It seems there’s no end to the troubles hounding the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link ever since the project was started in 2010, and the problems just keep piling up over the years.
First it was plagued by serious delays and enormous cost overruns. Then the proposed “co-location arrangement” has sparked concerns that it might constitute a breach of the Basic Law and undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Under the arrangement, mainland customs officers will be allowed to set up checkpoints and exercise jurisdiction at the West Kowloon terminus.
Given all the questions it has raised, it is likely that the railway project will not only turn out to be the biggest white elephant this city has ever seen, but may also do far more harm than good to our society.
So is the co-location arrangement really the only viable option available as the government has insisted, or is there any alternative that can bring the same degree of convenience to travelers without causing any constitutional controversy?
The answer is certainly “yes”. One way of doing so is by implementing “on-board” visa inspection by mainland customs officers.
It works like this: Before travelers departing for the mainland board their train at the West Kowloon terminus, officers of the Hong Kong Immigration Department will first record their pertinent information before sending it to the mainland authorities for verification.
After the train has crossed the border and entered China, the mainland customs officers already on board the train can then exercise their jurisdiction and inspect the visas of the passengers.
One of the biggest merits of this arrangement is that while it saves as much time for travelers as the co-location arrangement does, it is also totally in accordance with the Basic Law, because mainland customs officers won’t be allowed to exercise their jurisdiction until the train has left Hong Kong.
Thus, it avoids the controversial issue of cross-border law enforcement by mainland authorities.
In fact, the practice of on-board inspection has been widely adopted in Europe for years, and has proven to be a viable and convenient arrangement for both travelers and law enforcement authorities.
There is indeed a fundamental question lying before us: Which is more important, running a high-speed rail link or defending our rule of law and autonomy?
Hong Kong will most likely remain an international financial hub even without the high-speed rail, but it might not be so if we give up our rule of law, because it is our long-established legal system, not our infrastructure, that defines us and makes Hong Kong different from other mainland cities.
This is something that the administration must consider seriously before pressing ahead with the co-location arrangement regardless of public opposition.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 8.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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