law. 

Critics of the co-location agreement also argue that the 105,000-square-meter area of the Hong Kong terminus due to be leased to the mainland will set a precedent that allows the Beijing government to lease other parts of Hong Kong in the future and that it could, for example, enforce laws banning anti-Beijing demonstrations such as the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests that paralyzed key parts of the city for nearly three months in 2014.   

On the other side, proponents of the agreement dismiss these arguments as political posturing and scare-mongering that risk turning the link, the most expensive 26 kilometers of railway ever built, into a colossal waste of money. Without the joint checkpoint in Hong Kong, they say, trains would be required stop across the border in Shenzhen for immigration checks, thus negating much of the point of traveling at high speed (up to 200 kilometers per hour) in the first place. The current train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou involves a journey of nearly two hours. The express rail link would, officials say, cut that time to 48 minutes. 

Britain and France have reciprocal customs arrangements at either end of the Channel Tunnel. Photo: iStock / Getty

Beyond the money and efficiency that would be lost, supporters of a joint checkpoint in Hong Kong cite similar co-location schemes involving different jurisdictions around the world. For example, the United States and Canada have adopted a “pre-clearance” system at airports that allows American officials to make immigration, customs and agricultural inspections in Canada and Canadian officials to do the same in the United States. 

The 1991 Sangatte Protocol, signed by France and the United Kingdom prior to the completion of the Eurotunnel, is held up as another textbook example. Under that agreement, French immigration officials are stationed in Cheriton, the “Chunnel” terminus in England, while the UK customs check takes place in the French town of Coquelles. 

Indeed, as champions of co-location are quick to note, Hong Kong immigration officers already operate in the mainland, under a similar arrangement, at Shenzhen Bay Port. This begs the question, how can Hong Kong reject a reciprocal accord? 

The answer to that question reveals much about the “problem” of Hong Kong in the eyes of the Chinese leadership. 

In 1997, the year Hong Kong was handed back to China after more than 150 years of British rule, Beijing adopted a policy of tolerance and patience, waiting for the people of Hong Kong to get over their long-standing connection to the British and develop a sense of ethnic pride at now being part of a 1.3 billion-strong Chinese nation on the rise. Twenty years later, Chinese leaders are still waiting, albeit far less patiently, for Hong Kong to do so. 

Given the fraught nature of Hong Kong politics at present, it should come as no surprise that what appears to be a simple, common-sense co-location agreement made in the name of cooperation and efficiency has turned into a political football that is already the subject of several legal challenges

Protests against the autocratic Chinese leadership are a regular occurrence in the city, as are complaints about what is often characterized as the “mainlandization” of Hong Kong, a gradual trend that has seen Chinese migrants and visitors driving up retail and property prices with their newfound wealth and distorting the local Cantonese culture with the increasing prevalence of Mandarin, the national language of China. 

Many people in Hong Kong – especially those of a younger generation who see their freedoms eroding and their quality of life diminishing under Chinese rule — worry that they are losing their city inch by inch to the unstoppable economic and demographic force of their giant neighbor to the north. 

At its most extreme, this sense of loss and alienation has spawned a “localist” movement advocating self-determination and even outright independence for Hong Kong. Of course, such talk is anathema to Chinese leaders also worried about separatist movements in Buddhist Tibet, the home of the 14th Dalai Lama before he fled from People’s Liberation Army troops in 1959, and Xinjiang, where there has been a crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs since the autonomous region’s capital city, Urumqi, was beset by several days of violent rioting in 2009. 

As President Xi Jinping reminded everyone during his three-day visit to Hong Kong in July to mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, any talk of independence for Hong Kong “crosses a red line” and will not be tolerated by Beijing. 

Less than two weeks after Xi’s departure, as if to underscore his point, a High Court ruling stripped four pro-democracy lawmakers of their seats in the Legislative Council (Legco), Hong Kong’s parliament, for staging anti-government protests while they were being sworn in as lawmakers in October.

The suit against the four was filed by Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, and received special support from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), which had issued a binding interpretation of Hong Kong’s Oaths and Declarations ordinance stating that oaths must be taken “sincerely and solemnly” with no second chances offered to those guilty of violations. 

Demonstrators sport colonial-era Hong Kong flags during a protest against Beijing’s interference in local politics and the rule of law. China is still waiting for Hong Kong to shake off its past connections and embrace the motherland. Photo: Tyrone Siu, Reuters

The NPCSC ruling was handed down in November after Legco President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen rejected the oaths of two other lawmakers – localists Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, who unfurled a banner reading “Hong Kong Is Not China” during their oath-taking and also used language deemed insulting to the central government – but later decided to give them another chance. 

Leung revoked that decision following the NPCSC judgment, and the pair were formally removed from office in a November High Court ruling. They have since lost an appeal of that ruling in a case, also filed by Yuen’s office, that in the end is likely to be decided by the city’s Court of Final Appeal.  

Given the fraught nature of Hong Kong politics at present, it should come as no surprise that what appears to be a simple, common-sense co-location agreement made in the name of cooperation and efficiency has turned into a political football that is already the subject of several legal challenges. Besides being divisive along familiar political lines, it should be noted that the express rail link is a massively expensive project that is heavily over budget. It’s also one that many Hong Kong taxpayers never wanted in the first place. 

Pro-democracy lawmakers have promised to vote against the joint checkpoint in Legco. Down six votes following the court rulings on oath-taking, however, they have lost their veto power in the council chamber. Even if they could muster a veto, though, there is little to stop the NPCSC stepping in again with another of its heavy-handed “interpretations,” which ultimately amount to a veto of the autonomy Hong Kong was promised at the handover 20 years ago. 

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