Officials argue joint checkpoints will make journeys quicker for passengers
A new high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and mainland China will launch Sunday, a multi-billion dollar project that critics say gives away part of the city's territory to an increasingly assertive Beijing.
Chinese security will be stationed in semi-autonomous Hong Kong for the first time at the harbourfront West Kowloon rail terminus, as part of a new "special port area" that is subject to mainland law.
Passengers will cross through immigration and customs checkpoints into the mainland-controlled portion of the station, which includes the platforms and the trains, even though West Kowloon is miles from the border further north.
Under Hong Kong's mini-constitution -- the Basic Law -- China's national laws do not apply to the city apart from in limited areas, including defence.
Hong Kong also enjoys rights unseen on the mainland including freedom of speech, protected by a deal made before the city was handed back to China by Britain in 1997. But there are growing fears those liberties are being eroded.
Officials argue joint checkpoints will make journeys quicker for passengers as they need no further clearance after crossing into the mainland.
The new bullet trains to southern China promise to be far quicker than existing cross-border rail links, and long-haul services will cut journey times to Beijing from 24 hours to nine hours.
But opponents warn giving away control of land in the heart of Hong Kong is a dangerous precedent as Beijing seeks to tighten its grip on the city following mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 and the emergence of an independence movement.
"It's almost like an imperialist attitude on the part of Beijing," pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told AFP.
"Anything can happen now in Hong Kong at the behest of the Beijing big boss," she added.
There are also questions over how Hong Kong citizens will be required to behave in the zones subject to Chinese law, whether they will be punished for using Facebook and Twitter -- banned on the mainland -- or targeted for wearing clothing with political slogans.
A government information leaflet says the public will still have access to the same content on their phones in the mainland parts of the station, but warns that "passengers' general conduct" will be subject to mainland law in those spaces.
There are concerns too over the sharing of personal information with Chinese authorities, including via a mainland-based wi-fi provider that will operate in the parts of the station under Chinese jurisdiction.
However, pro-establishment lawmaker Regina Ip described the fears as "overblown", emphasising that mainland personnel were restricted to the special port area.
"(The rail link) provides unprecedented convenience of travel ... we can have one-stop clearance, that will greatly enhance our connectivity with the Pearl River Delta," she said.
The special port area was quietly handed over to mainland personnel earlier in September.
The hush-hush ceremony took place at midnight and was not announced by the Hong Kong government until it was over. There was no media access.