Hong Kong judge rejects bid to halt controversial joint-checkpoint plan for high-speed rail link, citing HK$553 million monthly cost
Ousted lawmaker Baggio Leung and former civil servant Kwok Cheuk-kin had applied for injunction as train services were expected to commence before other court challenges would be heard
A Hong Kong judge on Tuesday refused to put the brakes on a controversial joint-checkpoint plan for the new cross-border high-speed rail link, ruling that the cost of doing so – amounting to HK$553 million (US$70.5 million) a month – would be too high, in a judgment that cleared the way for its launch next month.
In an expedited decision, High Court Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming turned down the request by ousted pro-independence lawmaker Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and former civil servant Kwok Cheuk-kin, just days after their application for a temporary ban.
The judge ruled there would be “a lower risk of injustice” if he rejected the injunction given the financial interests involved in the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link. A suspension would have led to a loss of HK$553 million in estimated monthly revenue and maintenance costs, as well as delayed job opportunities for those employed for the projects, according to the government.
“It cannot be seriously disputed that the financial losses would, on any view of the matter, be very substantial,” Chow wrote in a 15-page judgment on Tuesday.
Leung and Kwok were among five people seeking judicial reviews of the so-called co-location plan at the new West Kowloon terminus for the rail link, arguing that the unprecedented arrangement to make national laws applicable in the city was unconstitutional.
Under the plan, the Hong Kong government would lease a section of the station to mainland Chinese immigration and customs authorities, departing from the traditional arrangement of travellers crossing the border using checkpoints on mainland soil. The arrangement was proposed even though the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, states that mainland law is not to be applied in the highly autonomous city.
The two, who sought the temporary ban because their court challenges would not be heard before the trains are expected to start running on September 23, argued last Friday during the court hearing that some passengers might be wrongfully subject to national laws if the ban was not granted.
However, the judge wrote: “It is … a matter of free choice for any member of the public who is opposed to the co-location arrangement for one reason or another to decide whether to take the [express rail], or enter the mainland port area, during the interim period.”
The mainland port area refers to one-third of the terminus in West Kowloon, where mainland officials can exercise their jurisdiction.
Leung and Kwok had been clear that their ban application was directed only at the joint checkpoint itself, and they were not opposed to the HK$84.4 billion (US$10.7 billion) rail link commencing operations with the usual immigration arrangement.
But the judge cited the authorities, who had said there were no alternative plans if the joint-checkpoint plan were halted. As a result, the high-speed rail link would not be able to run.
Speaking outside court on Tuesday, Kwok fought back tears as he said: “Who are the losers? All Hongkongers.”
The former civil servant said he would contemplate an appeal if the appeal court could schedule a hearing before the rail link’s launch. Leung said he needed time to study the judgment.
The judge also ordered the two, who were not represented by lawyers, to shoulder the legal costs for the government, which had hired two top barristers.
The joint-checkpoint proposal has sparked furious debate in the city, with pro-China supporters welcoming the plan and the pan-democrats countering that the arrangement would open a Pandora’s box by allowing mainland officials to apply national laws in the city.
As the court challenges would not be heard until October 30, a month after the trains are expected to be up and running, Kwok and Leung had asked the court for a short-term ban until the ruling was handed down.
Lawyers representing the government revealed during a court hearing last Friday that a temporary ban could result in an estimated loss of HK$372.6 million in monthly revenue for the government, rail operator MTR Corporation and franchised bus companies. They would also bear a monthly cost of HK$179.9 million.
Legal tussles aside, the station’s ability to withstand extreme weather was called into question last month, when seepage was found following heavy rain.
In anticipation of its opening, more than 300 armed police officers staged their first anti-terrorism drill in the terminus last month.