A new era began in Hong Kong on the weekend as its high-speed train to Guangzhou began running on Sunday. Hong Kong is now connected to China’s high-speed network, which is the world’s largest. Yet this is far from a joyous occasion because not many Hong Kongers are rejoicing. The opening of the high-speed train also saw the imposition of mainland Chinese authority and law on Hong Kong soil. This is because the immigration area at the Hong Kong terminus is staffed by mainland officers and is under mainland Chinese law.
Why this is significant is that it goes against the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, that was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 under the One Country, Two Systems arrangement. This means while Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 by the United Kingdom, Hong Kong would be able to govern itself, and maintain its own courts and laws and police force. This is why Hong Kong can enjoy freedoms such as having proper rule of law, uncensored internet and a free press and civil society. All this has been coming under threat in recent years from China’s encroaching interference but the imposition of Chinese authority in the high-speed terminus formalizes this and sets a scary precedent.
The high-speed train didn’t come cheap at US$11 billion and neither was it necessary. There is already a direct train to Guangzhou that takes just two hours from Kowloon, and the East Rail (local train) runs to Shenzhen. In fact, there are already multiple ways to get from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. The real goal of the high-speed train isn’t to benefit Hong Kong, but to benefit China by binding HK more closely and eroding the distinctions between China and HK.
Another major project is the Zhuhai-Macau-Hong Kong (ZMH) bridge which comes into operation later this year. Running from Zhuhai through Macau to HK, the bridge is the world’s longest sea bridge (part of it is underground) but again, there is little benefit to HK. Costing a whopping US$20 billion that is shared among the 3 cities, the bridge meets no real need and has caused delays, the deaths of workers, and a cost overrun of at least US$1.5 billion.
These white elephants cost a ton of money but the real intention is to integrate HK into the mainland. And China, or rather Xi Jinping, its leader and “emperor,” has come up with a grand plan called the “Greater Bay Area” (GBA) to facilitate this. The GBA is intended to “integrate” HK, Macau, and 9 major cities in China’s Guangdong Province to create the world’s biggest bay area that would also be a tech and financial powerhouse.
Similar to the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which some of you may have seen mentioned in the news, the GBA is full of grand promises that is centered on massive infrastructural projects and economic development. I recently wrote about the GBA for Foreign Policy’s website. I have a very critical take on the GBA and its projects, the high-speed rail and the ZMH bridge, which I see as reflective of the GBA’s flaws. That its wasteful, of dubious value, and ultimately has a political goal of binding Hong Kong to China.
The weekend also saw another dubious distinction for Hong Kong as the city’s government banned a tiny political party, the Hong Kong Nationalist Party. It’s the first time this has happened, with the reason cited being “national security” since the HKNP advocates independence from China. This is a huge blow to Hong Kong’s free speech environment if one cannot openly talk about independence. As political dissent becomes a crime, this makes Hong Kong more like China, where people can be even arrested for criticizing Xi or the Communist Party online, not to mention in public. In Taiwan, for example, people can still openly wave China flags and call for unification with China even though China is hostile to Taiwan. And in the US, I’m sure people can openly call for secession from the union.
It’s a sad sign for Hong Kong that closer ties with China mean white elephant projects and threats to free speech and freedom of expression. I’m not optimistic about the near future for Hong Kong at all.