It’s officially called a “co-location” arrangement but it’s really a common immigration checkpoint for the benefit of the cross-border high-speed rail once it becomes operational in 2018.
Until the government confirmed it last week, the arrangement had been one of its worst kept secrets.
In 2009, when it sought funding for the Hong Kong section of the HK$100 billion (US$12.9 billion) rail link, it mentioned the scheme, details to follow.
But there has been no public consultation, although officials have occasionally released forecasts of how much more it will have cost taxpayers by the time the project is completed. The original cost estimate was HK$83 billion.
On Friday, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen said consensus had been reached to “co-locate” a unified border control in the West Kowloon terminal.
The revelation followed a meeting in Beijing between Yuen and Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung on one hand and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs officials on the other.
Sure enough, it added a new layer of controversy to the project and the public backlash is beginning to roil local politics.
Beyond the political symbolism — officials see the project as a sign of unity between Hong Kong and the mainland — the implications of the co-location arrangement are very real.
It allows Chinese authorities to carry out immigration duties in Hong Kong in contravention of the “one country, two systems” principle.
Article 18 of the the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, expressly prohibits the exercise of Chinese law in Hong Kong.
And Article 154 gives Hong Kong autonomy over immigration and customs functions.
You could argue that all legal matters had been well considered before Yuen made the announcement and that both sides determined these were a non-issue.
But the fact is that the co-location arrangement is unconstitutional until the Basic Law is changed accordingly.
You would be hard pressed to find a precedent.
For instance, the existing through-train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou has separate immigration control. People go through immigration checks on both sides of the border.
The same procedures apply to all flights between the two sides.
We all know China can change things with one stroke of the pen but last time I checked, there is such a thing as rule of law in Hong Kong.
Part of it allows amendments to the Basic Law but only with a two-thirds majority of the Legislative Council voting in chamber.
Too bad the district elections took place just two days after Yuen’s announcement hit the news, not enough time for voters to digest it, or it could have played into the voting.
But more importantly, it helps set the tone for next year’s Legco election.
At present, there are enough pan-democrats to veto legislation or any amendments to the Basic Law, which means they have to keep their numbers to be an effective enforcer of checks and balances.
Hong Kong people understand that.
Any sign the government is inching toward charter change could send voters scampering to pan-democrats, fearing one bit of tinkering in one part of the Basic Law could lead to tinkering in others.
The railway project itself is quite another matter.
In November 2009, a handful of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the plan. A month later, protesters picketed Legco during deliberations on a financing package.
A bigger protest ensued in January and soon became a movement.
Like other critics of the porject, they are questioning the economic benefits of such a costly undertaking, saying it’s nothing more than a political exercise at the expense of Hong Kong people.
The government has yet to convince taxpayers the project is worth their money but has pressed on with it anyway.
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