22 October 2018
Planned arrangements in relation to an express rail link have added to Hong Kong people's doubts about China's commitment to upholding the special freedoms enjoyed by the city. Photo: Bloomberg
Planned arrangements in relation to an express rail link have added to Hong Kong people's doubts about China's commitment to upholding the special freedoms enjoyed by the city. Photo: Bloomberg

Co-location: Things that should really bother us

“Hey, with the new co-location arrangement, will we be able to enjoy free delivery from Taobao if we set our address to the West Kowloon Station?”

This was one of the sardonic questions doing the rounds in online forums after the government announced that parts of the Hong Kong terminal of the cross-border express rail link will be designated as mainland Chinese territory.

If you are deemed to be within China, you might as well get the same benefits from mainland online shopping sites such as Taobao, which offer free deliveries within the country if you spend a certain amount, netizens argued.

Well, the topic is not surprising given the growing obsession among Hong Kong youth for bargain deals on Chinese e-commerce platforms.

The “Taobaoholics”, according to observers, may be spending more on Chinese shopping sites than in local shops, so they can be excused for their seemingly narrow vision. 

Meanwhile, there are other, far more serious, discussions in relation to what might happen when Beijing is allowed to enforce a full set of Chinese laws in portions of the West Kowloon Station and on platforms and in train carriages. 

For one, people are quite worried about the potential impact to mobile internet services and whether rail passengers will be barred from accessing sites such as Facebook and Twitter that are blocked in China. 

The government has said that the “Mainland Port Area” at the West Kowloon terminus will be under the Chinese jurisdiction, with a wide range of mainland laws enforced in that area. 

This could mean, among other things, that mobile internet will be subjected to China’s so-called Great Firewall, which blocks many foreign websites including the popular social network platforms Facebook and Twitter, in the mainland zone at the rail station.

As of now, we don’t know whether Chinese state-owned telecoms operators, or Hong Kong mobile operators, will have the right to install base stations to provide mobile services in the Mainland Port Area as well as in the trains before they cross the border.

Government officials in Hong Kong failed to give a clear answer on these and other issues when they made the announcement on the co-location arrangement plan on Tuesday.

When a reporter asked Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen whether Hong Kong people will be able to use Facebook in the cross-border train, the official said that it is a question that he too would like to know the answer.

But a document released later on Tuesday indicated that China will enforce all its laws in its designated territory. 

Transport and housing minister Frank Chan, responding to a query, indicated that Hong Kong people may need to use roaming service to get full internet access in the Mainland Port Area.

It suggests that the mobile network in the mainland zone at the rail station will be run by Chinese operators, who can be expected to enforce Beijing’s strict rules on blocking certain foreign sites.

The Hong Kong government has justified its plan to cede jurisdiction on a quarter of West Kowloon Station to China, saying it is just a transport issue and that the arrangement will facilitate quick and convenient high-speed rail travel.

But even with regard to the touted journey times, authorities have been accused of trying to mislead the public on the journey between Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

The government has been saying for long that it will only take 48 minutes for high-speed rail passengers to go from West Kowloon Terminus in Hong Kong to the Guangzhou South station on the mainland.

But observers have pointed out that the claims will hold true only if the express train moves non-stop between the two stations. For normal train service that will stop at stations such as Shenzhen and other places along the link, the journey time will be much longer.

Also, one needs to bear in mind that it may take about 50 minutes for a passenger to get to Guangzhou city center from the South station. 

Critics say the government is giving out wrong information in a bid to exaggerate the benefits from the high-speed rail, which will go into operation in the third quarter next year.

Questions are being raised as to whether the huge money spent on the rail project and the special concessions being given to China are worth it given that the travel time using the high-speed service may not be much different from the existing through-train service.

Having made a poor decision, authorities are resorting to various tricks and trying to convince the public that the rail link, and the special arrangements that go with it, are all in the public interest.

Under the government-led campaign, aided by sections of the media, Hong Kong people are being told that joint customs and immigration checkpoint is the only way to maximize the economic benefit from the express rail link.

To enable Chinese officials to operate in Hong Kong without violating the city’s Basic Law, there is no other option than designating parts of the West Kowloon terminus as Chinese territory, it is being suggested.

The government is engaging in salesmanship and trying to win a public opinion war in the face of opposition from pan-democratic groups.

Looking beyond economic aspects, authorities can’t escape criticism that they compromised Hong Kong’s autonomy and the “two systems”, and undermined the city’s independent legal and judicial system, under the excuse of “development”.

The administration should realize that laws cannot be adjusted to fulfill the goal of development, however you may define it.

On Wednesday, Justice Secretary Yuen said Hong Kong’s legal system cannot be allowed to get in the way of progress when it comes to initiatives such as the high-speed rail line to Guangzhou.

Responding to criticism that he has not done enough to safeguard the Basic Law and the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, given the plan to let mainland authorities enforce national laws on Hong Kong soil, Yuen said the legal system should not obstruct the city’s development and that it should be allowed to progress with time.

The official insisted that he has the utmost respect for Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and stressed that he worked on the co-location plan with a high degree of professionalism and that he would have been the first person to reject any idea that breached the Basic Law.

The pro-Beijing camp, on its part, continued to echo the government line, arguing that the express rail link will offer speedy and convenient service and will benefit the public.

But several legal experts in Hong Kong have raised fresh doubts on the legality of the co-location arrangement.

Eric Cheung, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, is among those who say it is a strange arrangement. The plan, which will allow almost full criminal enforcement rights for China in its designated area at the West Kowloon terminus, undermines the Hong Kong legal system, he said.

Certainly, the co-location arrangement has brought more questions than answers to Hong Kong society.

It’s not just about whether Hongkongers will be able to enjoy free internet access in the station and on the train, or how much time it would to take for the journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou.

The real fundamental issue is about how Beijing is encroaching into Hong Kong to achieve a “unification” goal, slowly turning Hong Kong into just another mainland city.

It’s time all Hong Kong people understand this stark truth.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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