China on Wednesday decreed that part of a high-speed railway station linking the former British colony of Hong Kong to the mainland will be subject to its laws, as pro-democracy commentators warned that the city's once-promised autonomy will soon be a thing of the past.
China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), said on Wednesday that it would extend Beijing's authority to the high-speed rail terminus to enable a streamlined process for passengers boarding the trains in Hong Kong, in spite of the city's status as a separate immigration, policing and customs jurisdiction.
The "co-location" arrangement has been criticized as unconstitutional for violating Article 18 of the city's Basic Law, which says that mainland Chinese laws, with the exception of some governing affairs of state, don't apply in Hong Kong.
In a legislative document on the decision, the NPC said the arrangements didn't count as an encroachment on the city's autonomy, however.
"It is appropriate ... that the Mainland Port Area within the West Kowloon station would be regarded as belonging to mainland China," the NPC document said.
"Setting up a Mainland Port Area inside the West Kowloon station does not change the administrative area of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, does not affect the [city]’s right to a high degree of autonomy accorded by the law, [nor does it] reduce or harm residents’ rights and freedoms accorded by the law," it said.
Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the NPC standing committee, said the decision is Beijing's final word on the controversy.
"The NPC standing committee is empowered to legislate on national laws, interpret the law and monitor their implementation," he said. "This includes the power to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and the duty to monitor the implementation of the Basic Law."
"The standing committee has the final say on whether the laws in Hong Kong, and everything that happens there, violate the Basic Law," he told reporters on Wednesday.
'Death of Hong Kong'
The planned U.S.$11 billion Express Rail Link will connect Hong Kong with the rest of China’s high-speed rail network, slashing the journey time between Hong Kong and the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to just 48 minutes.
Under the new ruling, passengers boarding the train in Hong Kong will clear customs and immigration before taking their seats, removing the necessity for passengers to disembark for checks at the internal immigration border between the two.
Opposition lawmaker Tanya Chan, who heads a group that campaigns against a Chinese police presence on Hong Kong soil, said the issue represents the “most serious violation of the Basic Law” since the 1997 handover.
"Li Fei talks about the weight carried by words," Chan said. "I think we can say that this decision from the NPC standing committee will be the death of Hong Kong."
"This has now gone much further than just a co-location arrangement at a port; we now see the central government directly wielding total political power in Hong Kong," she said.
"They used to talk about a high degree of autonomy, and Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong," she said. "But today, we have zero autonomy, and the NPC standing committee ruling Hong Kong."
Hong Kong political commentators agreed that the move strikes at the heart of the post-handover political arrangements agreed between the U.K. and China ahead of the handover.
"The central government in the past used to rely on the law and the established system in its dealings with Hong Kong, but now Li Fei seems to be saying that it is just using its naked power to weigh in on the debate," commentator Poon Siu-to told RFA. "This sets an extremely dangerous precedent, which says that the NPC can just issue a decision and dispense with any kind of due process."
"Basically he is saying that anything the central government does is legal by definition," he said. "This is a huge blow to the rule of law."
End of 'one country, two systems'
According to long-time China analyst Willy Lam, the move spells the end of the promises of "one country, two systems" enshrined in the handover agreements.
"Li Fei espouses the rule of the party over the rule of law, and now he is bringing that approach to Hong Kong," Lam said. "It has destroyed the essence of one country, two systems at a fundamental level."
"This means that from now on, the NPC standing committee can just issue a ruling to smooth out any rough edges."
Hong Kong's administration under chief executive Carrie Lam said it would table new laws to its Legislative Council (LegCo) by early February to enable the plan to proceed.
"This decision sets out a stable legal and constitutional basis for the cooperative [checkpoint] arrangements to be implemented," Lam told reporters. "It has now laid to rest any doubts and concerns about the co-location arrangement."
"The Hong Kong government will now cooperate with the mainland authorities to enter into consultation on and implement the arrangements for the joint checkpoint at Kowloon West Station," she said.
Recent high-profile interventions by the NPC have triggered a series of court decisions resulting in the loss of six pro-democracy seats in LegCo, meaning that the plan is unlikely to meet with effective opposition once tabled.
Reported by Wen Yuqing and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.