Hong Kong has officially ceded part of a new high-speed railway station to mainland Chinese authorities, holding a secretive ceremony that raised fears over the autonomy of the former British colony.
The West Kowloon rail terminus, in the heart of the city, will officially open on 23 September, linking Hong Kong with cities in southern China. About 1m sq ft will be under the control of Chinese police and customs officials, allowing for immigration checks before departure.
Hong Kong was handed from the UK to China in 1997 under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”, where Beijing was given sovereignty but promised to allow the city to govern itself. It was also allowed to maintain rights unthinkable on the mainland, like freedom of speech and a separate legal system. Under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, mainland laws do not extend to Hong Kong.
But in recent years that autonomy has been eroded, with activists accusing China of exerting too much control on Hong Kong politics and society. Opponents see the rail station as a symbol of those shrinking freedoms, a white elephant meant to appease Chinese government goals to better integrate the city. Supporters have touted reduced travel times.
During an early morning ceremony, the city’s transport secretary and a top Communist party official from Guangdong province jointly held a ceremony to “mark the commissioning of the mainland port area”. The event was closed to press and neither news media or local lawmakers were given advance notice.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, denied there was any attempt to cover up the event, saying: “There was nothing sneaky”.
“It was not a ceremony per se,” she said, attempting to downplay the controversy but seeming to contradict an official government press release that used the term.
The Hong Kong government is charging the mainland a token HK$1,000 (£99) a year in rent. The rail station sits in one of the most expensive areas for real estate in the world’s most expensive property market, and some opposition lawmakers have called the arrangement “laughable”.
“The unlawful and unconstitutional joint checkpoint has been implemented forcefully – it has caused an irreparable damage to our legal system and rule of law. There is nothing to celebrate,” Tanya Chan, an opposition lawmaker, said on local radio, according to Hong Kong Free Press.