Hong Kong policymakers approve plan for Chinese officials to enforce mainland law at rail terminus
Controversial plan for land lease to central government, which could throw up many constitutional challenges, expected to go before Legco in October
The Hong Kong government’s top policymaking body on Tuesday approved a controversial plan to let mainland officers enforce mainland laws within a leased area at the local terminus of the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou.
The Executive Council endorsed the building of joint immigration facilities at the West Kowloon station, the latest development in one of the thorniest issues to face Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor since she took the helm on July 1, and one which could throw up a range of legal and constitutional uncertainties.
Details of the plan were announced by Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-Keung and the relevant bureau heads at 3.30pm on Tuesday.
Under the plan, mainland officials will work in an area that their government rents from the Hong Kong government and enforce mainland laws there. The lease will last until 2047, when the “one country, two systems” blueprint expires.
Trains and platforms will also fall under mainland jurisdiction, but the tracks will stay within the local purview, to facilitate maintenance and the handling of emergencies.
The proposal is based on a similar arrangement for a site at Shenzhen Bay port, which the Hong Kong government rents for about HK$7 million per year and uses for border checks.
The government is expected to table a bill on setting up the new mainland port area at the Legislative Council in October, with the aim of it passing by early next year.
The plan will not need an amendment to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, but the National People’s Congress Standing Committee will be expected to pass a resolution regarding the deal.
Speaking before the Exco meeting, Lam gave reassurances that the operation of the joint facilities at West Kowloon would be in full compliance with the one country, two systems model and the Basic Law.
Responding to critics concerned that the Basic Law would be violated in the name of convenience, Lam said: “Definitely not. It is not a question of choice between convenience to passengers using the high-speed rail and the rule of law in Hong Kong. This is not a choice.
“We have found a solution and a set of arrangements which will be in full compliance with one country, two systems and the provision in the Basic Law.”
Lam added that the rule of law would not be compromised.
The chief executive said the co-location arrangements were necessary to connect the rail link with the national rail network. This would in turn bring social and economic benefits to the city and convenience for Hong Kong’s people, she said.
Though she admitted that the issue was a hot potato, she called on Hongkongers to view the matter in an objective and pragmatic way, saying the new administration would work hard to lobby the public.
The pan-democrats had expressed their doubts about the plan, saying it violated Article 18 of the Basic Law, which states that no national laws shall apply in Hong Kong except those listed in Annexe III of the mini-constitution.
Annexe III already lists several national laws that apply locally, including the nationality law and one concerning diplomatic privileges.
The rail link has cost taxpayers HK$84.4 billion and is slated to begin operations by the third quarter of 2018.
The central government intends to let the local government pass a law and finalise the deal, but will act on its own if that does not work out, according to Tian Feilong, a member of the Chinese Association on Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank.
“This is to respect the ‘high degree of autonomy’ guaranteed for the people of Hong Kong,” Tian, a Basic Law academic at Beijing’s Beihang University, said.
“However, if Hong Kong lawmakers fail to legislate within a reasonable time, the central government will have to take the initiative,” he added. “It will no longer be a model for a land lease, but legal redesignation of land use.”
Tian said there were two options for getting such a redesignation: one was for the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to pass a resolution giving mainland law enforcement agencies power to operate in the station; the other was for the State Council to issue a directive upon the city’s chief executive to that effect.