A Pro-Beijing protester (back centre) holds a Chinese flag during the anti-rail link rally outside the Legco complex in Hong Kong on June 14.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Hong Kong lawmakers passed a controversial new bill Thursday allowing mainland Chinese laws to apply in a section of a new train station, despite protests by citizens and lawmakers.

Although it is part of China, Hong Kong is governed under a separate legal framework granting the city political and legal freedoms not available on the mainland.

But a new $10.7 billion high-speed rail link between Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula, in the heart of the city, to the Chinese mainland cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou is set to test that legal independence.

A worker walks outside the West Kowloon station of the Express Rail Link train to Guangzhou in Hong Kong on March 23.

To avoid an additional border check for passengers passing between the two territories, the Hong Kong government has granted approval for plans to allow a joint immigration checkpoint, that will see mainland laws given jurisdiction inside Hong Kong territory for the first time.

The new law will see a part of the station, as well as compartments of the trains traveling to and from mainland China, come under the jurisdiction of Beijing, deemed as “an area lying outside Hong Kong but lying within the Mainland for certain purposes,” according to the legislation.

Slow encroachment

Since its return from British rule to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kong has remained semi-autonomous, under a model of “one country, two systems.”

The city’s separate legal framework, known as Basic Law allows a much freer political system than the rest of mainland China, allowing semi-democratic elections and free right to protest.

But concerns surrounding the Chinese government’s ability to operate with impunity in Hong Kong have increased in recent years, following the alleged forced abduction of a city bookseller.

Legal scholars argue the new ruling threatens to further undermine the city’s rule of law, with the Hong Kong Bar Association declaring the new bill “unconstitutional.”

“It’s the thin end of the wedge,” said Hong Kong legal commentator Antony Dapiran.

“(They have) effectively turned a piece of the station into a piece of mainland China.”

Issues around the new ruling spilled into the open Thursday night, as hundreds of people protested close to the Legislative Council building where the new bill was being debated, yelling slogans and giving speeches.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council approved the bill late on Thursday night in a chaotic sitting, which the territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said would lay down “a solid legal basis” for the new express rail link to mainland China.

Addressing the legislature, leader of the city’s pro-democracy Civic Party Alvin Yeung said a precedent had been set, allowing the Hong Kong government to cede any part of the city’s land to Beijing

Pro democracy lawmakers react after the Hong Kong Legislative council passed the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (Co-location) Bill on June 14.

A Civic Party statement said the new laws were against the city’s mini-constitution and could result in a loss of human rights.

“The implementation of Mainland laws in the (station) means that there will not be protection from any of the two human rights conventions,” their statement on Thursday said.

In an article on the legislation’s passage, Chinese state media Xinhua didn’t mention any of the controversy, only noting the Secretary for Transport Chan Fan said it was the “only way to suit passengers’ convenience.”

The new train service is due to begin running in September 2018.