18 March 2019
Carrie Lam (inset) did not elaborate on border control in the Lok Ma Chau Loop, saying only that the government might provide identity documents to authorized parties. Photos: HK government
Carrie Lam (inset) did not elaborate on border control in the Lok Ma Chau Loop, saying only that the government might provide identity documents to authorized parties. Photos: HK government

Are we nearing the end of border controls with China?

Hong Kong’s integration with mainland China is expected to accelerate in the next few years, with several cross-border infrastructure projects coming on stream.

These include the high-speed railway and the just announced Lok Ma Chau Technology Park.

This could mean more mainlanders will be allowed to visit Hong Kong visa-free, or even allowed to live here permanently. 

It’s a step forward for Beijing to gradually remove border controls between Hong Kong and the mainland.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong and Shenzhen agreed to jointly develop an 87-hectare Innovation and Technology Park in Lok Ma Chau, four times the size of the Science Park in Tai Po.

Both governments pledged to work together to attract major innovation and research institutes, hoping the new park can compete with global technology hubs.

Hong Kong can be seen as a  winner in the deal with the gain of a piece of land in the Lok Ma Chau Loop but whether the new technology park can give the Hong Kong economy a boost is big question mark.

The park could be home to several Chinese technology firms that want international exposure with an office in Hong Kong, rather than a hub for small Hong Kong start-ups.

One of the most important issues that needs to be clarified by the government is the right of border control in the loop.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam did not elaborate on this issue, only saying that the government might provide identity documents to authorized parties – similar to APEC business travel cards – to allow Chinese citizens who work in the new area to enter Hong Kong.

It seems that the government is playing down the border control issue to avoid controversy, especially since the project will need funding from the Legislative Council, which could lead to a filibuster by the opposition.

Some political observers say Hong Kong should give some special concessions on border control to people working in the technology park. Otherwise, Shenzhen would have no reason to cooperate with Hong Kong.

Of course, there could still be border control but based on what Hong Kong government sources have told local media, the special cross-border arrangement for the technology park may have no limit.

The government did not say who will approve special cross-border permits for mainlanders but it’s likely to be a dedicated unit of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, whose board will be nominated by the Hong Kong and Shenzhen governments.

The Hong Kong government may not have the right to refuse any applications outside of the Kong Science and Technology Park scheme.

Many Shenzhen professionals and officials could have a faster and easier channel to visit Hong Kong. This could signal the start of a porous China-Hong Kong border.

Some observers argue the necessity of implementing a special cross-border arrangement. A free cross-border arrangement may be the first step toward gradually removing all border controls as well.

In fact, the Hong Kong government has in the past decade tried to gradually remove the border, so as to encourage Hong Kong-China integration.

One of the best-known examples is the co-location arrangement for the high-speed rail link between Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou at West Kowloon station. 

The government is planning to allow Chinese immigration and customs to exercise their powers in Hong Kong for the convenience of passengers.

But such arrangement is in breach of the Basic Law which states that no Chinese officials should carry out their duties in Hong Kong.

Reports say Beijing might again interpret the Basic Law to accommodate the co-location arrangement. That could once again loosen border control.

It’s too early for Hong Kong people to be concerned about our border being removed, but that could be a trend as Shenzhen aims to partner closely with Hong Kong to raise its international profile.

Closer ties between the two places could help boost Shenzhen’s competitiveness against Shanghai. Hong Kong, which needs to follow the central government’s economic planning, can only hope to cope with these developments.

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EJ Insight writer

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