A Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link train stands in Hong Kong. Billy H.C. Kwok/Reuters

China is building a new train to cut travel time significantly between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. But pro-democracy activists are uneasy about mainland’s intentions.

Nearly 20 years in the making—rife with a series of delays—a high-speed rail linking two of China’s tourist-heavy megacities may finally open as early as next year. It promises to be a “flying dragon,” traveling at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour and cutting the two-hour trip between Hong Kong and Guangzhou down to just 50 minutes. The trains will be equipped with power outlets and wi-fi hotspots, meeting the needs of one of the world’s most connected societies.

With such lofty promises, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou Express Rail Link should be a welcome addition for Hong Kong residents. The city’s current Legislative Council is certainly anticipating it. But pro-democracy activists are uneasy about China’s intentions behind the project.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Lian Yi-Zheng, a political commentator and outspoken critic of Hong Kong’s government, likened the train to a Trojan Horse, arguing that it’s no more than a guise for Beijing “to exercise a form of extraterritoriality in the very heart of the city.” In other words, it’s China’s sneaky way to undermine Hong Kong’s political autonomy under the longstanding “one country, two systems” arrangement.

The controversy lies not so much in the railway itself, a project within China’s $500-billion effort to update its national transport infrastructure and expand its high-speed railway network across the country by 2020. In fact, “nobody objects to having high-speed rail on its own,” said Steve Tsang, director of University of London’s SOAS China Institute. “It’s faster service, it’s more convenient, and you have the volume of traffic to support it.” And while it’s not what Tsang would call an “essential” project for Hong Kong locals, it’s certainly desirable.

The proposed joint immigration checkpoint would include stationing mainland officers in a forthcoming terminus in West Kowloon, at the heart of Hong Kong. (Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

Rather, activists take issue with a proposal to place an immigration checkpoint inside Hong Kong’s West Kowloon district, where passengers from both sides can complete border clearance procedures. (Though Hong Kong is part of China, the border between the city and the rest of the mainland behaves much like an international border.) Pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong say it would save travelers from having to go through the procedure twice, thus ensuring a quick, seamless journey.

The plan, announced earlier this summer and signed by the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam last month involves leasing a quarter of the forthcoming rail station in West Kowloon to the Chinese government, which would place border police and custom officials inside those designated areas. They’ll enforce immigration laws there—but also mainland rule in its entirety. That will extend China’s criminal and civil jurisdiction to parts of the platform, and even to the trains themselves.

Such a proposal raises red flags in a city where, just three years ago, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest of what they see as China reneging on its promise to maintain Hong Kong’s political freedom. Wary residents see the move as an encroachment on Basic Law, the city’s de-facto constitution that declares mainland laws largely ineffective on Hong Kong soil and that prohibits mainland officials from interfering in the city’s affairs. And they remain unconvinced by the government’s argument that the leased area is technically mainland territory.

Counters for the immigration channels stand under construction at the West Kowloon Terminus in Hong Kong. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Reuters)

Joint checkpoints aren’t new, not even to Hong Kong, which—similar to this latest proposal—leases land in Shenzhen to conduct its own border clearance procedures on the mainland. Outside China, “juxtaposed controls” exist among the U.K., France, and Belgium, allowing travelers to clear immigration and customs before boarding a train or ferry to their destination. And in Canada, U.S. border and custom officials are stationed in cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

As such, a recent editorial piece in China’s national paper China Daily compared the proposed arrangement to those in Europe and North America, arguing that such a system is “an international practice and not a sinister plot.”

There’s just one problem. “In the case of U.K. and France, for example, you are talking about two equal partners in the international law,” Tsang said. “In this case, it is obvious that China claims itself and acts as the essential government with jurisdiction and power to instruct Hong Kong to do what Beijing wants.” (That helps explain why the checkpoint in Shenzhen is seen as successful—mainlanders will never have to worry about Hong Kong encroaching on their laws.)

Since the U.K. handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, Tsang said, Hong Kong has always started from a “position of weakness” in which the continuation of its autonomy is dependent on the (essentially limitless) Chinese government “exercising self-constraint.” So far, that self-constraint isn’t there—from the alleged abduction of Hong Kong’s booksellers by Chinese officials for selling banned books, to the election of Beijing-backed Carrie Lam earlier this year. More recently, China extended its anthem “disrespect” law, which would jail anyone who mocked the national anthem, into the supposedly autonomous city.

Pro-democracy activists have vowed to take the case to judicial courts, but Tsang thinks their fight may be a futile one after all. As Quartz has reported, China has a history of interpreting Hong Kong’s constitution to its advantage, which partly explains why objections to the legality of the checkpoint have fallen on deaf ears as the city government moves ahead with the arrangement. Hong Kong’s transport minister Frank Chan Fan has made it clear that there will be no Plan B.

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