A plan for mainland border staff to be stationed on Hong Kong soil as part of a new rail link to China sparked a backlash today as concern grows about Beijing’s reach into the city.
It is illegal for mainland law enforcers to operate in semi-autonomous Hong Kong under the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
But there are already concerns that Chinese operatives are working undercover after the alleged abductions of a city bookseller and a reclusive Chinese businessman.
The rail link plan, which was detailed during a lengthy press conference today, comes at a time when fears are worsening that Hong Kong’s freedoms are under threat from an ever more assertive Beijing.
The high-speed connection out of the harborfront West Kowloon station was proposed by then-CE Donald Tsang in 2007 and is set to open in 2018, linking to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou 80 miles (130 km) away and then onto China’s national rail network.
A proposal approved by the Hong Kong government’s top advisory body today would see parts of the Hong Kong terminus fall under Chinese control.
There are already numerous transport connections between Hong Kong and the mainland, but Chinese immigration checks are done on the other side of the border.
City leader Carrie Lam insisted the new checkpoint arrangement was not a breach of the Basic Law and was designed to cut travel time.
“The crux of the matter is really to find a means that is legal to support this convenience for the people of Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters.
The government’s pro-Beijing camp has said Hong Kong is simply “leasing” the portion of land at the terminus to China.
But veteran lawyer and democracy advocate Martin Lee, who helped draft the Basic Law in the 1980s, said creating an exception within Hong Kong where mainland Chinese laws are enforced would set a “dangerous precedent”.
It would put at risk the semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” set-up guaranteed when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, Lee told AFP.
The government wanted to force through the plan to make Hong Kong people “feel closer to Beijing, the sovereign power”, added opposition legislator Claudia Mo.
Faced with a barrage of reporters’ questions this afternoon, justice secretary Rimsky Yuen pointed out that, under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s land and natural resources were “state property”.
He said the mainland area of the terminus would be regarded as outside the territorial boundary of Hong Kong and that Chinese rules would apply.
Yuen was unsure whether websites like Facebook, banned on the mainland, would be accessible in China’s portions of the station.
Parts of the arrival level and departure level of the terminus will be under Chinese jurisdiction, as will the platform level and train cabins.
Mainland staff stationed at the terminus will include customs, immigration and health officials, as well as police.
Yuen emphasized that the project and co-location were initiated by the Hong Kong government independent of any commands or directives from the central government. He called any politicization of the project “unnecessary” and rejected the theory that co-location would set a precedent for mainland personnel to operate under Chinese law in other parts of Hong Kong, stating that they would only do so within their designated zones.
The plan now needs approval from the city’s legislature, which is weighted towards the pro-China camp following the much-protested expulsion of six opposition lawmakers, four of whom were disqualified earlier this month.
The rail link is one of a number of cross-border infrastructure projects which have stoked fears Hong Kong is being swallowed up by the mainland.
Passengers from Hong Kong could reach Beijing in under 10 hours on the new line, but controversies have plagued the project, with snowballing costs now at HKD84.42 billion (USD10 billion). During the annual July 1 democracy march, some participants dressed up as “White Elephants” to protest expensive government projects such as the railway link, Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, and development of the northeast New Territories.
With reporting from Coconuts Hong Kong