No plain sailing for Carrie Lam on express railway

November 23, 2017 09:37
Opposition to the co-location scheme, such as the one led by Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan (center, left picture), will continue despite Chief Executive Carrie Lam's optimism that it will be quickly approved in the Legislative Council. Photos: HKEJ

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is in need of a reality check. After she and Guangdong Governor Ma Xingrui signed the first step last week of a three-stage legal process for joint immigration control at the West Kowloon express rail terminus, Lam conceded the last part would be the hardest. That’s putting it mildly. She can expect to face her toughest battle yet since becoming chief executive five months ago.

The third and last legal step for joint immigration requires the Legislative Council to approve a law allowing mainland officials to not only carry out immigration clearance but also to enforce mainland law in parts of the rail terminus. Lam will seek Legco approval for this in February after China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee rubber stamps it next month.

After signing the initial stage with Ma last week allowing mainland officials to enforce mainland law at the terminus, Lam expressed hope it would be equally plain sailing in Legco. I am not sure if she said it in jest, rhetorically, or if she really meant it. If it’s the latter, then she needs to wake up and smell reality. Rather than plain sailing, the express railway will go through a rocky ride in Legco.

Does anyone really expect the opposition to wave the white flag and play nice with Lam after having insisted for months that mainland officials enforcing mainland law on Hong Kong soil violates the Basic Law? You can bet on opposition legislators playing dirty.

Both sides have between now and February to win over public opinion. Is it absolutely necessary to lease parts of the terminus for mainland officials to enforce the full spectrum of mainland law? Why not limit the officials to just immigration, customs, and quarantine duties like US officials are at Vancouver's airport?

Can Hong Kong passengers demand to see a Hong Kong lawyer should the need arises after they have entered the mainland-controlled areas of the terminus? Why should trains still in Hong Kong come under mainland jurisdiction? Can mainland officials arrest local passengers while the train is still in Hong Kong? Can a Hong Kong woman about to give birth insist she wants to go back to Hong Kong controlled areas of the terminus?

These are all valid questions the government has yet to answer with enough clarity to convince Hong Kong people they need not fear mainland officials stationed here. The longer the government avoids giving straight answers, the easier it is for the opposition to exploit this vacuum of information to stoke fear among Hong Kong people of putting parts of the terminus under mainland jurisdiction.

Does it defeat the purpose of building an HK$84 billion express rail to Guangzhou that will link Hong Kong with major mainland cities if there is no joint immigration control at West Kowloon? Will it be just as efficient and practical if joint immigration is carried out in Futian instead? If joint immigration is in Futian, how long will trains wait for passengers who are delayed during immigration and customs procedures?

These are also valid questions with no clear answers. The opposition has insisted it’s equally efficient to put joint immigration in Futian or another Shenzhen station. But it has failed to convincingly explain why it is efficient for hundreds of passengers to get off the train for dual immigration clearance in Futian after a very short ride from the Hong Kong terminus and board again instead of doing dual immigration in West Kowloon. It has not explained how long it will take to process hundreds of passengers in Futian and if trains will have to wait until all passengers are cleared.

Public opinion can only be swayed with convincing answers by both sides to all these questions. So far the opposition has been more successful in stoking public fear and discontent over putting parts of West Kowloon under mainland jurisdiction. The government has been less successful in debunking the claim that it is more efficient to put joint immigration in Futian than in West Kowloon and that joint immigration violates the Basic Law.

Legco passage of joint immigration at West Kowloon will become ever stormier and less certain if the opposition succeeds in using delaying tactics to stall the vote for a month until the March by-elections to fill the seats of four disqualified opposition legislators. If the opposition regains its majority in the geographically-elected part of Legco, Carrie Lam could face a crisis in winning Legco approval for joint immigration.

Of course, the establishment camp, which now has a majority in both the functional constituency and geographical sections of Legco due to the disqualification of six opposition members, could try to rewrite the rules on delaying tactics before the March elections but the opposition has proved its resilience in thwarting such attempts.

The government’s worst-case scenario is to abandon joint immigration and fall back to separate immigration clearance at West Kowloon and on the mainland. Officials insist neither Futian nor other Shenzhen stations are equipped to handle immigration procedures. In any case, separate immigration procedures would turn the HK$84 billion express railway into a virtual white elephant.

I took the mainland’s high-speed railway for the first time last week, traveling from Chengdu to Chongqing as part of a media tour. It was fast, efficient, and very impressive. After experiencing the express railway, I can understand why Hong Kong businesses say our own express railway will create numerous opportunities and jobs for local residents.

Our tour included a visit to a bakery factory in Chongqing with a long history which the Swire group acquired a year or so ago. It produces a variety of bakery items for its chain of 600 bakery stores called Qinyuan in Chongqing, Chengdu, and Guiyang. Many of its executives are Hong Kong people.

At first, I was skeptical about claims that Hong Kong’s express railway would create jobs and opportunities. But after experiencing the speed and efficiency of the train ride and seeing first-hand how Hong Kong businesses such as Swire have created opportunities for Hong Kong people on the mainland, I have a better understanding of the inevitable integration of the Hong Kong and mainland economies and why the express railway can help in that integration.

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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.