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Simon Chen's detention by Chinese officials sheds spotlight on disputed train station



Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen who works for the British Consulate, has not been heard since August 8, when he told his girlfriend that he had boarded a high-speed train to return from the Chinese city of Shenzhen to Hong Kong, " Pray for me, "he texted her as he approached Chinese immigration, according to screens seen by CNN.

Friends fear his detention may be linked to recent democratic protests, noting that Cheng has shared pro-democracy images on social media and expressed support for the ongoing protest movement in the city. His detention comes amid reports that Chinese immigration officials regularly search the phones and bags of passengers as they cross the border for evidence that they have taken part in protests.

Cheng's detention is even more symbolic of where it might have taken place: Not at the location of Lok Ma Chow and Lo Wu Primary Border Crossing Points, from the Chinese city of Shenzhen, but in the heart of Hong Kong.

The high-speed train between Shenzhen and Hong Kong crosses only one immigration checkpoint: West Kowloon Station shared by China and Hong Kong at the tip of the Northern Peninsula. In a demonstration before the British Consulate on Wednesday, protesters said Cheng's apparent arrest was probably one of many and linked his detention to years of fears about the station's immigration regime.

Last year, a widely criticized deal between Chinese and Hong Kong authorities placed part of a West Kowloon station under Chinese law that allowed Chinese immigration officials and police to work there. For the first time, such measures were allowed in Hong Kong.

While Cheng could be detained at any border checkpoint, the arrest in West Kowloon would be particularly worrying for Hong Kong people who already fear the station will be used by China to expand its control of the city. Reacting to Cheng's arrest, Gary Fan, a pro-democracy MP who voted against the plan, said "this case proves my nightmare has come true."

The "Thin End of the Wedge"

The fan won't be the only person in Hong Kong who fears Chen's case confirms their suspicions of the shared station. The decision to effectively transfer a portion of Hong Kong to China to allow Chinese officials to operate at West Kowloon Station was criticized by critics from the city's deputies and Democrats before it came into force late last year.

The government has defended the agreement needed for the smooth operation of a $ 10.7 billion station that connects Hong Kong to China's vast high-speed rail network. Authorities said that conducting immigration checks in Hong Kong – the starting or ending point for all train trips – streamlines the process and avoids further checks and delays at the Chinese border.

Hong Kong is governed by a policy known as "one country, two systems" that guarantees freedoms not accessible to those in the mainland, such as the right to protest, the right to free press and freedom of expression.

Beijing critics worry that the move sets a dangerous precedent for allowing Chinese legislation to operate in Hong Kong and will make it easier for officials to detain Beijing critics and carry them across the border.

The case of several Hong Kong bookstores, two of which were allegedly abducted by Chinese agents from Hong Kong and Thailand, respectively, hung big over the project.
"This is the thin end of the wedge," Hong Kong legal commentator Antony Dapiran told CNN last year. "(They) have effectively turned a piece of the station into a piece in mainland China."
Numerous protests were organized against the plan, and Democrats tried unsuccessfully to block it in the city's parliament. The Hong Kong Bar Association warned the plan was "unconstitutional" and strongly criticized a decision by the Chinese parliament – which is the supreme court of constitutional review in the city – to approve it, saying the move "severely" undermined confidence in the rule of law.
  The flags of Hong Kong (left) and China are visible bent outside the West Kowloon Railway Station for high-speed trains to Guangzhou, as sales desks were first opened to Hong Kong audiences on September 10, 2018.

Then came the latest protests triggered by an already torn-up extradition law with China, which some feared could use criticism of Beijing across the border to face punishment under a legal system known for violations of human rights and almost 100% conviction.

Opposition to the bill is rooted in the same fear as earlier opposition to a joint agreement at the station's checkpoint – that Beijing's control is slowly expanding and increasing the exposure of Hong Kong to a system with a long record of human rights abuse . [19659021] As protests swept through the summer of discontent, Chinese authorities across the border began to gather police and military presence to prevent any widespread unrest. The build-up of paramilitary forces across the Shenzhen border was widely publicized in Chinese state-owned media, and officials began to tighten checks on passengers coming in and out of Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong man who recently crossed from China at the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint said CNN border police appear to be "randomly selecting" people to be subjected to additional searches. He said he was asked if he was a member of any protest groups and that police were searching his phone, looking at photos and other applications.

"I put my photo app on the last page of my phone, so it took him a while to find it. Then he continues to scroll through all my photos," the man said. "I had very little visibility into what the policeman was doing with my phone. He stood facing me and kept my phone vertically facing me. All I could (see) was his gesture."

Unlike Cheng, he was released after about five minutes.

The detention of any Hong Kong citizen as a result of the protests would provoke outrage from the opposition movement – just backed up by the huge turnout of last weekend for a peaceful march. And the detention of Hong Kong in the city itself, according to a plan that many have warned will allow Chinese officials to continue pursuing adversaries in the city, could open a whole new front in nearly three-month anti-government protests.

Rebecca Wright and Julia Hollingsworth of CNN contributed to the reporting.


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