Chief Executive Carrie Lam signed an agreement on Saturday on the controversial joint checkpoint system for the upcoming high-speed rail link to Guangzhou.
The deal, signed with Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui, marks the first of a three-step process for implementing the so-called co-location plan that will allow mainland border control officials to operate in a designated area at the West Kowloon rail terminus.
The timing of the agreement is interesting as it came just a couple of days after a top legal official from Beijing paid a visit to Hong Kong and spoke on the need for the territory to enact laws to protect Chinese national interests.
In a speech last Thursday, Li Fei, chairman of the Beijing-based committee that oversees Hong Kong’s constitution, said Hong Kong has a duty to enact laws in relation to national security, and that the local government shouldn’t delay important legislation.
While the official was referring to the perceived need for a national security law in line with Article 23 of Hong Kong’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, he also seems to have sent a signal for swift action on the rail link co-location arrangement
It appears that from Beijing’s perspective, the Express Rail Link and national security law legislation are two issues that have the same significance in relation to Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Under the co-location plan, Hong Kong will “lease” parts of the West Kowloon rail terminus to the mainland, to enable Chinese immigration and customs officials to be stationed there.
The plan has met with severe criticism from Hong Kong’s opposition parties, who say it undermines the territory’s autonomy and the ‘two systems’.
The Hong Kong government has refused to disclose the details of the agreement inked on Saturday, arguing that it needs to wait until China’s legislature formally endorses the proposal, a move likely next month.
Lam, meanwhile, sought to dismiss suggestions that the co-location plan was being pushed at the behest of Beijing.
It is Hong Kong that actually sought the co-location arrangement, rather than Beijing, the chief executive said, rejecting concerns raised by the opposition camp.
The government is trying to position the co-location arrangement as one that will benefit Hong Kong rail passengers, in terms of ensuring quicker and more efficient travel, as well as the city’s economy.
Authorities are highlighting the economic gains from the express rail link in a bid to quell public concerns over the co-location plan, but the arrangement, in fact, goes far beyond that.
The truth is that the controversial policy is actually seen as a matter of national security, something that Transport Minister Frank Chan himself revealed in a Legislative Council meeting last week.
As Beijing deems it necessary to screen passengers at the rail link’s starting point in Hong Kong, the government has refused to debate other options, such as having the immigration and custom checkpoints in Shenzhen.
Beijing wants to extend its boundary to the West Kowloon terminus to make sure that it can stop “undesirable” people from boarding the train, rather than having to turn them away later at the actual border.
Given this, the Hong Kong government had no choice but to push the co-location arrangement. And this could just be the first among other initiatives to satisfy Beijing’s demands on “safeguarding” national security.
As Hong Kong people have largely begun to accept the inevitability of the co-location arrangement, with a recent survey indicating over 50 percent support rating for the plan, Beijing has become confident that it can have its way on the more important issue of national security law.
Thus, it is urging Lam to quickly complete the legislation process of Article 23 in her first term.
It’s not mere coincidence that Basic Law Committee chief Li raised the issue in his speech last week, saying that Hong Kong is currently feeling the “adverse effects” of the absence of such legislation.
Article 23 of the Basic Law states that Hong Kong should “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against the Chinese central government.
Li, as well various other mainland officials, say new legislation is needed in order protect national security and curb the rise of separatist forces in Hong Kong.
Beijing is stepping up the pressure on Hong Kong as it is alarmed at pro-independence campaigns by youth groups.
There seems to be little thought as to whether the prescription, in terms of new legislation that could entail criminal cases for activities deemed harmful to Beijing, is really the correct answer.
That truth is that independence banners and slogans in Hong Kong are merely expressions of disquiet and frustration among the locals, particularly the youth, at what they see as Beijing’s failure to maintain the uniqueness of Hong Kong as a special administrative region.
The youngsters are sending a message that they want Hong Kong’s autonomy and its freedoms to be preserved, rather than signaling any real aim to shake off Beijing’s sovereignty over the territory.
What mainland authorities, and their proxies in Hong Kong, need to do is to listen to the young people and address their concerns, rather than seek new laws that will restrict people’s activities.
On Monday, a pro-Beijing veteran, Lau Ping-cheung, said the government should enact national security laws before Beijing forces its hand.
Local officials must take the initiative to implement such laws as soon as possible, he said, warning that if Beijing is forced to take matters in its own hand Hong Kong could end up with something more tough.
While campaigning for Hong Kong’s top job earlier this year, Carrie Lam refused to comment on whether she would launch the legislation process of the Article 23, unlike her rival John Tsang who had put that in his manifesto.
As of now, four days after the Li speech in Hong Kong, she is yet to speak in public on the issue. It seems she would rather opt for a sudden announcement when the time comes, rather than engage people in a debate.
While it remains to be seen how things will unfold, one thing is quite clear: Lam will execute the orders from Beijing faithfully.
She can have her say on minor local issues, but when it comes to matters that Beijing deems critical to its interests, be it transport links or national security, Lam doesn’t have much wiggle room.
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