Despite legislative filibustering and public protests, a proposal to build a high-speed railway linking Hong Kong to Guangzhou and Shenzhen was accepted by the Hong Kong legislature on Saturday night. Thousands of demonstrators blocked the exits of the Legislative Council building and nearby streets in protest, preventing lawmakers from leaving the building for hours, before making their way to the Government House.
The project was originally proposed in 2008 but received little attention at the time. Since then, residents have become very aware that the proposed railway may end up being the world’s most expensive such project per kilometer, with the island footing the US$8.6 billion bill. Observers have noted that the proposed site of the hub in West Kowloon will cause heavy traffic congestion. Furthermore, 150 families in the village of Tsoi Yuen will be forced to relocate to make way for the line.
A stern reaction from the mainland’s State Council does not bode well for the SAR and its struggle towards democracy. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong on January 1 were interpreted as an encouraging sign by the political opposition. On that day, 9,000 residents took to the streets, marching to the Chinese government liaison’s office to demand full democracy for Hong Kong. However, the State Council has thrown down the gauntlet this time, proclaiming that any mass resignations from the Hong Kong legislature in protest of current government policies would be a challenge to Beijing’s authority and would only cause more conflict. “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is a regional administrative unit of the People’s Republic of China, and has no powers to invent a ‘referendum’ system…There is no constitutional basis for any so-called ‘referendum,’ nor would it have any legal effect,” said a State Council statement.
Residents due to be displaced by the proposed railway would also like to draw a line in the sand. “From the very beginning, I have never thought about accepting the compensation because it’s impossible to find a living environment as good as this one … and money can’t buy the friendship we have with our neighbors,” said resident Au Yeung.
However, the new line will be just one of many such high-speed railways already in operation across the mainland. Once the Hong Kong line is linked to the established 16,000-kilometer network, the trip to Shanghai from Hong will be reduced from 20 hours to eight. The trip to Beijing will only be 10 hours instead of 24. Thus, the new line will provide a viable, inexpensive alternative to air travel, something we can all look forward to (except the residents of Tsoi Yuen). Let’s hope that such progress doesn’t come at the price of Hong Kong’s limited democracy.