Fear and fanfare as Hong Kong launches China rail link

A passenger takes a selfie next to the first train of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Linkas after it arrived in Shenzhen on September 23, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 23 September 2018
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Fear and fanfare as Hong Kong launches China rail link

  • Critics say the railway is a symbol of continuing Chinese assimilation of Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees of widespread autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent legal system

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s controversial bullet train got off to a smooth start on Sunday, as hundreds of passengers whistled north across the border at speeds of up to 200 kph (125 mph), deepening integration of the former British colony with mainland China.
While the $11 billion rail project has raised fears for some over Beijing’s encroachment on the Chinese-ruled city’s cherished freedoms, passengers at the sleek harborfront station were full of praise for a service that reaches mainland China in less than 20 minutes.
“Out of 10 points, I give it nine,” said 10-year-old Ng Kwan-lap, who was traveling with his parents on the first train leaving for Shenzhen at 7 a.m.
“The train is great. It’s very smooth when it hits speeds of 200 kilometers per hour.”
Mainland Chinese immigration officers are stationed in one part of the modernist station that is subject to Chinese law, an unprecedented move that some critics say further erodes the city’s autonomy.
The project is part of a broader effort by Beijing to fuse the city into a vast hinterland of the Pearl River Delta including nine Chinese cities dubbed the Greater Bay Area.
Beijing wants the Greater Bay Area, home to some 68 million people with a combined GDP of $1.5 trillion, to foster economic integration and better meld people, goods and sectors across the region.
Critics say the railway is a symbol of continuing Chinese assimilation of Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees of widespread autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent legal system.
But at a ceremony on Saturday ahead of the public opening, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam praised the so-called “co-location” arrangement with Beijing which the government has said is necessary to streamline immigration.
Scores of excited passengers straddled a yellow strip across black tiles that highlighted the demarcation line between Hong Kong and mainland China, while others passed through turnstiles surrounded by red, orange and white balloons.
“I’m excited to experience the high-speed train, even more excited than when I take a plane,” said a 71-year-old retiree surnamed Leung.
While there have been questions over whether Hong Kong residents would be able to access foreign social media, largely banned in mainland China, in zones subject to Chinese law, some passengers arriving in Shenzhen, on the mainland side, were able to bypass China’s so-called Great Firewall.
The rail link provides direct access to China’s massive 25,000-km national high-speed rail network and authorities on both sides have hailed it as a breakthrough that will bring economic benefits, including increased tourism.
“No matter what you think about the new line, high-speed rail is extremely convenient,” said Feng Yan, assistant professor at the Communication University of China in Beijing who took the bullet train from Shenzhen to Hong Kong.
“Even if it takes some time for people to realize how convenient it is, sooner or later they will.”


Migrants keep crossing Strait of Gibraltar despite bad weather

Updated 2 min 23 sec ago
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Migrants keep crossing Strait of Gibraltar despite bad weather

TARIFA, Spain: A radio message comes in from a Spanish maritime rescue boat to the service’s command center in the southern town of Tarifa: “34 migrants rescued.”
The onset of autumn, with the cold, storms and fog, has not stopped migrants from crossing the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain, a journey that has this year claimed the lives of hundreds of youths.
From the heights of Tarifa, veteran sailors work in shifts behind radar screens at the rescue service command center monitoring the Strait of Gibraltar, through which 100,000 ships transit every year.
“When the weather is good we can see homes in North Africa from here,” said its head, Adolfo Serrano.
Just 14 kilometers (nine miles) separates northern Morocco from Spain’s southern Andalusia region at the Strait’s narrowest point.
“But with a quickly changing sea, strong currents, fogs that can surprise you, it’s a dangerous crossing,” added Serrano.
It is especially perilous because human traffickers put migrants on packed inflatable boats or plastic canoes that can easily overturn, he said.


“I can’t remember an autumn like this. Boats keep arriving with pregnant women, children,” said Jose Antonio Parra, a mechanic of 25 years experience with the Guardia Civil police force’s maritime unit.
The 34 migrants rescued from an inflatable boat — including six females who appeared to be in their teens — were taken to the port of Algeciras, where they were first attended to by the Red Cross before being handed to police.
Small migrant boats are hard to detect by radar. They are often only located when the migrants themselves sound the alarm by telephone.
Rescuers did not detect the boat which sunk on November 5 during a storm off the coast of the town of Barbate, an hour’s drive west of Algeciras, killing 23 young Moroccans.
Only 21 people on board survived.
“There was a hell of a storm. Many of them did not know how to swim,” said spokesman for the Guardia Civil in Cadiz province, Manuel Gonzalez.
Andalusia’s regional government took charge of nine minors who survived, while police jailed two passengers suspected of having steered the boat.
The other 10 adults who were on board were ordered back to Morocco under an agreement between Madrid and Rabat.


Since then, more bodies have washed ashore on other beaches.
Nine sub-Saharan African migrants drowned after spending a week adrift at sea, according to the only survivor of the ordeal, a Guinean teenager who saw his brother die, said Gonzalez.
The migrants had paid 700 euros ($800 dollars) each for what they had been told would be a trip on board a rigid-hulled inflatable boat with an engine but were instead forced to take a “toy-style boat” with just one oar, he added.
Between January and December 2, 687 migrants died trying to enter Spain by sea, more than three times as many as last year, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures.
More migrants have died trying to reach Italy and Malta this year — nearly 1,300 — but Spain has become the main entry point for migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. More than 55,000 migrants have arrived in the country so far this year.


Rescuers describe two types of migrants: Sub-Saharan African migrants, who sing when rescuers arrive to pluck them from the sea, and Moroccans who try at all costs to reach the shore without being detected because they face deportation back to Morocco if caught.
“Our boat rocked, there was so much joy,” Abou Bacari, an 18-year-old who left Ivory Coast two years ago after he lost his job at a banana plantation, told AFP in Madrid, as he recalled his rescue at sea off the Spanish coast in October.
There were 70 people on board the inflatable boat, including four children and eight women, when it departed Tangiers for Spain, he said.
“Guineans, Malians, Ivorians... we were lost at sea for two days,” Bacari said, adding “even the men cried” when the boat developed a puncture.
On some days — such as last weekend — as many as over 500 migrants can be brought to shore by Spain’s maritime rescuers.
“I had never before seen a boat just with 45 migrants aged around 14-15 on board. Even the one who steered it, who supposedly worked for the traffickers, was a minor,” said Parra.


It’s now 30 years since the first photo of the body of a drowned migrant on a beach in Andalusia was published.
Today rows of tombstones at Tarifa’s cemetery mark where unnamed migrants are buried.
“Sometimes we find migrants with their names tattooed on their arms in case they die. We are seeing a normalization of death and that is unacceptable,” said Jose Villajos, the head of an association that helps migrants founded in Algeciras in 1991.
He accused the European Union of “using North African countries to stop migration and act a bit like Europe’s police but this policy leads to even more deaths.”
“When agreements are being ironed out with African countries like Morocco, curiously, the number of migrant boats increase greatly because it is a way to put pressure on Europe,” he claimed.
Maria Jesus Herrera, the head of the IOM mission in Spain, said that while it was important to increase cooperation with the migrants’ country of origin to help boost their living standards, Europe must at the same time “open regular channels of emigration, which are safe and dignified.”