HONG KONG — A proposal to lease part of a new Hong Kong rail terminal to mainland China and to allow Chinese officers to enforce mainland law there has raised concerns the plan would undermine this city’s legal autonomy.
Hong Kong officials have said that the terminal, which is scheduled to open late next year in the city’s West Kowloon district, needs mainland customs and immigration officers in addition to Hong Kong officers in order to maximize efficiency for travelers. The 85-mile express rail line will connect Hong Kong with the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou in the neighboring mainland province of Guangdong.
When Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese control 20 years ago, it was promised a high degree of autonomy, including the ability to keep its own legal, political and economic systems. Hong Kong maintains its own borders, and travelers between Hong Kong and mainland China pass through immigration controls similar to those between nations.
Under the Hong Kong proposal announced on Tuesday, customs, immigration and quarantine officers from Guangdong Province would have enforcement powers in about one-quarter of the station’s five-story terminal.
“It speaks of a greater presence of Chinese officials, of Chinese law, of Chinese values in the heart of Hong Kong,” Simon N. M. Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said in an interview.
“It’s worrisome,” he added.
Pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong say the stationing of mainland Chinese officers in the city could undermine the “one country, two systems” model that allows Hong Kong to maintain the way of life residents had before the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, including civil liberties unknown on the mainland.
Many Hong Kong residents have said they are concerned about threats to rule of law and free expression. The dramatic disappearances two years ago of Hong Kong booksellers who sold gossipy potboilers about China’s political elite heightened those worries.
Five men were taken into custody in mainland China, including one who was taken from Thailand and another who disappeared off the streets of Hong Kong. The men gave televised confessions that one said had been forced.
In January, a well-connected Chinese billionaire was taken from a hotel in Hong Kong and ended up in custody on the mainland, which was seen here as another case of mainland law enforcement trampling over legal protections in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong officials say the rail terminal plan, which is called “one place, two checks,” will enhance the efficiency of the high-speed rail system and eliminate the need for passengers to go through separate immigration protocols on both sides of the border.
Train trips between Hong Kong and Guangzhou will take about 48 minutes, from about two hours now, the government says. The project, which will cost Hong Kong more than $10 billion, was first proposed in 2000.
A similar immigration system was put in place 10 years ago in Shenzhen, where Hong Kong officers have jurisdiction at a control point on land that is part of Guangdong Province. But that move had none of the controversy of mainland officers working on Hong Kong soil.
Hong Kong officials say the scope of mainland officers’ powers will be limited, and will not undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“There is no question of that sort of concern and worry that we are compromising on the rule of law, on one-country, two systems, in order to get the convenience of the high-speed rail,” Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, the city’s top official, told reporters on Tuesday.
But her assertion did little to quell public doubts.
“Why do we need this? Hong Kong is already connected to the mainland by land, air and sea,” said Claudia Mo, a Hong Kong lawmaker. “The Chinese Communists, they know Hong Kongers are not feeling very Chinese these days, and they want to further consolidate the sentiment that Hong Kong is China.”
Ms. Mo, a member of the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council, said there was little hope of blocking or forcing a modification of the proposal after four of her legislative allies were unseated this month. While the passage of the rail terminal plan is expected to be controversial, the government now has the legislative power to make it happen, she said.
“We’ve lost our veto power,” she said.