Where there's a will there's an express train

Editorial | 11 Jul 2017

The cautiously optimistic warming executive-legislative relationship will soon be put to the test, after a week of thawing that saw pan-democrats rise to their feet to welcome Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during her first appearance in the legislature as chief executive.

Lam's new administration is acting fast on the Express Rail Link hot button issue, with publicity aimed at driving home the good side.

The railway costing a fortune to build is scheduled to be operational in the third quarter next year. If the issue of co-location immigration clearance can't be settled in time, it will be humiliating for Lam, damaging her prestige both at home and among her mainland peers.

By the same token, a well-managed passage of the bill providing for co- location clearance may enhance her standing, while winning her greater leeway in dealing with Beijing on other sensitive issues, such as Article 23 and political reforms.

Central government officials are monitoring how she handles the current test.

Although only a week has passed since she succeeded Leung Chun-ying, she's been acting differently from her predecessor. While she can rely on the government diehard supporters in the legislature, she knows such tactics carry the heavy cost of diminished efficiency and governance.

Instead, on the express rail question, she's engaging the public rather than deferring it, as Leung had done.

Co-location clearance is an old issue and public engagement should have started much earlier, since the more secretive the issue is thought to be, the deeper skepticism will become.

The limited time left for the legislative process is undesirable too - thanks to the foot-dragging by the previous regime.

As I've said time and again, it's hard to imagine the Express Rail Link can function properly without a co-location clearance arrangement at the West Kowloon terminus. It defies common sense to require express trains to stop for immigration checks.

Government publicity has been focused on how much faster commuters can travel to Futian in Shenzhen, or Guangzhou; how comfortable train compartments are, and how handily passengers can be connected to wi-fi on board.

Those are the practical benefits even the opposition would find it hard to quibble about.

In the absence of a major public outcry over the proposed plan, opponents are left with the option to play up fears that mainland officers would be empowered to enact mainland laws within the designated border zone at the West Kowloon terminus.

What we'll see in the months ahead will be a publicity war between practical needs and people's apprehension of the communists.

But could the pan-democrats be aiming at the wrong target? Instead of immigration clearance, the passengers may be more concerned about the wi- fi connection on trains, because everyone knows internet access is subject to strict censorship in the mainland.

Will commuters from Hong Kong be able to access Facebook, Google or news websites after their trains cross the border? Perhaps, it'll be more meaningful for the pan-democrats to strive for this freedom of access rather than focusing their opposition on the high- sounding co-location clearance issue.

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