24 October 2018
The government is shifting the focus from the controversial co-location arrangement to the benefits of the cross-border rail link. Photo: MTR
The government is shifting the focus from the controversial co-location arrangement to the benefits of the cross-border rail link. Photo: MTR

Rail link’s co-location arrangement first real test for Lam

Riding a surge in her popularity ratings, Chief Executive Carrie Lam hopes to win the public opinion war over the co-location arrangement for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

The SAR government has kicked off a fresh round of publicity moves for the the Hong Kong section of the cross-border rail link as it plans to announce the controversial plan for joint immigration checkpoints at the West Kowloon terminus.

The opposition camp is against this arrangement, in which Chinese officials would be able to exercise their authority in Hong Kong, because they believe it would be a violation of the Basic Law.

The co-location scheme has been at the center of the debate since the government sought funding to build the Hong Kong portion of the high-speed railway in 2009.

Pan-democrats are particularly worried over how big an area Chinese officials could exercise their authority. They say the arrangement may pose a threat to the safety of Hong Kong citizens as it could give Chinese officials the right to arrest anyone within that area of jurisdiction.

To oppose the arrangement, they are citing Article 22 of the Basic Law, which provides, among other things, that no mainland agency or locality may interfere in Hong Kong’s administration of its affairsHowever, the government insists that the arrangement would follow the Basic Law and Chinese laws.

While the fight over the co-location arrangement may be about legal matters, Lam also knows that it is a public relations game.

On Sunday she told media that “the railway’s effectiveness will be significantly undermined if passengers need to go through immigration, customs and quarantine procedures after crossing the city’s border”.

She also said it was “impossible” to post immigration officers in every station around the country to handle travelers from Hong Kong.

MTR Corp., which is constructing the rail network in Hong Kong, released a new video showing the high-speed trains moving from Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong province to Hong Kong via the rail network.

According to the video, this is the first time a high-speed train reached Hong Kong via the cross-border rail link.

It’s a smart move for the government to come up with such a video to convince the public about the benefits of the high-speed rail link.

By doing so, Lam and her team are shifting the focus from the legal issues of the co-location scheme to the fun and convenience of traveling across the mainland using the rail link.

After all, the legal issues involved in the co-location arrangement are a bit too complicated for many people to bother about or try to understand.

This strategy could work very well for Lam. In fact, on Tuesday, she blamed the pan-democrats for trying to politicize the co-location arrangement and create a rift between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Her remarks echoed the words of President Xi Jinping, who, during his recent visit to the territory, said politicization could hinder Hong Kong’s development.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan on Wednesday called on Hong Kong people to have faith in the SAR government when it comes to discussions with the mainland over cross-border arrangements for the express rail link.

On the opposition’s concerns about the co-location scheme, Chan said: “We are fully aware of our fellow citizens’ concerns and care about their personal safety and security, but I can assure you that in the process we have been cohering very strictly to the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and in ensuring the integrity of the Basic Law.”

From the government’s perspective, concerns about the co-location arrangement are more about the feelings of Hong Kong people rather than the provisions of the Basic Law.

According to this viewpoint, the democrats have been using Article 22 of the Basic Law to attack the co-location arrangement, but the same article gives the Hong Kong government the right to allow Chinese authorities to set up office in Hong Kong.

Mainland government agencies must obtain the consent of the SAR government and approval of the central government to set up office in Hong Kong. These offices will have to abide by Hong Kong laws.

With such an argument, the controversy has been narrowed down to the restricted area for Chinese officials to exercise their authority.

Several media reports hinted that the government has decided to establish a restricted zone at the departure level of the West Kowloon Terminus. However, the worry is that the Chinese officials’ authority in the restricted zone will be extended to the high-speed train.

That implies that all passengers who board the train are immediately considered having entered the Chinese territory, regardless of whether the train is still running within Hong Kong’s territory.

The government is stressing the fact that the express link, along with the co-location arrangement, will provide smooth train service, but many Hong Kong people just feel uneasy about riding the train that is part of China although within the Hong Kong territory, about being under Chinese authority rather that Hong Kong laws.

These concerns are highlighted in one man’s query: “While aboard the train, can I read the Apple Daily I bought at the train station? Or do Chinese police have the right to seize the newspaper and warn me not to read it?”

The co-location arrangement will be the first test confronting the Lam administration, but it is also a test case of how Beijing will strike a balance between “one country” and “two systems”.

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EJ Insight writer

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