17 October 2019
Since late 2009, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou high-speed rail link has been hounded by protests and criticisms. Photos: HKEJ
Since late 2009, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou high-speed rail link has been hounded by protests and criticisms. Photos: HKEJ

What HK people should learn from the high-speed rail link saga

While senior officials of the Hong Kong government are focused on pushing the political reform package for the 2017 election, they seem to be ignoring the issues arising from the Hong Kong to Guangzhou express rail link, which could have a deep impact on Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy over the territory.

If anything, the continuing delays in the high-speed rail project and the proposal to establish a joint immigration checkpoint at the Hong Kong end of the rail network highlight the current Hong Kong authorities’ failure to protect the interests of Hong Kong people in the face of Beijing’s one-sided policies.

The Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou high-speed rail link is again in the news after MTR Corp. revealed that the project was 68.7 percent completed by the end of March, when the schedule was for it to be 73.7 percent finished by the time.

The company is now reviewing the budget estimate and completion date, and plans to submit a progress report to the government within the quarter.

This is not the first time that the project has encountered problems. Last year the railway operator disclosed that the latest overall cost estimate had reached HK$71.5 billion, 10 percent more than the approved budget of HK$65 billion.

Some experts believe the cost of the entire project could surpass HK$90 billion at the rate it is going.

And now another thorny issue has cropped up, namely the joint immigration checkpoint to be located at the West Kowloon station.

The proposed joint checkpoint is intended to facilitate the processing of the immigration papers of mainland-bound passengers as they do not need to get off the train when leaving the Hong Kong boundary.

However, critics have pointed out that the arrangement would undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, especially in the light of revelations that both sides have not reached any agreement on how to implement the joint immigration check within Hong Kong as it is not allowed under the existing legal framework.

Lawmaker Michael Tien, a local deputy to the National People’s Congress, said Shenzhen had a Plan B in case both sides fail to set up the joint checkpoint.

He said once the rail link is operational, an immigration checkpoint could be built in Shenzhen to process the papers of those going to the mainland.

That means that the speed advantage presented by the rail link may be substantially eroded as passengers have to get off the train and undergo another immigration check.

Another implication is that the Hong Kong government may need to apply for additional funding for such a facility to be constructed, further raising the cost of the whole project.

Since late 2009, the rail project has been hounded by protests and criticisms. While some have questioned the route of the rail link, a major concern is the implementation of the joint immigration checkpoint.

Under the “one country, two systems” framework, Chinese officials cannot perform their official functions in Hong Kong, and vice versa. The joint immigration check in Hong Kong is deemed inconsistent with that principle as Chinese immigration officials will perform their functions at a Hong Kong station which is within the city’s jurisdiction.

Such an arrangement will touch a sensitive issue given that Chinese officials will have their right to reject passengers on board based on their own blacklist, which include many Hong Kong activists, politicians and journalists barred by Beijing authorities to enter the mainland.

Pro-Beijing politicians have been harping on the importance of economic integration between Hong Kong and the mainland, and they see the high-speed rail link as a blessing that allows the territory to tap the economic opportunities arising from the fast expansion of China’s rail network.

They dismissed questions about the real need for Hong Kong to be a part of the national rail system and the legal framework of the joint immigration checkpoint, noting that such issues shouldn’t be allowed to affect cross-border integration.

Now, recent developments show that the protesters have been right all along. The project is now facing delays and uncertainties, and losing its competitive advantage.

The high-speed rail saga is showing the importance of democratic consultation with the people. 

Hong Kong is bound to suffer from the wrong decisions of its government, which is more interested in obeying Beijing’s dictates than working for the welfare of its people.

The same situation could be repeated if the government insists on railroading the Beijing-endorsed political reform package and ignoring the people’s demand for civic nomination of candidates to the 2017 chief executive election.

It will be a disaster waiting to happen.

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EJ Insight writer