Hong Kong lawmakers grill justice chief over controversial rail link to China

Hong Kong's secretary for justice Rimsky Yuen (centre) gestures to the media after a meeting to discuss the high-speed rail link at the Legislative Council building in HongKong on Aug 3, 2017.
Hong Kong's secretary for justice Rimsky Yuen (centre) gestures to the media after a meeting to discuss the high-speed rail link at the Legislative Council building in HongKong on Aug 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong pro-democracy legislators faced off against the city's justice secretary on Thursday (Aug 3) over a controversial rail link to mainland China which would see a portion of the city come under Chinese law.

The high-speed train connection with the sprawling southern Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou is due to open in 2018 but is facing a mounting backlash.

The proposal for a joint immigration point which would see mainland police and other officials stationed at the new rail terminus in the heart of Hong Kong comes as fears intensify that Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city.

The station is on Hong Kong's famous harbourfront, not on the border with the mainland, which lies further north.

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There are already concerns that Chinese operatives are working undercover in Hong Kong after the alleged abductions of a city bookseller and a reclusive mainland businessman.

In the first parliamentary debate over the new plan, which was already approved by the city government's top advisory committee last month, legislators accused authorities of "casually" disregarding Hong Kong's freedoms.

They said the proposal violated the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which guarantees residents rights unseen on the mainland, such as freedom of speech, and prohibits Chinese law enforcers from operating in Hong Kong.

The government has defended the move by saying it would save travel time.

"If today, you can casually say that for the high-speed rail link to reach peak convenience you can cut out a piece of land from Hong Kong...how can you tell Hong Kong people this won't happen again?" said lawmaker Fernando Cheung as he questioned justice secretary Rimsky Yuen in a special committee meeting of the Legislative Council.

"Shaking the Basic Law's safeguards for residents for the sake of convenience - this is our bottom line, we cannot accept this,"Mr Cheung said.

Mr Yuen said the plan did not breach the Basic Law because the part of the station under Chinese control was being "leased" to the mainland as a special port area.

"The goal...is to maximise the benefits of the high-speed rail. There are no political reasons behind it," Mr Yuen said.

The proposal would see around 40 per cent of the station including the platforms, plus the trains themselves, come under Chinese criminal law.

That has prompted questions over how residents will need to behave in the China-controlled areas and whether they will be punished for transgressing mainland law, even though they will still be in one of Hong Kong's busiest central commercial districts.

There are existing transport connections between Hong Kong and the mainland, but Chinese immigration checks are done on the other side of the border.

Mr Yuen previously riled opponents by likening China to Hong Kong's "landlord" asking for a room back after renting the flat to a tenant.

The new high-speed rail line is one of a number of cross-border infrastructure projects which have increased concern that Hong Kong is being swallowed up by the mainland.