The Hong Kong government is railroading through a plan to give up legal rights to a piece of its own territory in favor of Beijing. A chunk of the high-speed rail terminus being constructed in the middle of Kowloon, where immigration and customs formalities will be performed, is to come under the formal jurisdiction of the central government in Beijing.
This is claimed to be simply a practical measure which in no way undercuts the One Country Two System concept and the Basic Law which provides for Hong Kong’s legal and administrative autonomy in all matters except defense and foreign policy. The government argues it will have no impact on autonomy and any delay in opening the railway on account of lack of immigration facilities would be extremely costly.
Much has been made by the government of the fact that the US conducts some immigration and customs checks on Canadian soil and in Europe officials similarly conduct some check in other countries and on board frontier-crossing trains. This argument has been taken at face value not merely by pro-government parties but by representatives of the business community, and media commentators, including the correspondent for The Economist magazine.
This shows ignorance of the actual situation in Europe and Canada compared with what is proposed for Hong Kong. For instance, US immigration officers at, for example, Toronto airport, can deny entry to foreigners wishing to enter (or leave) the US. But their authority ends there with that bureaucratic function. There is no suggestion that they are working from US soil or have powers of arrest in Canada.
What is proposed for Hong Kong is that all mainland laws will apply in the relevant section of the train terminal. Persons entering it cannot just be denied entry to the mainland. They can be arrested by mainland authorities and – presumably – transferred to the mainland against their will.
This is not a minor matter as it implies the Hong Kong government, ever more beholden to Beijing, can deem other areas to be under Beijing’s legal authority regardless of the Basic Law.
It is also a reminder of Beijing’s use of kidnap to spirit people from Hong Kong to detention on the mainland without bothering about the judicial process. These included publishers of books critical of mainland leaders, and a high-profile mainland businessman who had apparently fallen foul of the current leadership or business rivals with more political clout.
The Hong Kong government sounded barely a squeak in protest at these actions which showed contempt for its authority and the rule of law. Now such kidnaps will be easier as victims will only need to be transported to the mainland section of the Kowloon terminal.
With the opposition in the Legislative Council weakened by the disbarment of several elected members and others also facing possible disbarment, the legislation for this surrender of authority to the mainland will go ahead. But it will leave the new Chief Executive Carrie Lam looking ever more the Beijing rubber stamp she is suspected of being despite her verbal promises to heal divisions in Hong Kong and engage the opposition in a cooperative spirit.
Actions such as the takeover of the rail terminal speak louder, especially in the light of a growing string of other clear moves to restrict the territory’s autonomy including de facto diminished press freedom, attacks on Hong Kong University faculty, attempts to block opposition lawmakers from taking their seats and other restraints.