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Hong Kong high-speed rail

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam faces her biggest test yet, with joint checkpoint row set to spark two wars

Alice Wu says as pan-democrats dial up the rhetoric over Hong Kong’s fears about ‘two systems’, Lam and her justice chief will have to address the jitters while also assuring Beijing that all is on track

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 5:18pm

At the crux of the Hong Kong government’s controversial proposal to have a joint immigration checkpoint at the local terminus of the high-speed rail link is the issue of “fear”. It is also about all the legal stuff.

Under the government’s proposal, a quarter of the terminus will be leased to the mainland as its designated port area. Our constitution will need to be changed for that to happen.

But the raging debate right now is not about the leasing of land, but about allowing the mainland full jurisdiction, apart from a few exceptions, in a confined and limited space, but nonetheless in the heart of Hong Kong.

The pan-democrats are playing this up as an existential threat, the death of “two systems” and Hong Kong’s Armageddon.

Old heavyweights lined up to get the opposition campaign in gear, playing and preying on the “fear” Hongkongers already have.

Watch: All you need to know about the express rail link

Martin Lee Chu-ming’s recent prophesy – that a joint checkpoint would open the door for Beijing to quash protests on Hong Kong soil – may sound over-the-top to most of us, but it is classic Lee-the-alarmist modus operandi. And he has been successful because appealing to people’s fears is far more effective. No matter what our opinions are of Lee and his politicking methods, the fact that there are fears to be exploited cannot be ignored.

Opposition to joint checkpoint is about discrediting Carrie Lam

Fearmongering is the biggest threat to rational public discourse. When emotional bias takes over, reason takes a back seat.

And this is the reason why the government’s call for pragmatism and rational discussion will fall on deaf ears. It’s been just weeks since the death of Liu Xiaobo ( 劉曉波 ), and the idea of having mainland laws apply in any part of Hong Kong may hit too close for comfort. It amplifies the innate fear that is part of the Hong Kong consciousness. The fear has historic roots, and one could argue that “one country, two systems” is a very product of that fear.

Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) recognised that fear and, in an attempt to abate it, he put forward the 50 years of guaranteed “one country, two systems” as a Hong Kong solution. Deng basically gave these primal fears 50 years to abate.

‘One country, two systems’ is about quality, not geographical borders: Ronny Tong

Opposition to the joint checkpoint will be the rallying point for pan-democrats. The joint checkpoint is the banner that localists and the rest of the pan-democrats can unite under.

This is a legacy issue for the Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor administration, but this will be her biggest political challenge. Being insensitive to those fears – however irrational or hyperbolic – will fuel the opposition campaign.

Whether this will cripple Lam’s government like national education did the last administration will hinge on her ability to manoeuvre

Addressing them without legitimising or reinforcing them will be the true test of Lam’s political ability, requiring both sense and sensibility.

Whether this will cripple Lam’s government like national education did the last administration will hinge on the chief executive’s ability to manoeuvre around it.

Lam has been smart to have Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung stay on as part of her team in order to, as many speculate, handle the legal issues arising from the co-location arrangement. But it will take a lot more than that.

Lam will have to fight two wars. South of the Shenzhen river, she will need to make sure that she can get other things done amid the high emotions that will be powering the high-speed rail joint checkpoint debate. And equally tough will be her job of preparing and placating Beijing over the sort of rhetoric – and the rhetoric will escalate – it will surely be hearing.

As for Yuen, he had better buckle up: it’s an issue that will be sticking around for a long time.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA