HONG KONG — It was quite a bash for a Monday night. More than 170 people, many of them members of Hong Kong’s political elite, gathered at a tapas restaurant to celebrate the birthday of a local delegate to China’s rubber-stamp legislature.
The celebrations lasted six hours. The red wine flowed and the karaoke was a hit. Purple face masks were given to guests, but they weren’t always worn.
This laxity may have been acceptable in Hong Kong until recently, which has largely kept the coronavirus away with strict border controls. Even as politicians partied, Omicron was still stalking the community. It was days later that it was discovered that at most one Covid-infected person was at the party. The city was now ready for a new round. Bars and gyms were closed, restaurants were banned at night, and flights from eight other countries were halted.
The backlash to the news of the party — accompanied by photos of unmasked politicians singing and chatting — was immediate. Social media exploded with complaints about the hypocrisy displayed by officials who had publicly spoken out about the need to combat the virus.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said she was disappointed in the officials who attended, even as she dismissed talk that the scandal would torpedo her chances for a second term. All 170 guests and close friends were sent to a quarantine facility by the government. However, some were released after a false positive was confirmed.
“A large proportion of the public think senior government officials are asking them to go through a rigorous regime of being careful and so forth, whereas those same senior officials themselves do not seem to be observing rules,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Around the world, little has done more to anger the masses enduring Covid restrictions than signs that the elite live by different standards — from reports of a Christmas party held by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s staff in Britain to the vaccine exemption the tennis star Novak Djokovic initially received for this year’s Australian Open.
But Hong Kong’s scandal landed in a city enduring not just Covid shutdowns, but a growing political clampdown as well. The party’s criticism has been met with anger at the establishment that has repressed dissent.
“People who feel badly done by for political reasons are the most likely on the one hand to say this is karma and on the other hand to say it is utter hypocrisy,” said John P. Burns, an emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong. “This further divides the authorities from at least that group of people and undermines trust in the government.”
At least 19 people at the party were members of Hong Kong’s Legislature, elected last month under a new system of rules meant to ensure that only “patriots” serve, and to largely exclude members of the political opposition. The party’s host, Witman Hung, the delegate to China’s Legislature, was photographed belting out a song with his arm around Ellen Tsang, a member of the committee that chooses the chief executive and fills many legislative seats.
Thirteen senior officials were also there, including Hong Kong’s police chief, Raymond Siu; Caspar Tsui, the home affairs secretary; and Au Ka-wang, the immigration director. It was Mr. Au’s second Covid scandal; last year, he was fined for attending a dinner where more than four people were present.
In recent days, Mr. Au and other officials have issued a slew of apologies over the past few days, often using the same self-flagellating language.
“Regarding the additional burden to the epidemic prevention work and the disturbance to the public as a result of my personal behavior, I offer my sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” Mr. Au said. “I have reflected on this incident and shall be more vigilant in future.”
Mrs. Lam said the officials would be put on leave and required to use their own vacation days for the time spent in quarantine at Penny’s Bay, the government-run isolation center.
One partygoer who did not apologize was Junius Ho, a firebrand pro-Beijing lawmaker who denounced the government’s handling of his brief quarantine. He criticized Mrs. Lam, and others, and pounded his fist on a table in a live stream. his phone went flying.
“The government is completely out of order, completely dysfunctional,” he wrote on Facebook. He said if he’d known that health workers were merely going to drop him off at a subway station after his release, not take him home, he would have called his own driver.
The party may have damaged the local government’s credibility not just in Hong Kong, but in Beijing, where China’s leaders have enforced a tough zero-Covid policy and regularly punished officials for failures to uphold it.
While the Chinese authorities have not commented on the scandal, some political observers say it could hurt Mrs. Lam’s chances of being allowed a second term in office. She has ordered an investigation into her party, but so far no officials have been disciplined for attending it.
Just weeks ago, Mrs. Lam criticized the senior management of Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, after a flight crew member who had returned from the United States ignored quarantine requirements to eat at a restaurant with his family. His father and at most one other person in the restaurant were also infected with the Omicron variant. This is the first Omicron infection in Hong Kong. The city had reported 240 Omicron cases as of Sunday.
After the news of the party broke, Mrs. Lam said that while she was responsible for her government’s pandemic response, she was not responsible for her subordinates’ individual actions. She has been accused of not holding herself to the same standards she holds Cathay executives and others in Hong Kong.
“We live in an environment where we lack accountable government,” Mr. Burns said. “The Communist Party tells us repeatedly the chief executive is accountable to the center” — that is, the central government — “and that is true. But she is also locally accountable, and this part of the relationship to the Hong Kong people has been abandoned for several years.”
Source: NY Times