One-way tickets only on the Hong Kong-China subway

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THE GOOD news for the people of Shenzhen, the raucous Chinese border town adjacent to Hong Kong, is that the go-ahead was given last week for the building of a mass transit subway to link the two territories.

The bad news is that practically no one in Shenzhen will get permission to ride to the Hong Kong side.

Almost a year after the handover to Chinese rule, Hong Kong has become even more strictly off-limits to the people of Shenzhen, despite the fact that the economic border between the two entities is crumbling fast.

"In terms of maintaining the immigration border, we don't want any changes," says Cai Yu, a division chief of Shenzhen's state planning bureau, "but in terms of the economic border, we will make it more open in the future."

The political division was clearly on display last week, when tens of thousands of protesters on the Hong Kong side of the border staged a rally to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989.

While the rally was under way in Hong Kong, a discreetly enhanced police presence was evident in Shenzhen to ensure that there would be no protests. But the only evidence of mass street activity in Shenzhen that night was in Jiabin Road, where swarms of unnaturally pasty-faced young women were out touting for business in the world's oldest profession.

"There has been no relaxation of the border - actually it's even more strict," says Zhou Xiaoming, deputy director general of Shenzhen's bureau of foreign investment. "I've heard some complaints about this, but the intention is to protect the Hong Kong government from interference by mainland Chinese."

Mr Zhou does not mention the other side of the coin, which is to protect Shenzhen from the "spiritual pollution" and political liberalism of Hong Kong. In fact, the spiritual pollution has already seeped over the border.

Those who can speak Cantonese - a minority, because most of Shenzhen's population is from the non-Cantonese speaking north - have their radios and televisions permanently tuned in to the lively Hong Kong stations where comment is free and news infinitely more interesting than the stodgy diet supplied by Central Television.

As for other vices - primarily sexual ones - it is arguable that the widespread prostitution, business corruption and crime is the sort of home-grown variety common to border towns everywhere.

Hong Kong is the source of two-thirds of foreign investment in Shenzhen, the biggest of China's special economic zones. Because of Hong Kong, this profoundly ugly but fast-growing city is probably the richest in China.

Ask a local official for statistics to prove the point and they come tumbling out. Look at the local people with mobile telephones clasped to their ears and fake designer clothes on their backs and it is clear that they could be inhabiting a different planet from their counterparts in the Chinese heartlands.

Over the past 18 years, Shenzhen's economy has grown each year by a breathtaking average of 33 per cent. The tallest building in Shenzhen in 1979 was four storeys high. Now a 68-storey office tower, called the "King of Prices Building", presides over a tightly packed mass of skyscrapers.

Kenneth Tse commutes from Hong Kong every day to run the Yantian container terminal, Shenzhen's biggest port. His port is testimony to the fact that Hong Kong management and ownership can create world-class facilities on Chinese soil. Asked whether there is resentment among local people about being under the thumb of Hong Kong bosses, he says: "I wouldn't be surprised if there was some feeling among people." However, he does not describe this as resentment: "We bring management expertise," he explains. "They look at this and say, 'Hey, they're bringing new ways of doing things and if we learn from one another we can work as a team.'"

The problem is that the Hong Kong people are on the "A" Team and everyone else is, at best, struggling to get into the "B" Team. "Hong Kong people are very proud," says a young female graduate from China's far north- east, whose company makes computer printers. "They look down on us."

In some cases, given widespread publicity in the Shenzhen media, Hong Kong bosses are something far worse than proud. In one particularly notorious case, a Hong Kong manager beat a migrant worker to death for alleged theft. Another six of his workers accused of the same crime were sent to hospital with severe injuries. Their assailant complained he was unlucky that one of his workers died: he regularly beat staff without suffering repercussions.

The authorities, anxious not to alienate investors, generally turn a blind eye to the way managers treat their staff. They also keep a distance from the rampant corruption in business circles which characterises the most routine of transactions.

Like many marriages of convenience, the relationship between Hong Kong and Shenzhen is not one of love. "Hong Kong serves as the shop or market," says Mr Cai. "Shenzhen serves as the production zone." It is all very businesslike. There are none of the warm, fuzzy feelings supposed to have been engendered by "the glorious reunification of the motherland".

While the underground railway supplements the existing overground train service between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, another massive undertaking will begin - a bridge over the stretch of sea separating the Chinese side from Hong Kong's Western New Territories. Neither of these infrastructure projects is likely, however, to bring the people of Shenzhen much closer to Hong Kong.