Was Hong Kong’s high-speed rail line to mainland China worth all the sacrifices?
From evicted villagers to residents angered by its immigration arrangements, the over-budget project has made its fair share of enemies
New Territories farmer Fung Yu-chuk remembers the pain and protests a decade ago as if they were yesterday.
The 450 long-time residents of Choi Yuen, a quiet Yuen Long village, got the shock of their lives when they woke one day in November 2008 to find Lands Department notices pasted everywhere, telling them they would have to leave their homes and make way for the bulldozers.
Their village was in the way of a 26km high-speed rail line that would connect Hong Kong with mainland China, promising speedier trips to cities across the country.
“Life in the past at the old village was very comfortable,” recalled Fung, 57. “You didn’t have to close the doors because you knew everyone. You’d talk to anyone. We grew up with each other.”
The rail plan threatened to turn the villagers’ lives upside down. But they resisted, and were not alone. Thousands of Hongkongers came together over the years to fight against the project, and their forced eviction.
Some thought it would be a white elephant. Others did not believe the government’s cost projection of HK$66.9 billion. The outlay for the West Kowloon terminal and the Hong Kong section of the line eventually shot up to HK$84.4 billion, just as the protesters had feared.
“It turned out we were all prophets. There was indeed an overrun,” Fung said. “The project was such a joke. What we said eight or nine years ago came true.”
Since transport officials first floated a rail link proposal, controversies have followed it. There have been protests, chaotic Legco debates, building delays and the hugely controversial decision to let mainland Chinese officers enforce national laws in part of the terminal.
On September 23, the trains will finally run along the line, allowing travellers to get directly from Kowloon to 44 mainland destinations and beyond. The ride to Guangzhou South, 142km from Hong Kong, will take as little as 48 minutes.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said last week she expected new cross-border transport projects, such as the high-speed rail line, to reinforce the city’s role as an international logistics hub.
Supporters of the project say Hong Kong stands to benefit from greater integration with the mainland, but critics ask: at what cost?
An ambitious vision in 2000
The project goes back to 2000, when transport officials proposed an express link to the mainland. Hong Kong’s leader at the time, Tung Chee-hwa, put the project in his policy address the next year and said he hoped a day would come when it would take only an hour to get to Guangzhou from Hong Kong by train.
In 2007, his successor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced a grand plan of 10 major infrastructure projects that would add HK$100 billion annually to the city’s GDP – about 7 per cent of Hong Kong’s GDP at the time – and create 250,000 jobs.
Aside from the high-speed rail, the projects included the Sha Tin-Central Link and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which have both also been delayed, and seen their costs balloon, to HK$97.1 billion and HK$119.4 billion respectively.
Tsang said at the time that mainland China was building a high-speed rail network which would substantially enhance its transport capacity, and Hong Kong had to seize the opportunity to get involved.
In the run-up to a Legco public works committee meeting to discuss the high-speed line’s HK$66.9 billion budget, in December 2009, protests erupted, organised mostly by young people and Choi Yuen villagers.
Wong Hin-yan, 24 at the time, led a four-day citywide march with five other core members of the Post 80s Anti-Express Rail Group, one of the project’s most dedicated opponents.
Wearing only thin socks and no shoes, with seeds and rice on their hands symbolising fruit and the future, they knelt down and bowed every 26 steps — a reference to the line’s 26km length.
Now 33 and a musician, Wong recalled: “There were people who came to us and said the rail was expensive, and it would not take us to the mainland very much faster. Why was there a need to build it?
“Some of them were sympathetic to the Choi Yuen villagers. But of course some people would just keep scolding us as we proceeded.”
The night before the Legco Finance Committee began its meetings in January 2010 to approve the project, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the legislature. Wong and five others went on a 120-hour hunger strike.
After two days of meetings, funding for the project was approved by 31 votes to 21 amid chaos inside and outside the chamber.
Wong’s hunger strike ended the day after. He still remembers the bowl of congee Choi Yuen villagers prepared for him. It was bland, but it warmed his spirit in a uniquely satisfying way, as he sat outside Legco.
Still unconvinced that Hong Kong needs the high-speed rail, he said the government had not learned to listen to public opinion on major infrastructure projects.
“There are already so many ways to get to the mainland,” he said. “This rail link seems to have been built for political reasons instead of for its actual use.”
Choi Yuen villagers look for new homes
With the rail project cleared to proceed, the Choi Yuen villagers had to leave their homes.
There were 150 families, totalling about 450 people, who eventually accepted government compensation of up to HK$600,000 per family and left in 2011.
Forty-seven families pooled HK$18 million to buy a site of about 150,000 sq ft in another part of Yuen Long, and built a new Choi Yuen village. The other families chose to move elsewhere.
After the villagers vacated, rail operator the MTR Corporation built temporary homes of metal shacks for them at the site of their new village.
Countless hurdles followed, including having to put up with a sewage system that leaked and overflowed.
In 2013, work on the new village stalled when residents of nearby Yuen Kong village, who reportedly owned the roads leading to the site of the new Choi Yuen village, barred construction trucks from entering the area.
The dispute was resolved only after Lau Wong-fat, then chairman of powerful rural body the Heung Yee Kuk, stepped in.
It was not until the end of last year that all the families finally moved to their homes in the new village, according to activist Bobo Yip Po-lam, who has been helping the villagers.
“Relocating a village is something that has never happened in the history of Hong Kong. A lot of people doubted whether this could really work. In the end, 47 families have moved to the new site and that’s not an easy task,” Yip said.
Most of the villagers do small-scale farming on land in front of their homes, just as before. Two bigger plots of communal land were expected to be fertile enough for farming soon.
After moving into her new two-storey house, Wong Kam-fook, 90, took to growing ginger in her small garden.
“It was much more convenient at the old village. Now I need to walk for 25 minutes to reach public transport,” she said.
Back in 2011, Fung, the farmer, was among a group who rented a piece of land to continue farming. Now she is the only one still taking care of the land, as the others have become too old to carry on.
“The happiest time of my life was when I was a child. The villagers saw each other grow up,” Fung said at her farm, smiling at the memory. “For me, because I am still working on my farm every day, I feel like I am living my childhood again.”
She wakes up at about 6am every day and works until 11am before delivering her organic produce of aubergines, water spinach and other vegetables to about 30 regular customers.
“Hongkongers do not respect farmers. They think farming is not an essential industry in Hong Kong because they can buy their food at the supermarkets too easily,” she said.
She does not mind that many of the old village families chose to move elsewhere. “As long as they are happy, just let it be,” she said.
Activist turned lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick helped villagers during their protests and after they moved. He felt so much for them that he named his daughter, now five, Bat-chin. In Cantonese, the name means “not moving” which was the villagers’ rallying cry.
Looking back, Chu said he knew the protesters were doomed to fail in halting the rail project, which he believes was imposed by Beijing.
“After 10 years, it is time to review whether such mega projects are what Hongkongers need,” Chu said, referring to the high-speed rail, the third runway at the airport and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.
“Co-location”: efficiency or violation of the Basic Law?
One of the unique features of the West Kowloon terminus is the “co-location” arrangement, which has mainland checkpoint officials stationed there to clear travellers.
A designated zone of the terminus complex will be subject to mainland jurisdiction and laws.
The government had a tough time getting Legco to approve the arrangement. It was only passed in June this year after a chaotic marathon debate which included attempts to delay the vote.
With the last-minute passage, the government avoided its worst nightmare of not having the co-location arrangement ready when the terminus opens this month.
The Hong Kong government has insisted the plan gives travellers greater convenience, and mainland officials have said the city has not given up its high degree of autonomy. But legal experts and pro-democracy lawmakers were not convinced.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, principal law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said co-location set a precedent which would sweep over protections for Hongkongers covered by the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
Hong Kong’s Bar Association has also said the plan had “severely” undermined the city’s rule of law and “irreparably breached” the Basic Law.
Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan said the price Hong Kong had paid for the rail link went far beyond the financial.
“The project has cost Hong Kong its jurisdiction under the co-location arrangement,” Chan said.
After nearly two decades of upheavals, delays and political rancour, the West Kowloon terminus will finally open later this month.
Travellers will be able to get to Guangzhou in under an hour, and to both Shanghai and Beijing in less than nine. While it would still be quicker to travel by plane, rail supporters said using the train removed the usual delays and hassle of flying.
Thousands of Hongkongers flocked to the West Kowloon terminus for the open house earlier this month to get a first look at the place and its offerings.
Some were already making travel plans, excited that they would be able to get to the mainland more easily, without having to make their way first to Shenzhen before getting on the high-speed train there.
Miriam Lau Kin-yee, former chairwoman of the government-friendly Liberal Party, said she supported building the line because Hong Kong could not afford to be “marginalised” amid the mainland’s rapid economic development.
Other supporters said the link was crucial at a time when Beijing was pushing its “Great Bay Area” initiative, a scheme to turn Hong Kong and 10 neighbouring cities into a financial and innovation powerhouse to rival Silicon Valley in the USA.
Still, Lau was disappointed that the link’s cost had ballooned to HK$84.4 billion.
“The Hong Kong government should reflect on why the construction costs of the various infrastructure projects these days, including the express rail link, are so expensive,” she said. “We used to be able to ensure our public work projects were completed on time and within budget. Why are there always delays and cost overruns now?”
Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam and Kimmy Chung