19 October 2019
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam has been accused of trying to ram through a controversial plan related to a cross-border rail link without proper consultation and debate. Photo: Bloomberg
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam has been accused of trying to ram through a controversial plan related to a cross-border rail link without proper consultation and debate. Photo: Bloomberg

Will Carrie Lam win her first battle in Legco?

Carrie Lam has virtually declared a war on the opposition camp in relation to the government’s controversial plan for a joint checkpoint system for the cross-border high-speed rail link. 

On Tuesday, the chief executive announced that a non-binding motion will be moved at the Legislative Council later this month on the so-called co-location arrangement, which would allow mainland border control officials to operate within a specified zone at the West Kowloon Terminus.

The motion will enable lawmakers to express their support for the proposed special arrangement, which is being backed by a majority of Hong Kong people, Lam said.

Now, it‘s not often that the government moves a non-binding motion on a policy proposal before launching a formal debate on the draft of a bill.

By resorting to this tactic, Lam is sending a signal that she would like to finish the whole legislative process as soon as possible and preempt any potential shift in public mood.

The administration wants to ram the plan through the Legco, setting aside concerns of opposition groups who say co-location would compromise Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Under the government proposal, joint immigration and customs clearance facilities will be set up at the West Kowloon Terminus of the express rail link to Guangzhou, to enable speedy and efficient processing of passengers. 

Some area within the terminus will be designated as a Chinese zone where mainland officials will have full jurisdiction and can implement their laws.

Opposition groups object to this, arguing that the arrangement would be in violation of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which states that mainland laws cannot be enforced on Hong Kong soil.

The government has dismissed the concerns, saying there won’t be any breach of the Basic Law as Chinese officials will be operating only on land that is handed to them on long-term lease.

Now, with Lam’s plan to table a special motion in the Legco, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the administration is in no mood for any lengthy negotiations or debate on the joint checkpoints. 

The motion, in effect, will amount to nothing more than just providing a small opportunity for lawmakers to formally discuss the plan.

One may argue that it is meaningless as it is non-binding; even an adverse outcome will not prevent the government from moving ahead with the initiative. 

Lam said on Tuesday that once the resolution is passed, the government will begin a “three-step” process to implement the plan.

The first step will be ironing out details of the co-location scheme together with mainland authorities, a process that will likely take a month. Next, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress will have to formally endorse the plan. And the final step will be approval of the Hong Kong legislature.

Given the current composition of the Legco, where pro-Beijing lawmakers are in majority and pan-democrats have lost their veto power due to disqualification of some of their members, Lam is bound to win the battle and have her way.

Lam clearly wants to complete the task in the quickest way as she wants the co-location issue to recede into the background by the time Legco by-elections are held next year.

At the moment, the government is clearly winning its first battle against the opposition camp, as most ordinary citizens seem to agree that co-location makes sense in terms of travel convenience.

To the administration’s relief, not too many people are fretting about what the special arrangements mean in terms of consequences for Hong Kong autonomy.

Also, citizens are ready to accept the government plan as they find that there no other realistic and better proposals.

In that sense, we can say the ball is now in the court of the opposition camp.

Despite their warnings about the co-location plan, opposition groups are yet to come up with any alternative that can strike the right balance between ensuring rail passenger convenience and protecting the Hong Kong Basic Law.

A proposal to have immigration and custom checks at Shenzhen has proved to be a non-starter, with the government even refusing to discuss the idea, citing the lack of co-location element.

Given the situation, it seems all the opposition can do is make feeble noises and brace for the inevitable.

Democratic Party chief Wu Chi-wai accused Lam of trying to “shove” co-location plan through Legco, while Civic Party’s Tanya Chan, who chairs the Co-location Concern Group, said Lam was ignoring public concerns.

Chan also blamed pro-government lawmakers, accusing them of standing in the way of a public hearing on the co-location issue and colluding with the administration.

Well, one wonders if the opposition groups still hope to be able to achieve anything, or if their words merely represent the cries of anguish as they realize they are losing a key battle.  

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EJ Insight writer