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
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.”
A G79 Fuxing The first highspeed service from Beijing to Hong Kong
Taking charge The Mainland Port Area at West Kowloon station