It’s not every day you get what might be called a ‘private government ceremony’, but that’s what happened at the One Country Two Systems Sacrificial Midnight Mass deep in the bowels of the West Kowloon Express Rail Station. It was essentially a handover of territory from Hong Kong to the Mainland – an arrangement that would be unconstitutional if the documents that outline the constitution meant anything, but they don’t so there’s no point in worrying about it, and obviously the press aren’t going to be invited.
The government has issued a booklet on what the ‘co-location’ arrangement means in practice for the public. There are some apparent nods to pragmatism. For example, the Hong Kong emergency services will come into the Mainland part of the station and put out a fire. But these highlight the powers that Hong Kong has conceded. If you slip on the floor, you can sue through local common-law process – but break the Mainland criminal law, and you deal with the Mainland cops.
To make sure of that, a large number of Mainland police, customs, immigration and other staff will work at the station: 800, in two shifts a day (the station is closed at night), mostly commuting in and out (so at least someone will be using the trains). The exciting human-interest story is that Hong Kong’s MTR will organize lunch boxes for them all in a HK$100 million-a-year deal.
Many Hongkongers look at the high-speed rail link and see little use for it other than a possible one-off jaunt to Wuhan out of curiosity. Its main mission is simply to prove physically that Hong Kong is a part of China, and its secondary purpose is to divert your tax dollars into the construction industry’s pockets. But to the extent it will serve as a transport system, it will be an efficient funnel through which Mainland tourists can be vacuumed up and disgorged into Tsimshatsui and the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone Project. (Or not efficient, from a baggage point of view.)
The actual train services start in a few weeks under the appropriately zippy and imaginative tag ‘Vibrant Express’ (‘Vibrant’ because ‘You Never Wanted It And It’s Not For You Anyway’ wouldn’t fit). Stay tuned for teething problems, which are obviously normal for any newly opened major visionary engineering blah-blah – but will prompt righteous anger among radicals and right-thinking disfranchised taxpayers, and thus trigger highly entertaining, anguished insistence that Everything Is Wonderful from hyper-sensitive besieged officials.
The next mega-white elephant to look forward to will be the Zhuhai bridge, of ‘sliding dolos’ fame. Unlike the underground space-age high-speed rail tunnel, the bridge will largely be exposed to plain sight. It will be hard to ignore the three, mostly empty, lanes in each direction, the Mainland-style highway signs with amateurish typeface, simplified characters and no English, and the hundreds of bored immigration and other staff in the cavernous border-crossing hall with nothing to do. I can reveal that earlier reports are true, and it is unlikely to open in August as planned.