Express railway puts 'one country, two systems' at a crossroads

July 27, 2017 08:01
Officials on both sides of the border are now finding out that the Express Rail Link is a nightmare trapped in a legal black hole as a consequence of "one country, two systems". Photo: MTR

It took over HK$84 billion and 20 years for Hong Kong to find out in the most painful way yet that "one country, two systems" is a formula full of thorns. Simply described, one country, two systems means Hong Kong is a part of China but retains its colonial-era political and economic systems.

Not even the late Deng Xiaoping, who created one country, two systems in the 1980s, could have imagined that three decades down the road it would become a legal time bomb for something as innocent as a high-speed railway that connects Hong Kong to the rest of the country and vice versa.

On paper, the $84 billion express railway linking Hong Kong to Guangzhou and other key mainland cities is a traveler's dream. It almost halves traveling time and offers a cheaper and convenient alternative to air travel. But officials on both sides of the border are now finding out that in reality it is a nightmare trapped in a legal black hole as a consequence of one country, two systems.

The legal black hole, of course, lies in having joint immigration control at the express railway's West Kowloon Terminus. This co-location is intended to provide speed and convenience to travelers, enabling them to complete both Hong Kong and mainland immigration clearances at West Kowloon instead of having to do one part at each end. But such an arrangement necessitates stationing mainland immigration and other law-enforcement officials at West Kowloon.

Outsiders unfamiliar with Hong Kong would likely wonder why this is such a time bomb when Hong Kong is, after all, a part of China. International travelers are used to joint immigration control in Europe and North America.

I have flown from Hong Kong to Vancouver where I cleared both Canadian and US immigration before flying on to Seattle where I had no more need to go through immigration and customs. If even different countries allow joint immigration on each other’s soil, why can’t there be joint immigration in Hong Kong, which is, after all, still Chinese soil?

The answer to that question lies deep in trust rather than legal territory. Former transport and housing secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung hit the nail on the head last week. Deep in their hearts, many Hongkongers are uncomfortable with joint immigration at West Kowloon not because they believe it violates the Basic Law but that they fear having mainland law enforcement officials on Hong Kong soil.

This fear in itself is a paradox. Many of the same Hongkongers spooked by mainland officials enforcing mainland law at West Kowloon have no qualms about traveling to the mainland for business or leisure where they would be subject to the full force of mainland law. Every day tens of thousands of Hongkongers cross the border at Lowu and other checkpoints.

At Lowu they are subject to Hong Kong law until they use the e-channel to exit. They have then technically left Hong Kong into a gray area of duty-free shops before going through mainland immigration, after which they have legally entered the mainland. This process does not make them uncomfortable.

So why does having mainland officials at West Kowloon make them uncomfortable? Why can’t they simply treat the parts of the West Kowloon terminus controlled by mainland officials after exiting Hong Kong in the same way as they treat the parts of the Lowu checkpoint controlled by mainland officials after exiting Hong Kong?

It’s a psychological issue. When Hongkongers exit Hong Kong through the e-channels at Lowu they know they have physically entered the mainland. But when they clear the e-channels at West Kowloon they know in their minds they are still physically in Hong Kong. As such, they are psychologically unable to subject themselves to mainland law.

People have asked what would happen if, for example, they wore a June 4 T-shirt at the West Kowloon terminus checkpoint. The root of that question is again psychological. Hongkongers know very well that if they wore a June 4 T-shirt when traveling to Shenzhen from Lowu, nothing would happen right up to the e-channels on the Hong Kong side but they could be refused entry at the mainland checkpoint or arrested after being allowed to enter.

Their treatment would be no different at West Kowloon. People who travel to the mainland at existing checkpoints are sensible enough not to wear June 4 T-shirts. But they just can't seem to psychologically accept that they must have the same common sense at West Kowloon. They feel that even after technically entering the mainland at the West Kowloon checkpoint they are still physically in Hong Kong and should be subject to local laws.

The proposed co-location at West Kowloon doesn’t bother me because I won’t do something silly such as staging protests after clearing immigration nor would I travel to the mainland either at existing checkpoints or the future West Kowloon checkpoint if I feel officials there have reason to arrest me.

What does bother is internet access after I’ve cleared mainland immigration at West Kowloon.

The mainland’s internet firewall stops me from using Google or Gmail once I cross into Shenzhen at Lowu and other border crossings. I’ve come to accept that as a price I must pay for traveling to the mainland. But I would find it not only unacceptable but also ominous for mainland authorities to extend their internet firewall to the parts of the West Kowloon terminus under their control. Also, if they did extend the firewall, how would they ensure it doesn’t spill into the parts under Hong Kong control?

The opposition has said it finds the co-location proposal unacceptable but has not suggested an alternative. It has a duty to propose an equally convenient and speedy border checkpoint plan if it intends to oppose the government's proposal.

If it tries to derail the government's plan but doesn't offer a better one, the $84billion express railway would become half a white elephant.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.