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Hong Kong high-speed rail

Hong Kong high-speed rail link must ensure it keeps to correct legal tracks

The law concerning joint immigration and customs arrangements at the West Kowloon terminus may have been passed, but the way ahead is still not clear

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 4:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 4:15am

Hong Kong’s much-touted cross-border high-speed trains are a step closer to departure. After much wrangling, the controversial law that empowers mainland authorities to exercise full jurisdiction inside designated areas of the West Kowloon terminus has been finally passed. It marks the end of the so-called three-step approach to put in place a legal framework for the joint immigration and customs clearance arrangement for the railway.

But what comes next is still far from clear. From the legality of the law to the way it was passed, legal questions abound. Equally unsettling is the political fallout, with the head of the legislature facing a no-confidence motion for helping the administration to push through the law.

Those who are keen to reap the benefits of the HK$84.4 billion rail link will be pleased to see the co-location arrangement finally in place. But for those who fundamentally object to the principle of allowing mainland authorities to enforce their laws within the city, the arrangements are unacceptable.

It would not be surprising if the whole legal issue is put before a court for a ruling. After all, it has serious implications for “one country, two systems” and the Basic Law. At least two activists are considering filing a judicial review. However, whoever takes such a step has to carefully consider the outcome.

Should the court rule against the government, rail services will not be able to commence in September as planned. The government may also be forced to adopt separate checkpoint arrangements, which will severely undermine the efficiency of the railway.

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More importantly, it may prompt the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to step in and trigger yet another interpretation of the Basic Law, a step widely seen as undesirable for the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary and the rule of law. The scenarios must be taken into account before deciding whether to launch such a challenge in court.

At stake is not just the efficiency of the railway. As critics say, it sets a precedent for the city to turn certain territories into mainland areas and to empower mainland law enforcers to exercise their full jurisdiction. The government is adamant that the co-location bill is fully consistent with the Basic Law and the principle of one country, two systems. It must be able to demonstrate that the arrangements can withstand the constitutionality test.

Ultimately, the best way to dispel any fears arising from the co-location arrangement is for both local and mainland authorities to strictly adhere to their own remit and jurisdiction. The last thing we want is a cross-border high-speed rail system that brings legal disputes and upsets the constitutional order.