23 October 2016
Co-location of Chinese immigration and customs facilities, rather than cost overrun, is the biggest issue facing the HK-Guangzhou rail link project. Photo: Wing1990hk
Co-location of Chinese immigration and customs facilities, rather than cost overrun, is the biggest issue facing the HK-Guangzhou rail link project. Photo: Wing1990hk

Co-location issue must be fixed before new funding for rail link

Political allegiance outweighed economic rationality in 2010 when pro-establishment legislators rubberstamped the government’s funding proposal for the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

One proof was that the Beijing-friendly lawmakers didn’t bother demanding a concrete solution from the government on the issue of co-location of both the Hong Kong and Chinese immigration and customs facilities inside the West Kowloon terminus.

The government’s rhetoric back then was that co-location arrangement would be simple and that there would be plenty of time to sort out the matters, and that the funding shouldn’t be held back.

It was not until recently that the pro-establishment bloc, all of a sudden, found that without a feasible co-location arrangement the express rail link would be no faster than the inter-city through train running on the 104-year-old Kowloon-Canton Railway. 

If matters come to such a pass, tens of billions of dollars of Hong Kong taxpayers’ money for the project will have gone down the drain.

Regrettably, five years after the controversial LegCo approval, an immediate decision is still not in sight, going by transport secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung’s comments to a railways subcommittee panel last week. Cheung refused to roll out another interpretation of the Basic Law as the last remedy.

Five years are a full term of a government. I wonder exactly how long the current administration is going to defer this issue. How come officials have all failed to come up with any plan, account or explanation within the past five years? Is the government looking to seek another interpretation from the National People’s Congress?

In one of his columns, LegCo president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing earlier touched on issues related to the co-location arrangement.

Citing the example of the arrangement that the United States’ law enforcement has in Canada – the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel can carry out immigration checks on Canadian soil, albeit with strict restrictions on the powers – Tsang suggested that perhaps we can follow suit.

US-bound passengers who have cleared immigration checks are still subject to Canadian laws. Also, though American CBP officials in Canada are given power to deny entry to the US, they cannot arrest anyone, even if the person is an offender under US laws or wanted by the US government.

Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has sent out word that for the sake of the co-location arrangement, it would be inevitable that mainland immigration and customs agents must be allowed to enforce mainland laws in the West Kowloon Terminus.

Tsang stressed that as long as mainland agents carry out their duties in a similar fashion like the CBP officials in Canada, they will not be able to arrest anyone with impunity in Hong Kong.

Tsang may have proposed a possible way out.

Some may say it’s just wishful thinking as Washington and Ottawa have their respective, inviolable sovereignty, unlike Hong Kong whose control lies with Beijing. Still, one should not overlook provisions in the Basic Law that maintain Hong Kong’s own, separate jurisdiction from the powers of the mainland law enforcement agencies.

What may have complicated the issue at stake is the preceding co-location of Hong Kong’s immigration and customs facilities inside the Shenzhen Bay border checkpoint built in the mainland. Beijing may think that since the Hong Kong laws can be implemented within the designated areas in the mainland for passengers’ convenience, why can’t the mainland do the same in Hong Kong?

The Hong Kong government has to seek fresh funding in the face of cost overruns. Authorities recently struck a deal with the project manager MTR Corp to cap the overall project cost at HK$84.4 billion.

The government aims to separate the supplementary appropriation for the project from the co-location stalemate, with the hope that its loyalists in the LegCo can once again approve the refunding proposal and leave the co-location issue for the future.

Hongkongers may have to accept the reality and open the door for mainland agents when the rail link is finished in 2018. Otherwise the project will become a white elephant.

I urge all lawmakers to press officials to bite the bullet for a solution on the co-location arrangement, and make it the prerequisite for refunding. Those who still choose to side with the government in the absence of a concrete solution will have to pay in the LegCo election next year.

Most Hong Kong people would rather have the project scrapped or give up the convenience in immigration checks, rather than live in the fear of being subjected to mainland laws in our own city.

Officials may think that I am spreading alarm. The best way to dispel the concerns is a clear and feasible solution, not empty calls to put our faith in Beijing and the SAR government.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 9. 

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A bird’s eye view of the site of the West Kowloon Terminus. Photo: HK govt

Artist’s impression of the concourse of the terminus, where Chinese agents may be allowed to enforce mainland laws. Photo: Aedas

Protesters confront police in a 2010 rally against the cross-border high-speed rail project. One of the major concerns was the unsettled co-location arrangement. Photo: wordpress

Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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