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Hong Kong high-speed rail

Hong Kong’s pan-democrats are on the wrong track with express rail border checks row

Mike Rowse says instead of opposing what is a sensible travel plan likely to be welcomed by even Beijing sceptics in Hong Kong, the pro-democracy camp should address the incidents that make them fear for the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 11:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 5:18pm

Our pan-democrats need to become a great deal more selective about the issues where they confront the government, or they are going to slip into political irrelevance. Take this latest brouhaha about the ­co-location arrangements for immigration and customs at the Hong Kong terminus of the national high-speed rail network, in West Kowloon.

The pan-democrats are pledging to fight the idea tooth and nail on the grounds that it is a breach of the Basic Law, and will open the door to mainland officials exercising jurisdiction within the Hong Kong SAR, and so on. With great respect, I do not find any of the reasons offered very compelling. And I suspect many ordinary citizens of Hong Kong – including people who might be inclined to support the democratic cause in elections – feel the same.

Similar arrangements are in place at both ends of the Eurostar – you go through UK immigration in Paris, and French immigration in London. Does this offend the sovereignty of either country? Of course not.

Similarly, when flying from Toronto or Vancouver to US cities, travellers go through American immigration in Canada. It is practical, efficient, makes travel easier and suits the interest of all parties.

Watch: Rimsky Yuen says joint immigration controls will conform to ‘one country, two systems’

The point is Hong Kong voters are very worldly and are familiar with these arrangements elsewhere. They know that such systems are not of themselves sinister; what matters is how they are operated. And the signs here are promising: the areas where mainland officials will be able to exercise their powers under mainland law will be clearly demarcated and secured. Attempting to exercise powers outside these boundaries would be clearly unlawful. Wandering into the premises accidentally would be impossible.

Six key questions on how dual jurisdiction will work at Hong Kong’s new rail terminus

Hong Kong people are pragmatic and will be concerned about what might happen to them. That is why the case of Causeway Bay bookseller Lee Bo, coerced into entering the mainland by agents sent from there for the purpose, is much more relevant and frightening. Many people here have family, friends and business interests over the boundary. Similarly with the case of Xiao Jianhua, a mainland businessman taken in a wheelchair from the Four Seasons Hotel in Central, and whisked back to the mainland under escort from persons who gave every impression of acting as Chinese law enforcement.

Watch: Causeway Bay Books’ Lam Wing-kee speaks out

Such episodes – still not fully explained – undermine the rule of law and Hong Kong’s status as a safe city in which to do business. The idea that one may not be safe walking the streets of one’s own city is a legitimate concern and merits the outrage it evoked at the time. A practical arrangement for making a voluntary visit to the north does not.

Hong Kong police still lack answers from China about missing tycoon Xiao Jianhua

But let us look at the detail of how the terminus will operate in practice. A Hong Kong person or foreign national will go through our immigration to leave the city, then enter the enclosed area set aside for mainland immigration. If he is not going to be allowed in, he will be turned back at this point, surely preferable to going all the way to Shenzhen and being kicked out there. If he is wanted for whatever reason by mainland authorities, what is the difference between being arrested here or in Guangzhou?

Travel in the opposite direction does present a different problem. A person could board the train north of the boundary and in theory not find out he was on the mainland’s stop list until he arrived in Kowloon, whereupon he would not be allowed to leave the station and instead be put on the next train back.

Timeline: Hong Kong’s missing booksellers

The chances of that actually happening in practice is pretty remote.

The precedent argument is interesting from an intellectual perspective but not much more than that. Obviously we are not going to construct another high-speed rail and no one has suggested co-location at Chek Lap Kok for flights to the mainland, or at the various ferry terminals. Come to think of it, I can see advantages in clearing Macau immigration in Hong Kong, but let’s not stir up a hornet’s nest.

My main message to the democrats is this. Preserve your energy to prevent any repetition of the Lee and Xiao sagas. Fighting against pragmatic sensible arrangements is just opposition for its own sake.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. mike@rowse.com.hk