All Aboard for New Link Between China and Hong Kong

Direct rail service connects communist giant with its soon-to-be economic heart

Train 97, the newest and fastest rail caravan to pull out of the Chinese capital, could just as easily be called the "Greater China Express."

The 12-car train plies the first direct rail line between Beijing, the political heart of Communist-run China, and Hong Kong, the capitalist enclave that will soon become the mainland's economic nerve center.

The new railway, opened on the eve of Beijing's takeover of the British colony, is just part of an emerging network of economic and cultural links binding the mainland with Hong Kong and Taiwan (which Beijing considers a renegade province).

Increased contacts among the three areas - all part of the Chinese empire until the Qing dynasty began to decline 150 years ago - are creating a "Greater China" economic sphere and transforming each partner in the process.

"I wanted to be one of the first Chinese to ride this train into Hong Kong to help celebrate the July 1 handover," said Lu Jian, a passenger whose Chinese shipping firm is already established in Hong Kong.

Vast swaths of China's southern coast have been transformed into a huge joint venture between Hong Kong and China.

Hong Kong's financial might and management know-how, combined with mainland China's cheap labor and land, have produced remarkable economic growth for each side.

"The return of Hong Kong represents not only a reversal of China's break-up during the last century, but also a sign of its growing prosperity and standing on the world stage," Ms. Lu, a shipping executive added.

The trend toward economic integration, which has accompanied China's moves to replace its Soviet-style system with a free market, is also creating a new class of nouveau riche here.

Train 97 itself reflects the changes that have swept over China since the death in 1976 of Chairman Mao Zedong and the overturning of his goal of creating a classless social system.

A special "luxury-class carriage" stands at the apex of the train's social hierarchy. With its spacious compartments, wood paneling, and cut-glass shower doors, the car provides standards previously available only to China's Communist Party elite. A one-way ticket in this class costs about 1200 yuan ($150), or more than half of the average farmer's annual income.

Two first-class carriages accommodate China's new bourgeoisie with four-bed compartments featuring lace curtains, a small glass table, and the privilege of lowering or even turning off the ubiquitous broadcasting of news and state propaganda.

Only top train officials carry the keys to the ever-locked door that stands between these upper class cars and the eight "hard-sleeper," or proletarian, cabins.

Passengers here are stacked in three-tiered bunk-beds and forced to navigate through narrow, crammed passageways. Most have been banished to this section of the train due to poverty or the lack of a passport and entry permit to Hong Kong, and can travel only as far as the mainland's border.

Back in the air-conditioned spaciousness of first class, Lu discussed potential deals with two Chinese Customs officials. The three discuss everything from hot stocks on the markets in Hong Kong to moving cargo cheaply out of the mainland.

As they talk, the images that flicker past the window behind them seem like a documentary on China's widening gaps between the city and the village, the rich and the poor.

Large and mid-sized cities stand out like oases of prosperity amid wide stretches of countryside where farmers still till the soil by hand or with oxen.

In the train's elegant dining car, a white-haired resident of Taiwan said he had returned to the mainland more than 40 years after fleeing. The man, who called himself Old Li, said he was seeking investment opportunities and had been scouring the mainland by rail.

Most of the passengers around him were part of a Hong Kong tour group traveling through China for pleasure rather than profit.

"Most members of the group are returning to China to retrace their own past or the history of Chinese civilization," said Tang Hunghoi, their guide.

"I have always wanted to see the Great Wall, Beijing and [the ancient Chinese capital of] Xian," said a retired Royal Hong Kong Police officer. While he served the government,he was barred by law from visiting the mainland. Retirement "finally freed me to visit the homeland of my ancestors," he added.

While the handover of Hong Kong will remove some political barriers between the enclave and the mainland, many more will remain. Border posts and patrols will continue indefinitely, with all but the most privileged of China's 1.3 billion citizens blocked from entering Hong Kong.

As Train 97 pulls into the last Chinese checkpoint of Changping, passengers on the hard-sleeper cars are left behind. The train is part of Beijing's plan to lower economic and cultural fences around the different areas of "Greater China."

But there are myriad signs that Beijing aims to maintain a political fire wall around the mainland to prevent the infiltration of democratic ideas. As passengers end their 29-hour, cross-China journey in Hong Kong, they are greeted by a huge black banner reading: "We will never forget the martyrs for democracy who died at Tiananmen Square in 1989."

"Beijing may be catching up to Hong Kong economically," says a resident of the Chinese capital on seeing the sign. "But it will be decades before that message can be posted in China."

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