A bul­let train to the heart of Hong Kong

The new Vi­brant Ex­press rail line and West Kowloon ter­mi­nus brings the ter­ri­tory ever nearer to the main­land

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Lily Kuo

In­side the new West Kowloon ter­mi­nus, it’s hard to know where Hong Kong stops and China be­gins. A res­tau­rant on one floor is tech­ni­cally on Hong Kong soil. Just be­low it, a duty-free shop­ping area be­longs to nei­ther gov­ern­ment. Mean­while, the VIP lounge is Chi­nese ter­ri­tory. Out­side the cav­ernous train sta­tion, the Chi­nese and Hong Kong flags fly side by side – with the red-and­white Hong Kong flag set slightly lower.

This month, af­ter more than eight years of con­struc­tion, de­lays and de­bate, Hong Kong fi­nally opened the Vi­brant Ex­press, an $11bn rail link con­nect­ing the city to main­land China in less than 25 min­utes. Un­der a “colo­ca­tion ar­range­ment”, a part of West Kowloon sta­tion – around 105,000 square me­tres – has been leased to Bei­jing for what is a de facto Chi­nese bor­der in the mid­dle of Hong Kong.

Pas­sen­gers get­ting off the train see Chi­nese po­lice on duty. Sur­veil­lance cam­eras hang from the ceil­ing. A Chi­nese po­lice sta­tion has been set up.

The blur­ring of the line be­tween Hong Kong and main­land China has alarmed res­i­dents and crit­ics. Hong Kong, a spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion of China, op­er­ates un­der its own le­gal and ju­di­cial sys­tem. To many, the sleek new rail link and sta­tion are sym­bols of Bei­jing’s creep­ing hold over the city and its slow but seem­ingly in­evitable as­sim­i­la­tion into China.

“It looks nice, but we don’t re­ally sup­port the rea­son be­hind it,” says Marco Ma, 36, who has come to see the new train sta­tion with his wife, Sherry Ng. The cou­ple look up at the slop­ing ceil­ings and walls of lat­tice­like win­dows of the ter­mi­nus de­signed by US ar­chi­tect Andrew Bromberg.

“The gov­ern­ment is grad­u­ally

trans­form­ing Hong Kong into China,” says Ng, 26. “This is part of the plan.”

The Vi­brant Ex­press comes at a time of un­cer­tainty for the for­mer Bri­tish colony, which was re­turned to Bei­jing in 1997 un­der the pro­viso that it would en­joy a “high de­gree of au­ton­omy” for 50 years – known as the “one coun­try, two sys­tems” pol­icy.

Over the last decade that au­ton­omy has weak­ened, es­pe­cially in the af­ter­math of mass pro-democ­racy protests in 2014. Ac­tivists and op­po­si­tion lead­ers have been barred from of­fice, while in­de­pen­dent book­sell­ers have been de­tained by Chi­nese agents. Leg­is­la­tion crim­i­nal­is­ing any dis­re­spect of the Chi­nese na­tional an­them and a dra­co­nian na­tional se­cu­rity law loom.

Last month au­thor­i­ties banned a pro-in­de­pen­dence po­lit­i­cal party, claim­ing the non­vi­o­lent group posed “a real threat to na­tional se­cu­rity”.

In the past, ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture projects in the city were also ini­ti­ated at times of un­cer­tainty. Hong Kong’s in­ter­na­tional air­port, de­signed by the Bri­tish ar­chi­tect Nor­man Fos­ter and con­structed in the lead-up to 1997, was planned to help as­suage a pub­lic ner­vous about the han­dover.

Yet the high-speed rail has done lit­tle to rally the pub­lic. “The dif­fer­ence is that rather than in­still­ing con­fi­dence in the pop­u­la­tion, these projects seem to be ag­gra­vat­ing the ever-present anx­i­ety in the city,” said Cole Roskam, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

The high-speed rail link is in­tended to bring more Hong Kongers to main­land China. Of­fi­cials have been pro­mot­ing the main­land as an al­ter­na­tive to Hong Kongers strug­gling with sky­high hous­ing and liv­ing costs.

That cam­paign has not caught on yet, and it is not clear the train will help. In the first three days of op­er­a­tion, a to­tal 160,000 pas­sen­gers took the train, ac­cord­ing to the Hong Kong Mass Tran­sit Rail­way, far be­low the ex­pected 80,000 pas­sen­gers a day.

Few pas­sen­gers tak­ing the Vi­brant Ex­press to Hong Kong, how­ever, are aware of any crit­i­cism of the rail link. Lai Youyou, on her way to Hong Kong from Shen­zhen with her friend to go shop­ping, shrugs when asked if she wor­ries the dis­tinc­tion be­tween Hong Kong and main­land China is dis­ap­pear­ing. “It’s all the same,” she says. “We can go there. They can come here.”

REUTERS

A G79 Fux­ing The first high­speed ser­vice from Bei­jing to Hong Kong

GETTY

Tak­ing charge The Main­land Port Area at West Kowloon sta­tion

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