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Hong Kongers protest high-speed rail link to China

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HONG KONG (AP) — With Hong Kong’s leader selected by pro-China figures and its legislature likewise dominated by allies, Beijing is used to key government proposals sailing through in the semiautonomous financial hub.

But a $55 billion Hong Kong dollar ($7.1 billion) project to link Hong Kong to a national high-speed rail network has run into a growing protest movement analysts say stems from the lack of democracy in this wealthy former British colony of 7 million people.

Hundreds protested in a public square next to Hong Kong’s legislature last week as lawmakers debated the proposed rail link to the southern Chinese city Guangzhou. Several hundred camped out in the square again on Friday.

Demonstrators object to the project because it would force many residents to relocate and could cause major traffic congestion and other environmental problems. They also question the economic benefits touted by the government and say the approval process has been clouded by conflicts of interest of some lawmakers linked to industries and companies that could profit from the project.

But just as important, opponents say Hong Kong’s government is ramming through a hugely expensive project without consulting the public in detail, showing the need for political reforms.

Besides the actual railroad, the government plans to spend another HK$11.8 billion ($1.5 billion) on supporting roads and infrastructure, bringing the total tab to HK$66.8 billion ($8.6 billion).

“We are being offered an apple without realizing it’s poisonous — until we bite it. We are not ready, so we should not make such an expensive bet,” said Mirana Szeto, a spokeswoman for the protesters.

Hong Kong officials, however, say most of the public supports a project that they say will offer a big economic boost to the territory by cutting train travel time to key mainland cities.

Polls suggest the territory is torn. While 50 percent of locals back the project as it stands, 44 percent either oppose it outright or want it delayed to allow for more scrutiny and debate, according to a University of Hong Kong phone survey. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

What started out as a protest by suburban villagers who were forced to relocate has now grown into a broader coalition also involving pro-democracy activists, university students and conservationists.

Freelance layout designer Vicky Lo launched a hunger strike outside the legislature with five others Tuesday. The 23-year-old says the cost of the project, about HK$10,000 ($1,300) per citizen, means it should face extra scrutiny.

“Does this infrastructure project help us?” she asked.

Political analysts say the root of the discontent is Hong Kong’s political system.

While the territory enjoys Western-style civil liberties as part of its semiautonomous status under Chinese rule, its leader is chosen by an exclusive committee stacked with Beijing’s loyalists. The 60-member legislature is half-elected, half chosen by interest groups that tend to side with the Chinese government — an electoral design that allows pro-China politicians to dominate the body and guarantee approval of key government proposals like the high-speed rail project.

“The government has this bureaucratic habit of expecting things to pass easily,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But this time the public is putting up a fight.

“Having the high-speed rail line approved by such an unjust legislature is something we can’t accept,” Lo, the layout designer, said.

Once the railroad is completed, Shanghai will be an eight-hour journey and Beijing 10 hours, offering the many Hong Kongers working on the mainland a cheaper and efficient alternative to air travel.

Hong Kong’s No. 2 official said Friday there’s been enough public discussion on the project.

“We believe there is a consensus on the importance of building the high-speed rail link,” Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang told reporters. “Members of the public have had the chance to conduct an in-depth, passionate discussion, especially in the past few months.