Hong Kong’s controversial China rail checkpoint bill finally passed by lawmakers amid protests, delays and expulsions
Long-debated plan at last gets green light for rail station border checkpoint that will see mainland Chinese laws enforced on Hong Kong soil for first time
Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday night finally passed a bitterly contested bill to set up a joint border checkpoint with mainland China in the heart of the city after a marathon debate that saw attempts to delay the vote descend into chaos.
The so-called co-location bill was passed by 40 to 20 votes, five months after it was tabled at the Legislative Council for approval to station mainland Chinese immigration officers at the West Kowloon terminal of the HK$84 billion (US$10.75 billion) high-speed railway that will link the city to Guangzhou.
In a reflection of the controversy surrounding the issue, around 300 demonstrators gathered outside the Legco building at Tamar to watch a live broadcast of the vote and debate preceding it – those backing the bill were outnumbered by protesters opposing it.
Lawmakers resumed the final debate on Wednesday and Thursday following deliberations last week on the proposed legislation.
Discussion on the second reading of the bill in the chamber began last Wednesday, following three months of scrutiny by a bills committee during which opposition lawmakers accused the government of failing to address their concerns.
Thursday’s discussions mainly centred on 24 amendments proposed by nine filibustering pan-democrat lawmakers.
Their suggested changes included a sunset clause, penalties for mainland officers operating outside the zone designated as a port area for them at the West Kowloon station, and allowing for the possibility of a Hong Kong court overturning the arrangement. All were voted down by the pro-establishment majority.
The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (Co-location) Bill allows for passengers to clear both Hong Kong and mainland border checks at a single location, which means mainland laws will be enforced on Hong Kong soil for the first time.
Opposition politicians and their pro-democracy supporters see it as a violation of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which would undermine the city’s autonomy under the one-country, two-systems governing policy.
“Its passage comes not only at the cost of our core value of the rule of law, but it also shows people the legislature is only a rubber stamp,” unionist lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung said.
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said the vote had opened a Pandora’s box to further unconstitutional arrangements being imposed on Hong Kong.
Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan said before the bill was put to vote that the conflict was rooted in difference in beliefs and faith. He urged opposing lawmakers to embrace the co-location arrangement with an open attitude.
Opposition lawmakers were having none of it, tearing up copies of the bill in protest. Some of them surrounded the minister outside the chamber, chanting “shame” at him.
Chan said the co-location arrangement would provide young Hongkongers with opportunities for business and development.
“I hope lawmakers can experience the express rail and co-location with an open attitude,” he said, adding he would respect citizens’ right to challenge the arrangement by judicial review.
Chan declined to explain why officials such as Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah were not present.
The pro-democracy camp expressed dissatisfaction with Legislative Council president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen’s handling of the debate.
Leung had set Thursday as the deadline for the vote, a day after he expelled five opposition lawmakers from the chamber for staging a rowdy protest.
The Legco president continued to deny them entry into the chamber for Thursday’s final session.
Asked if the bloc would launch a judicial review against the co-location arrangement, its convenor, Charles Mok, said it was “very possible.”
However, the lawmaker said the camp would seek legal advice on how best to challenge the arrangement.
According to Legco’s secretariat, the council spent 38 hours since June 7 to finish the second and third reading of the bill.
During the debate, legislator Luk Chung-hung, of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, accused the opposition of being “anti-China”.
“The opposition in fact don’t care about constitutionality of the bill. They are just anti-China. They would oppose anything that is related to China,” he said.
Fellow pro-establishment legislator Kwok Wai-keung said: “Without the co-location arrangement, it will defeat the purpose of having a high-speed train.”
A similar arrangement – but in reverse – is in place at Shenzhen Bay Port, where Hong Kong officers operate in mainland territory.
But lawyers at the Hong Kong Bar Association have deemed West Kowloon’s co-location arrangement unconstitutional. The Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, states no mainland law shall apply in Hong Kong except those relating to defence, foreign affairs and “other matters outside the limits” of the city’s autonomy.
Any exceptions must be listed in Annexe III of the Basic Law before they can be applied.
Despite this, China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, endorsed the legal foundation for the checkpoint plan late last year, but that has not stopped local legislators opposing the bill. More than 70 amendments were submitted to Legco in a bid to delay Thursday’s vote.
To counter such filibustering, the Legco president capped debate time for the bill at 36 hours to ensure it would be passed before the legislature’s summer break in mid-July. He also allowed only 24 of the amendments to be debated.
The new rail line, which will connect Hong Kong to China’s growing high-speed railway network, is slated to begin operating in the third quarter of this year.
The project has been plagued by controversy since the government first floated the idea in the early 2000s, with many of the objections focused on rising costs.
The plan was first put forward in 2007, but it was not until last July when Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor took office that the arrangements were finalised and announced.
A cooperation agreement was signed between Hong Kong and mainland authorities last November and formally approved by the NPC Standing Committee the following month.
The co-location bill was then tabled to Legco in January this year.