The joint checkpoint plan introduced by the city government of Hong Kong earlier this week that would allow mainland Chinese police at the terminus of a new high-speed rail line is expected to meet strong opposition when it next goes through a legislative review.
Many of the city’s pan-democrats and legal experts said the administration of newly inaugurated chief executive Carrie Lam may have set off a political time bomb.
They accuse Lam’s administration of taking advantage of a loophole in the city’s mini-constitution to draft the controversial co-location arrangement, which, if implemented, could set a harmful precedent and put Hong Kong residents’ rights and freedom at risk, even though business travelers using the rail may prefer convenience over autonomy.
Pan-democrat lawmaker Claudia Mo, formerly with the Civic Party, put the blame on Lam, who she said has failed in her first test to strike a balance between the interests of Beijing and Hong Kong’s citizens.
“She simply has not [got] the guts to stand up against Beijing. … She is a career bureaucrat. She will do what she’s been told. That’s rather saddening” for Hong Kong people, Mo said.
Lam’s administration this week announced a joint immigration checkpoint would be set up at the West Kowloon terminus of the cross-border rail link that connects Hong Kong to Guangzhou, with mainland officers enjoying full jurisdiction in the quarter of the complex leased to the mainland, as well as inside the train, even as it travels the city’s 26-kilometer-long section.
In other words, mainland laws, which lag far behind Hong Kong when it comes to the protection of human rights and freedom of expression, will be fully enforced at the designated mainland checkpoint and inside the trains of the $11 billion project, which is scheduled to begin operation in the third quarter of next year.
City officials insisted that the co-location arrangements would not breach the Basic Law, because the leased zone would be seen as outside the city’s boundary and the leasing could be carried out through the law’s Article 20, which stipulates Beijing can grant Hong Kong powers that it doesn’t have, including those to approve the leasing.
Rule of law intact
Lam pledged that the proposal will neither compromise the city’s rule of law or its high degree of autonomy, nor erode its “one country, two systems” policy.
“This is not a question of choice between convenience to passengers using the high-speed rail and the rule of law in Hong Kong,” Lam said.
But legal experts disagreed.
A constitutional challenge
Kevin Yam of the Progressive Lawyers Group said the city government would potentially create an act of state, which Hong Kong courts are unable to scrutinize.
“What they are doing is not to uphold the constitutionality of that [co-location] proposal, but really to try to shield it from the constitutional scrutiny,” Yam said, adding that the enforcement of mainland laws even in a small part of Hong Kong is in direct contravention of explicit requirements under the Basic Law.
James To, a lawyer and a lawmaker with the Democratic Party, also argued the city government has abused the fundamental design of Article 20, which is intended to grant the city a higher degree of autonomy.
“The current exercise is to authorize Hong Kong government or Hong Kong legislature to [willingly] surrender our autonomy back to Beijing. I think it’s a total disregard of the original spirit of the Article 20,” To said.
In addition, Jeremy Tam, a pilot-turned-lawmaker, argued the city government has misled the general public by saying that similar checkpoints arrangements can be found overseas, including those between France and Britain with the Eurostar rail service.
“When they’re giving the examples between the U.S. and Canada, and also UK and France, they used a wrong example because they [including the Eurostar rail] only have the agreement on the immigration part of it. And all these jurisdictions, particularly the criminal or the power of arrest, etc. … still belong to the relevant [home] countries,” Tam said.
Article originally appeared in Voice of America on 28 July 2017