HONG KONG (Reuters) - A plan to allow China to enforce its law at a Hong Kong train station cleared a final legal hurdle on Thursday to pave the way for the city to connect to the mainland’s vast high-speed rail network in September.
The link, which costs more than HK$84 billion ($10.70 billion), marks the first time China can legally enforce its criminal law in the semi autonomous territory.
Critics say it cedes territory to the mainland and sets a dangerous precedent for Beijing to apply mainland laws to other parts of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a former British colony that became part of China in 1997 and is governed by a “one country, two systems” arrangement under which it has a high degree of autonomy and a separate police force, legal system and immigration controls.
The bill passed by the Legislative Council will effectively establish a Hong Kong-mainland border inside the West Kowloon Station at the heart of the city with two immigration checkpoints.
The city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says Chinese law does not apply and Chinese officials cannot interfere in local affairs.
Under the new arrangement, also known as “one land, two checks”, part of the new station overlooking the city’s iconic Victoria Harbour will be regarded as mainland territory.
Chinese officials will conduct immigration checks at a joint checkpoint and enforce Chinese law including criminal law within parts of the station and on trains.
China’s highest parliamentary body approved the arrangement in December and said it does not affect Hong Kong’s autonomy nor harm its rights and freedoms.
An association representing the city’s lawyers in December said the plan lacked a firm legal basis and was “the most retrograde step” since the 1997 handover.
About 150 protesters, shouting “shame”, rallied against the plan outside of the Council on Thursday night, while a few pro-China activists hit gongs to block out their chants.
Student demonstrator Jordan Pang, 20, said the arrangement would deal a blow to people’s personal safety.
“At the station you would be restrained by China’s laws but we can see China’s laws do not make sense. They suppress human rights and detain dissidents without any reason,” Pang said.
The Express Rail Link will connect with China’s high-speed rail network, which is the largest in the world, and slash the journey time between Hong Kong and the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to 48 minutes.
The railway is key to China’s Greater Bay Area national development strategy, which aims to bring together Hong Kong, Macau and nine southern Chinese cities to form a business powerhouse that rivals other metropolitan megacity hubs.
Beijing’s tightening grip on the financial hub has stoked social tension and protests including the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” demonstrations that demanded, in vain, full democracy for the city of 7.3 million.
The abductions of Hong Kong-based booksellers in 2015 who later showed up across the border in Chinese custody also touched a raw nerve.
But the city’s opposition has lost much of its steam following a series of setbacks. It does not have enough votes to veto Thursday’s bill.
Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by Holly Chik; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg