19 October 2018
With parts of the West Kowloon Terminus set to go under Chinese jurisdiction, there are doubts if rail passengers will be able to access websites blocked in the mainland. Representational image: Bloomberg
With parts of the West Kowloon Terminus set to go under Chinese jurisdiction, there are doubts if rail passengers will be able to access websites blocked in the mainland. Representational image: Bloomberg

The Facebook/Google question in West Kowloon Terminus

As debate rages over the proposed “co-location arrangement” at the West Kowloon Terminus, the fears and apprehensions of Hong Kong people can perhaps be summed up in this one simple question: Can we use still use Facebook on the train platform?

It’s a serious issue really, given that parts of the station that will serve cross-border high-speed rail passengers will be under the jurisdiction of mainland China, which just doesn’t like Facebook.

The same is the case with Google as well as a host of other overseas internet platforms and news sites which carry unfiltered content deemed “harmful” by Beijing.  

Hong Kong has at least five million Facebook users, and the number is probably even bigger for Google, which offers Gmail, YouTube and Android apps.

If people are unable to use these services even for a short while, they would perhaps consider it as a tragedy even worse than not having water or electricity at home.

Now, with some areas in the West Kowloon Terminus set to be designated as Chinese territory, with mainland laws enforced there, there are doubts if people using the express rail, which will go into operation by the third quarter of 2018, will be able to access sites blocked in China.

The worry is that censorship, which has until now been seen only as an issue affecting mainlanders, will hit much closer to home. 

Apparently, our Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen, doesn’t seem to have clear answers on the issue.

Questioned by a reporter Tuesday whether rail passengers will be able to access sites such as Facebook on the train platform, which will fall under mainland control, Yuen said: “It’s a good question. I want to know the answer too. Thank you for raising that question.”

Later in the day, the government issued a note that indicated that passengers must comply with all mainland laws once they are in the areas under Chinese jurisdiction.

As for Yuen, who seems to have a Facebook account but one that has not been updated for several years, we shall give him some time to figure things out for himself.

Anyway, he may have plenty of spare moments soon as there are rumors that he will leave his job once the co-location arrangement bill is passed in the legislature. 

Under Article 18 of the Basic Law, it is stated that national laws shall not be applied in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region except for those listed in Annex III to the Law.

The co-location arrangement, seen as the first major test of the new Carrie Lam administration, will be included in the Annex III upon the endorsement of Legislative Council. 

But the issue pertaining to websites such as Facebook and Google will still need to be resolved.

Although several foreign internet sites are blocked in the mainland, many Chinese use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked content, an activity dubbed by some as “crossing the wall”.

While there had been speculation that China might ease up on its controls and allow some foreign internet sites on a trial basis in a few free-trade zones, the reality on the ground is quite different.

In recent days, we have had news of a major crackdown on VPNs, suggesting that authorities, if anything, want to tighten their grip on online content even further.

Now, with the planned new mainland jurisdiction on Hong Kong soil, it appears that Hongkongers will also have to contend with blocked sites if they want to use the cross-border rail.  

Apart from censorship, the rail passengers will need to bear a few other things in mind.   

One tricky issue pertains to pregnant women. In case a woman goes into labor at the West Kowloon Terminus and gives birth in mainland-controlled territory, the baby could be recognized as a mainland Chinese national rather than as one born in Hong Kong.

This should make some pregnant mothers think twice before taking the train.

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EJ Insight writer

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