Selective Opposition

Our pan democrats need to become a great deal more selective about the issues where they confront the government, or they are going to slip into political irrelevance.

Take this latest brouhaha about the proposed co-location arrangements for immigration and customs at the Hong Kong terminus of the national high speed rail network in west Kowloon. The pan dems are pledging to fight the idea tooth and nail on the grounds that it is a breach of the Basic Law, the thin end of the wedge, will open the door to mainland officials exercising jurisdiction within the Hong Kong SAR and so on. With great respect, I do not find any of the reasons offered very compelling. I suspect many ordinary citizens of Hong Kong – including people who might be inclined to support the democratic cause in elections – feel the same.

Similar arrangements are in place at both ends of the Eurostar – you go through UK immigration (enter the UK) in Paris, and French immigration (enter France) in London. Does this offend the sovereignty of either country? Of course not. Similarly when flying from Toronto or Vancouver to cities in the United States, travellers go through American immigration in Canada. It is practical, efficient, makes travel easier and suits the interest of all parties.

The point is Hong Kong voters are very worldly and they are familiar with these arrangements in other places – indeed they may even have experienced them directly themselves when on vacation, or visiting friends and relatives, or settling a child down in school or college in any of those countries. So they know very well that such systems are not of themselves sinister, what matters is how they are operated. And the signs here are promising: the areas where mainland officials will be able to exercise their powers under mainland law will be clearly demarcated and secured. Attempting to exercise powers outside these boundaries would be clearly unlawful. Wandering into the premises accidentally – a possibility I heard one democrat float on the radio – would be impossible.

Hong Kong people are very pragmatic and will be concerned about what might happen to them. That is why the case of Causeway Bay bookseller Lee Bo, coerced into entering the mainland by agents sent from there for the purpose, is much more relevant and frightening. Many people here have family, friends and business interests over the boundary. Similarly with the case of Xiao Jianhua, a mainland businessman taken in a wheelchair from the Four Seasons Hotel in Central, and whisked back to the mainland under escort from persons who gave every impression of acting as Chinese law enforcement. Such episodes – still not fully explained – undermine the rule of law and Hong Kong’s status as a safe city in which to do business.

The idea that one may not be safe walking the streets of our own city is a legitimate concern and merits the outrage it evoked at the time. A practical arrangement for making a voluntary visit to the north does not.

But let us look at the detail of how the terminus will operate in practice. A Hong Kong person or foreign national will go through our immigration to leave the SAR, then enter the enclosed area set aside for mainland immigration. If he is not going to be allowed in, he will be turned back at this point, surely preferable to going all the way to Shenzhen and being kicked out there. If he is wanted for whatever reason by mainland authorities, what is the difference between being arrested here or in Guangzhou? In practice it might in fact better suit the officials to let him board the train, and send word ahead so that he can be arrested at the first station on the mainland side. In any case, what is the practical difference?

Travel in the opposite direction does present a different problem. A person could board the train north of the boundary and in theory not find out he was on the mainland’s stop list until he arrived physically in Kowloon, whereupon he would not be allowed to leave the station, instead being taken into custody and put on the next train back. I have to say I find the chances of that actually happening in practice to be pretty remote.

The precedent argument is interesting from an intellectual perspective but not much more than that. Obviously we are not going to construct another high speed rail and no-one has suggested co-location at Chek Lap Kok for flights to the mainland, or at the various ferry terminals. Come to think of it, I can see advantages in clearing Macao immigration in Hong Kong, but let’s not stir up a hornets nest.

One final point: as I have pointed out in this column before, mainland immigration officials are already in Hong Kong exercising their powers, for example to grant – or withhold – home return permits to Chinese nationals and visas to foreigners.

But my main message to the democrats is this. Preserve your energy to prevent any repetition of the Lee and Xiao sagas. Fighting against pragmatic sensible arrangements is just opposition for its own sake.