With a little over a year to go for scheduled completion of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou high-speed rail link, authorities are yet to make a formal announcement on the specifics of the border control arrangements that will be put in place for the express train passengers.
Still, the controversy over proposed joint checkpoints at West Kowloon, the Hong Kong end of the rail link, has gained further momentum, thanks to media leaks that suggest that the mainland is seeking wider powers under the so-called co-location arrangement.
Reports say that mainland officials are likely to be allowed to fully enforce national laws in the immigration hall and on trains in Hong Kong under the joint checkpoint arrangement for upcoming cross-border rail link.
According to a leaked proposal, a mainland restricted zone serving as part of a joint immigration checkpoint will be created at the West Kowloon terminus.
The restricted zone will not be limited only to the Chinese immigration office at the terminus, but will also extend to cover the rail tracks from the Hong Kong border to the terminus.
What this means, for instance, is that a person who takes a high-speed train to Shenzhen will enter into mainland territory even though the train may still be on Hong Kong soil.
Once you clear the joint immigration and board the train, you will be subject to mainland laws and Chinese officials will have the powers to detain a passenger for any alleged crime.
Several newspapers have reported the plan, suggesting that authorities are aiming to test public opinion on the planned arrangement.
Now, this news will only add to the public’s worries about erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the “one country, two systems”.
As the lines blur between Hong Kong and China jurisdictions, people will be justified in viewing the reported plan as another attempt by Beijing to turn Hong Kong into just another Chinese city.
From the passenger perspective, they merely want to make their journey in the fastest time. The co-location or joint checkpoint arrangement can surely help facilitate a smooth journey.
Still, what is the need for China to control the tunnel of the Hong Kong part of the high-speed rail link, instead of just the restricted zone in the West Kowloon station?
If Chinese police begin enforcing mainland laws on trains still on Hong Kong soil, who can guarantee that the powers will not be abused, endangering the safety of Hongkongers, especially those are deemed to be anti-Beijing?
If mainland law enforcement officials extend their reach into Hong Kong, it could have serious implications for social stability here.
As Hong Kong police will have no authority to investigate alleged crimes that took place on high-speed trains, the city will effectively be split into two zones in terms of laws enforcement. One zone will be under Hong Kong laws, while the other — the high-speed rail restricted zone — will be governed by China.
Now, we need to ask this question: Is it worth sacrificing Hong Kong’s autonomy just for the sake of a “more smooth” journey for rail passengers?
Comments by pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong on the co-location arrangement give rise to suspicions that Beijing is determined to have its way on the law enforcement issue.
Elsie Leung, deputy director of the Basic Law Committee, said earlier this month that the West Kowloon terminus is designed to accommodate joint immigration control. If such joint control cannot be implemented, the terminus is a waste and might as well be razed, she said.
Implementing joint checkpoint to enable Chinese laws to be enforced in Hong Kong seems to be the main reason why the high-speed rail, which is widely seen as a white elephant project, is being built.
Hong Kong actually has no need to have a new through-train to China, as the existing East Rail Line can meet the cross-border travel needs of locals.
Amid the ongoing controversy, Johannes Chan, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, has said the only way we can prevent Chinese officials from enforcing mainland laws in Hong Kong is by having a joint immigration check service when the trains stop by Shenzhen station.
Once the immigration check is completed on a train, a process which could take 20 minutes or more, the train can proceed to Hong Kong’s West Kowloon terminal, Chan wrote in a newspaper column Wednesday.
As for northbound trains, a joint checkpoint can be at the West Kowloon terminal and Chinese officials can only exercise their authority at the immigration counters, Chan wrote, suggesting that the mainland officials not be given full law enforcement powers here.
And all the passengers, be it on Hong Kong-bound or China-bound trains, will be subject to Hong Kong laws when the trains are still operating within Hong Kong territory.
Chan’s suggestion is very good and, in fact, appears to be the only solution for the co-location issue.
Such arrangement can ensure smooth journey for the passengers while also preserving the sanctity of Hong Kong’s border.
But will Beijing settle for such scheme?
Well, let’s us not have any illusions on that score, given China’s record of not giving into pressure.
The high-speed rail, in reality, is now more of a tool for Beijing to extend its tentacles further into Hong Kong, rather than just being a transportation link between Hong Kong and China.