Hong Kong is set to plug into China’s sprawling high-speed rail network on Sunday with the inauguration of a 26-kilometer line across the border to the mainland city of Shenzhen, marking a finishing touch to the 142-km Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

A big chunk of the cavernous West Kowloon Terminus next door to Hong Kong’s bustling Tsim Sha Tsui shopping precinct has already been leased – or ceded, as the city’s opposition parties labeled it – as a  “Mainland Port Area” where all Chinese laws will apply.

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Railway Police Bureau has already set up a branch inside the 100,000-square-meter section now under the mainland’s jurisdiction. The area also includes all underground platforms and train cars.

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The exterior and interior of the West Kowloon Terminus. Photos: Asia Times/Handout

This is according to a “co-location” deal signed by Hong Kong and mainland China so passengers crossing the border can clear all the immigration, customs and other procedures of both sides under one ceiling, when getting on or off the trains at West Kowloon.

The reason for setting aside a huge area at the heart of Hong Kong for the occupation of mainland law enforcers was meant for the ease and convenience of passengers, said the governments on both sides, as it was not economical or practical to set up immigration and customs facilities at train stations across the mainland.

Hong Kong officials also stressed that mainland personnel would never step outside the Mainland Port Area, and that the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers as well as the city’s own jurisdiction and common law system would never be affected.

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The Chinese Police branch inside the Mainland Port Area. Photo: China News Services
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An mainland immigration officer is seen checking the travel document of a reporter. Photo: China News Services
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The boundary between the Mainland Port Area (right) and the part still under Hong Kong’s own jurisdiction. Photo: Twitter via hket.net

But the caveat is that one is subject to Chinese laws after entering West Kowloon’s Mainland Port Area, even though this is not physically in the mainland.

The area inside the Hong Kong end of the express rail link becomes a big swathe of legal grey area where even browsing websites banned on the mainland such as Google or Facebook or sending or receiving information deemed as illegal or politically incorrect north of the border can potentially land you in trouble.

The “co-location” arrangements has since its conception stoked a train of controversies and legal back-and-forth, with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp lambasting it as “unconstitutional” – the Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document, stipulates that mainland Chinese laws and regulations should not be applied in the city save a handful listed in an appendix.

Yet the city’s Legislative Council still approved the co-location bill in June thanks to the pro-Beijing coalition that commanded the majority of the vote.

Photo: Asia Times
Bulletin trains will start plying the cross-border express rail link this Sunday. Photo: Frank Chen/Asia Times

The express rail link project was also plagued with delays, cost overruns and construction flaws and it took the major contractor, Hong Kong’s MTR Corp, more than eight years to dig the 26-km underground section, at a whopping cost of HK$84.5 billion (US$10.8 billion).

Bullet trains will only travel at 200km/h within Hong Kong, before accelerating to up to 350km/h after crossing the border.

A 20-minute hop in a second-class coach to the neighbouring Shenzhen’s North Station costs HK$86, while the journey time to Guangzhou’s South Station is less than an hour and the price is HK$247.

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