The long-simmering controversy over the West Kowloon railway terminus in Hong Kong boiled over on Thursday, as Hong Kong lawmakers voted to give China sovereign control over part of the train station, making it an enclave of pure Chinese law.
The idea was ostensibly introduced for the convenience of travelers, who would otherwise have to stop at an immigration checkpoint when their high-speed train from Hong Kong passed into Chinese territory. Under the arrangement ratified by Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday, the portion of the huge new West Kowloon station that handles Chinese departures becomes a little chunk of mainland China where Hong Kong’s partial independence is waived and Chinese law holds full sway. This allows Chinese immigration officers to process passengers before they board an outbound train. About a quarter of the station becomes Chinese territory under the new law.
Advocates of this arrangement portray it as a great convenience for travelers, noting that the $10 billion high-speed rail system connecting Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou was constructed because there is high demand for fast and convenient rail travel between the cities.
Critics worry about Chinese plans to chip away at Hong Kong’s independence until its special status is revoked and it becomes a full possession of Beijing. Opponents of the legislation worry that it will weaken Hong Kong’s constitution and reduce its legislature to a rubber stamp for directives from Beijing.
One legal commentator who spoke to CNN on Friday described the train station as “the thin end of the wedge” and worried that legislators have “effectively turned a piece of the station into a piece of mainland China.”
Alvin Yeung, head of the pro-democracy Civic Party of Hong Kong, warned his colleagues in the Legislative Council they were setting a precedent for Beijing-friendly administrators to give more pieces of the city to China.
The Civic Party stated that the train station deal violates the Hong Kong constitution and will jeopardize human rights. There are nightmare scenarios about Hong Kong citizens walking into the Chinese zone of the train station and getting kidnapped by agents of the mainland, a fate that has befallen more than one Hong Kong citizen in the past.
Several hundred protesters gathered outside the legislative building in Hong Kong as the bill was voted on, significantly outnumbering supporters of the bill in the estimation of the South China Morning Post.
The bill nevertheless passed by a vote of 40 to 20. Pro-democracy lawmakers attempted to attach conditions such as a sunset clause and tight controls on mainland Chinese officers operating out of the train station, but all of their amendments were voted down.
Opposition lawmakers tore up their copies of the bill to protest its passage and shouted “Shame!” at Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan, who advised them to “experience the express rail and co-location with an open attitude.”
Five opposition lawmakers were expelled the day before the vote for loudly challenging Legislative Council President Andrew Leung’s refusal to let them speak during the final debate over the co-location bill. The opposition accused Leung of “abusing his power” and using “brute force tactics” to get the bill passed.
“This is the darkest day in LegCo in recent years, probably since the Tsoi Yuen village protest. Tonight we saw an unconstitutional bill being violently passed, and we also saw the Legislative Council president cooperating with pro-establishment lawmakers,” pro-democracy activist Charles Mok said on Thursday.
Tsoi Yuen is a village that was effectively wiped out by the construction of the high-speed rail line from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. The villagers were forcefully ejected from their homes, even those who said they needed more time for new homes elsewhere to be constructed with government assistance.
Mok indicated on Thursday that his pro-democracy group is considering a legal challenge to the co-location legislation, while some other opponents said they felt such challenges would be futile.