HONG KONG -- Hong Kong is to "lease" an area to the Chinese authorities for law enforcement at the terminus of a high-speed railway linking the territory to southern China, in a move that is seen as a breach of its governing "one country, two systems" principle.
The government announced the controversial proposal on Tuesday, a year before the scheduled completion of a 26km rail link connecting Hong Kong with the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou and the country's wider high-speed railway network.
Mainland officers will be allowed to enforce Beijing law, including immigration and criminal measures, within a 105,000-sq.-meters "Mainland Port Area" at a terminus in the self-governing special administrative region's West Kowloon area. The officers will also have jurisdiction over train cabins and platforms, although Hong Kong law will be applied in civil matters relating to passengers and the liabilities of railway operators.
A proposal to set up joint immigration checkpoints was approved on Tuesday by the Executive Council, an advisory body to Hong Kong's head of government, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. "There is no question of that sort of concern and worry that we are compromising on the rule of law, on 'one country, two systems,' in order to get the convenience of the high-speed rail," said Lam, speaking ahead of the council meeting on Tuesday morning.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under an agreement between Beijing and London that guarantees freedoms and autonomy according to the "one country, two systems" framework.
Article 18 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution, stipulates that mainland laws cannot be applied in the territory except in circumstances listed in annex III, which relates to matters such as national defense and diplomacy. Article 22 also says that mainland officials in Hong Kong "shall abide" by local laws.
The Hong Kong government said the railway agreement would not be incorporated into annex III. Instead, it will be endorsed by the standing committee of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, followed by legislation in Hong Kong. A bill is likely to be tabled in October when the new territory's next legislative session begins.
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Hong Kong Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung denied that the arrangement amounted to ceding land to the mainland China government. He cited Article 7 of the Basic Law, which states that all land resources within Hong Kong shall be "state property."
Yuen also stressed that the railway project and the joint border arrangement were initiated by the Hong Kong government. "The implementation of the co-location arrangement is neither a directive nor an order by the central people's government," he said. "I hope that people will not over-politicize such transport and legal issues."
However, pro-democracy lawmakers fear the arrangement will set a precedent for mainland authorities to station law enforcement officials legally in the heart of Hong Kong. China's increasing political intervention in the territory has included the abductions by mainland agents of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua and of booksellers who had published books critical of Chinese leaders.
"Some say we are worrying too much, but who would imagine 10 years ago such incidents could happen?" said Alan Leong Kah-kit, a barrister and former lawmaker for the Civic Party, on social media. "Hong Kongers can't back down anymore," Leong said.
Hong Kong's opposition Democratic Party is studying the feasibility of a judicial review to challenge the proposal. Lam Cheuk-ting, a lawmaker representing the party, expressed concerns that even texting messages on trains about Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a Noble Peace Prize laureate who recently died, could be "evidence of subversion" under mainland laws.
Leung Kwok-hung, a well-known democracy campaigner known locally as "Long Hair," said on a popular local political news show on Tuesday that "if the Chinese side manipulates their way to have their own execution of law in Hong Kong, it is totally unacceptable." Leung, a four-term lawmaker, is one of four legislators recently disqualified for not taking the oath of office "properly and validly."
Fears have also grown over the possible use of arms by mainland officers in Hong Kong. Playing down the possibility, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu said officers would normally carry batons, not guns, except in circumstances such as terrorist attacks.
"Mainland officers cannot undertake law enforcement beyond the 'Mainland Port Area,' nor do they have the power to do so in the territory of Hong Kong," said Lee, adding that officers sent to Hong Kong would travel daily to work from the mainland rather than staying in the territory overnight.
The Hong Kong government has insisted that the 84 billion Hong Kong dollars ($10.8 billion) high-speed railway should include joint immigration facilities, so that passengers are not required to alight in Shenzhen, the closest Chinese city, for border checks.
The current proposal is a mirror image of a control point in Shenzhen Bay, where Hong Kong is renting an area for enforcing border clearance for HK$7 million a year until 2047. But legal observers say Shenzhen Bay is different because it concerns the application of Hong Kong law in China, not vice versa.
With Hong Kong's railway operator MTR as the main builder, the high-speed railway project will add to numerous transport links between Hong Kong and the mainland. It is scheduled to become operational in the third quarter of 2018, but has been marred by construction delays and cost overruns.
Critics have queried the project's likely economic returns because few direct trains will be scheduled each day, despite the government's claim that the travel time from Hong Kong to Guangzhou will be halved to 48 minutes, with the journey time to Beijing falling from 24 hours to nine hours.
Non-stop trains will account for about half of 114 daily round trip services from Hong Kong to southern China, according to government estimates last year.