A 1980s slogan for Britain’s railways urged passengers to shun road journeys and “let the train take the strain”. In contemporary Hong Kong an $11 billion train line is proving more of a source of strain – at least in political terms.
The railway in question is a new bullet line that – from the third quarter of next year – will cut journey times to Guangzhou to less than 50 minutes. It has made headlines for a number of reasons, not least the massive cost overruns and construction delays. However, the most controversial aspect is its proposed terminus in West Kowloon.
At issue is how to arrange the customs and immigrations procedures for passengers (a challenge WiC first flagged in issue 307). Hong Kong’s government has announced a plan to co-locate both its own and mainland China’s customs and immigrations officials in the new station. It proposes to lease the land in question to China and makes the argument that were it not to co-locate the facilities, the savings on journey time would be lost as passengers disembark at the Shenzhen border for passport control (the current set-up for the slower train to Guangzhou).
From an efficiency perspective this is undeniable. But the problem is a political one. Under the city’s Basic Law officials from mainland China are prevented from working in official roles on Hong Kong soil. Article 18 prohibits the exercise of Chinese law in the territory, for instance. Thus the idea of Chinese officials operating in Hong Kong’s territory is viewed by some local political parties as a dangerous infringement, and they are keen to stymie the plan in the city’s legislative body (LegCo), where the new land lease must get the green light before being approved by China’s National People’s Congress.
Opponents of the plan do not seem to have the votes to veto it in LegCo. That said, all sides know the court of public opinion will be a tougher challenge. Will the average Hongkonger accept the practicality argument (made by the government) above warnings that co-location erodes the Basic Law and threatens the city’s way of life?
The arguments have been playing out in the local press, with Oriental Daily running an editorial claiming that the Basic Law was not being contravened by the leasing arrangements as “all the land and resources in Hong Kong belong to China”. Amid the growing tension, the city has also been captivated by a case involving a local activist named Howard Lam. The event in question involved Lam’s claim to have been abducted last Thursday by mainland Chinese agents who then stapled metal crosses onto his thighs. The injuries were unveiled to the media after his release.
Lam claims he was targeted because of a plan to send a Chinese dissident a signed photo of the footballer Lionel Messi (WiC promises it isn’t making this up). Newspapers picked up on his story, linking it the co-location debate and playing on anxieties Hongkongers have about illegal abductions in which residents are smuggled over the border for interrogation. Ming Pao calculated there have been six such abductions since 2013, including the seizing of a group of local booksellers, which grabbed headlines worldwide in 2015. One of those booksellers told the newspaper that Lam’s case was a near repeat of their own and said things would only get worse if mainland officials operated in Hong Kong. Beijing’s agents would soon be funnelling abductees through the newly-leased territory in West Kowloon, he claimed.
Lam’s case was initially a boost for opponents of the co-location principle. However, early this week investigative journalists with Factwire discredited his story by searching surveillance footage. Clips showed Lam wandering the streets well after the time he claimed to have been grabbed, pulled into a van and drugged. And on Tuesday Hong Kong police took him into custody, with investigators saying they had found major discrepancies between his account of the abduction and his actual activities on the day.
Thus what might have inflamed public opinion now looks like a stunt designed to derail the co-location plan. The government will be hoping that exposing Lam will make the plan’s passage through LegCo a little easier.
Clarification: A reader pointed out that the existing direct train (MTR Intercity Through Train) does not require customs checks at the border, but in Guangzhou East train station. When we referred to the ‘slower’ train option we meant the more frequent services where a Hongkonger would go to Shenzhen, cross the border, and then take another train to Guangzhou.
The Hong Kong government has argued that if a co-location arrangement is not implemented, all passengers may only board or disembark at mainland stations with clearance facilities. Some even suggest (in the absence of co-location in Hong Kong) all passengers may need to clear Chinese customs at Shenzhen, the city bordering Hong Kong where many of the new high-speed trains will make their first stop in mainland China.
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