Hong Kong protesters fail to halt bullet-train link from Chinese mainland

High-speed rail opponents angry about billions of dollars in cost overruns and concerned about threats to Hong Kong's autonomy failed Friday in a final effort to halt an extension of mainland China's bullet train into the city.

More than a dozen anti-rail demonstrators stormed the Legislative Council, or LegCo, and 100 or so more clamored outside as lawmakers voted to approve supplemental funding for the local section of a rail link connecting the semiautonomous Chinese territory to the mainland metropolises of Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

“Stop building the high-speed rail,” chanted the protesters outside, as they scuffled with police and security guards barring their advance into the legislative chamber. Several others entered the building but were apparently barred from the chamber.

Already more than five years in the works, the rail link was originally estimated to cost more than $9 billion. Recently, the project has racked up cost overruns to the tune of $2.5 billion, inviting renewed scrutiny from LegCo and rekindling concerns about Hong Kong's autonomy among a segment of local citizens.

Hong Kong government officials had said if no money was forthcoming by the end of March, construction would have to be suspended.

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 under a framework known as “one country, two systems,” the territory was supposed to retain a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.

Among the provisions in Hong Kong's Basic Law, or mini-constitution, the territory is supposed to retain the power to control its border with the mainland.

The bullet train extension would enable passengers to travel from mainland China directly to the heart of Hong Kong for the first time. Currently, all Hong Kong-bound train passengers from the mainland disembark in Shenzhen, clear a customs checkpoint and then continue their journey via Hong Kong's subway system.

But the planned high-speed rail link would allow mainland Chinese customs and immigration officers to be stationed inside the Hong Kong rail link's terminus.

Hong Kong's liberal wing of legislators, known as the pan-democrats, decried the arrangement as unconstitutional.

Anxiety over the security and customs arrangements has been stoked in recent months following the suspected extrajudicial rendition of a controversial bookseller from Hong Kong to the mainland.

Although the man has repeatedly claimed to have sneaked across the border of his own accord to help police with an investigation, supporters say he has probably been coerced into such statements.

The Chinese government has constructed thousands of miles of high-speed rail in the last decade. The infrastructure, built by state-run companies, has served to speed transportation times.

But authorities also see it as a tool to foster economic development of previously hard-to-reach regions, and as a means to bind peripheral or rebellious regions more closely to the Communist Party core.

As mainland China's rubber-stamp legislature met last week, Beijing reiterated that it would brook no compromise to its rail plans. Central authorities opened the first rail link to Tibet in 2007 and inaugurated a high-speed rail route in the largely Muslim western province of Xinjiang in 2014. A second route to Tibet is now in the works.

Some Tibetans have raised concerns that the rail links could in fact be used to facilitate movements of Chinese troops into Tibet. A similar concern is growing in Hong Kong.

China has even proposed extending its rail links to self-ruled Taiwan. That idea has been met with derision and skepticism on the island of 23 million, which split from mainland China more than 60 years ago and has de facto independence. Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunited eventually with the mainland.

“This is what Beijing wants, so Beijing will get” it, said Leung Kwok-hung, a.k.a. Long Hair, a Hong Kong legislator from the pan-democrats who conceded that the effort to block the rail link to the territory was a lost cause. “I saw this resistance as part of a continuum. And if we didn't put up a fight, we would stand no chance to win.”

It was unclear exactly what Friday's final vote was, as the presiding chairman of the chamber relied on an unusual show of raised hands for the balloting, local media said.

The Shenzhen-Guangzhou high-speed rail route came into operation in 2011, and late last year an extension to Shenzhen's financial district began service. The Hong Kong section is expected to be completed in late 2018.

The Hong Kong terminus is situated in the midst of luxury high-rises and a bustling shopping district, abutting an arts district that has been on the drawing board for more than a decade. But now the site is one gigantic hole with at least a dozen cranes hovering over and scores of I-beams sunk deep down.

Opposition to the rail link dates to 2009, when a tiny Hong Kong farming village — adjacent to the local barracks of the Chinese People's Liberation Army — was set to be razed to make room for an emergency service depot for the rail link.

A coalition of environmentalists and preservationists fought to save the village, but LegCo approved funding for the construction in early 2010.

In recent weeks, drone video shot by activists and a local Chinese-language daily newspaper indicated that the rail hub may be connected via a short access road to the barracks. That has fanned suspicions that the rail link, once completed, may serve a military purpose.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

Law, a special correspondent, reported from Hong Kong, and Times staff writer Makinen reported from Beijing.

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