[SCMP Column] Co-location Conundrum

August 14, 2017

As I have spectated on the interminable arm-wrestling between supporters and opponents of co-location arrangements for immigration and customs checks on the high speed trains to the Mainland, I am reminded of those long university nights spent decades ago wrestling with the “ontological argument”.

For those of you lucky enough to avoid this torture, the ontological argument has over the centuries been waged in efforts to prove the existence of god. It was apparently first engaged by Anselm of Canterbury in 1078 in his book “Proslogion”. Christian and Islamic philosophers of all colours have since then fought the same fight. Descartes developed many versions of the argument during the 1600s.

Anselm argued that God was “that than which nothing greater can be thought”. He argued that if the idea of God exists in the mind, then God must exist in reality. In short, he started with an “a priori” theory based on no evidence or fact, and then used the theory to prove what he wanted to prove.

My experience wrestling through the ontological argument was deeply frustrating and demoralizing. For me, the main finding was that people who want to believe something hard enough will one way or another find a rationale for justifying the belief, and that once they have alighted on the “proof”, no evidence in any form would ever shift them.

It all morphs through to the prevailing social media-fuelled power today of anecdotal information and “Ah but…” philosophy: the reality that people read not to be informed, but to gather anecdotes that support their prejudices. Information that contradicts the prejudice is ignored. When an argument threatening this prejudice is engaged, all you need is your trusty anecdote. In the face of people arguing a different view, you can confidently engage: “Ah, but….. (insert anecdote)”. Your prejudice remains safely intact. All evidence to contradict you can be safely brushed aside.

From this to the interminable dispute over colocation of immigration and customs processes at our new high speed rail station in West Kowloon? Simple. There is a small but faith-based community in Hong Kong who believe fervently and without any possibility of contradiction that China’s communist government and all of its functionaries are viscerally opposed to the freedoms of action and expression prevailing in Hong Kong. If these functionaries are allowed any toe-hold of physical presence inside Hong Kong, they will use that presence to subvert our freedoms, persecute our freedom-loving citizens, perhaps even covertly whisk overly-robust critics across into the Mainland to be incarcerated, prosecuted, or worse.

Whatever the weight of evidence that this will not happen – that Mainland immigration officials will instead go about their daily business checking visas and chopping passports – the faith-based conviction of our anti-Mainland sceptics over Beijing’s perfidious intent remains impregnable.

The fact that similar co-location arrangements work fine elsewhere – US immigration officials co-locate in Vancouver processing passengers travelling into the US; British immigration officials work in France processing travelers into the UK from the European continent – counts for nothing. The fact that we already have co-location arrangements on Hong Kong’s western land crossing into Shenzhen provides no confidence that our border security people can work effectively together. The fact that thousands of Mainland troops have for two decades been based in Tamar, Stanley, and other locations inside Hong Kong without bursting out onto the Hong Kong streets and harassing us similarly counts for nothing. The fact that they have done nothing for two decades does not mean we can sleep safe in our beds tomorrow.

I remember similar faith-based opposition to the construction of the Daya Bay nuclear power plant more than three decades ago. Those opposed to the plant then remain as fervently opposed today. The fact of safe operation for so many years provides no comfort, nor any confidence that a catastrophe awaits. As economist Tim Harford noted recently: “Passionate advocates simply don’t recognize objectivity when they see it. They will see what they want to see.”

Carrie Lam argued while in Beijing last week that “We are confident that in the next two to three months, Hong Kong citizens will welcome the joint immigration and customs facilities at the high-speed railway after thorough explanation.” She is right to press forward. But she is wrong to believe that the sceptics and disbelievers will have their minds changed by “thorough explanation”.

The uncomfortable political reality is that our ontologically-inspired minority will hold firm to their disbelief no matter what weight of evidence is thoroughly explained. As the Nobel Prize-winning psychological economist Daniel Kahneman noted: “We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”

What then to do? Instead of wasting time trying to convert the unconvertible, Carrie Lam and those responsible for completing the project must check and double-check the net benefits that arise for Hong Kong and the majority of its people from co-location, in contrast to alternative arrangements. We need the benefits measured and well advocated. With over 100,000 people expected to want to use the high-speed train every day once it begins operation in the third quarter of next year, we need a clear explanation of the hassle avoided and time saved by co-location. The simple practical disadvantages of the alternatives need to be explained, repeated and repeated again.

Of course, I come to this ontological argument with biases of my own. The sooner we build smoother linkages across the Pearl River Delta – or the Big Bay Area was we are now supposed to call it – the better. The sooner we begin to capitalize fully on our pivotal role as a key driver for international expansion by companies and communities that already make up China’s most economically dynamic region, the sooner we will see economic growth lift, and millions of new jobs created, in particular for our young.

Plugging as fluently as possible into China’s massive high-speed rail network is critically important in capturing this potential, and co-location will be indispensable for this. Carrie Lam must serve the interests of Hong Kong and its people by pressing ahead. At the same time, she should never ignore the nightmares that haunt the China sceptics, but should be vigilant and remember that there are other, better ways of ensuring those nightmares never become reality.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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