Hong Kong’s Official Party Galls, Chafing Under Covid (and Political) Controls.
For a Monday night, it was quite a party. More than 170 people gathered at a tapas restaurant to celebrate the birthday of a local delegate to China’s rubber-stamp legislature, many of whom were members of Hong Kong’s political elite.
The celebrations lasted six hours. The red wine was flowing, and the karaoke was blaring. Purple face masks were provided to guests, however, they were not usually worn.
Until recently, such complacency could have been justified in Hong Kong, a city where strict border controls have mainly kept the coronavirus at bay. However, even while the politicians partied, the Omicron version stalked the neighbourhood. When it was revealed days later that at least one Covid-infected person had attended the party, the city was braced for more restrictions, with clubs and gyms closed, midnight dining in restaurants prohibited, and flights from eight countries blocked.
The reaction to the party’s announcement, which was accompanied by photographs of uncovered officials singing and conversing, was swift. Officials who had talked publicly about the need to fight the virus were chastised on social media for their hypocrisy.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, expressed disappointment with the officials who went while dismissing suggestions that the controversy would jeopardize her chances of re-election. All 170 guests and their close relatives were quarantined by the government, though some were freed when one reported virus was discovered to be a false positive.
«A substantial section of the population believes top government officials are requiring people to follow a strict regimen of caution and so on, yet those same senior officials do not appear to be following rules,» said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Little has enraged the masses who are subjected to Covid restrictions more than evidence that the elite lives by different standards — from reports of a Christmas party held by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s staff in Britain to tennis star Novak Djokovic’s vaccine exemption for this year’s Australian Open.
However, Hong Kong’s crisis occurred in a city that was already dealing with not only Covid shutdowns, but also a growing political crackdown. The criticism of the party has been tempered with rage at the establishment, which has carried out dissent repression.
«People who feel wronged for political reasons are the most prone to say it’s karma on the one hand and absolute hypocrisy on the other,» said John P. Burns, an emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong. «This further alienates the authorities from at least that set of individuals, undermining public confidence in the government.»
At least 19 members of the party were members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, who were elected last month under a new set of regulations designed to ensure that only «patriots» serve and to largely eliminate political opponents. Witman Hung, a delegate to China’s legislature, was spotted belting out a song while holding Ellen Tsang, a member of the committee that selects the chief executive and fills several legislative seats.
Raymond Siu, Hong Kong’s police chief; Caspar Tsui, the home affairs secretary; and Au Ka-wang, the immigration director, were among the thirteen high officials present. It was Mr. Au’s second Covid snafu; he was punished last year for attending a dinner with more than four guests.
Mr. Au and other officials have delivered a series of apologies in recent days, frequently using similar self-flagellatory language.
«I express my sincere apologies to all Hong Kong residents for adding to the burden of epidemic prevention work and causing public disruption as a result of my own actions,» Mr. Au stated. «I’ve thought about it and will be more cautious in the future.»
Mrs. Lam stated that the officials would be placed on leave and would be compelled to use their own vacation days while in quarantine at Penny’s Bay, the government-run isolation centre.
Junius Ho, a fiery pro-Beijing congressman who blasted the government’s treatment of his temporary quarantine, was one partygoer who did not apologize. He slammed Mrs. Lam and others on a live video feed, smashing his fist on a table until his phone flew.
He remarked on Facebook, «The administration is absolutely out of order, completely dysfunctional.» He stated he would have phoned his own driver if he had known that health personnel were only going to drop him off at a metro station after his release, rather than taking him home.
The party may have harmed the local government’s credibility not just in Hong Kong, but also in Beijing, where China’s leaders have imposed a strict zero-Covid policy and routinely penalized officials who fail to follow it.
While the Chinese authorities have remained silent about the incident, some political watchers believe it could jeopardize Mrs. Lam’s chances of being re-elected. She has ordered an investigation of the party, although no officials have been disciplined or placed on temporary leave as a result of their attendance.
Mrs. Lam recently chastised Cathay Pacific’s senior management for allowing a flight crew member who had returned from the United States to eat at a restaurant with his family, despite quarantine restrictions. The Omicron variety was transmitted by his father and at least one other person at the restaurant, making it the first documented local Omicron infection in Hong Kong. The city had reported 240 Omicron cases as of Sunday.
Mrs. Lam stated when the news of the party became public that while she was accountable for her government’s pandemic response, she was not responsible for the individual conduct of her employees. This has sparked accusations that she does not hold herself to the same high standards as Cathay executives and others in Hong Kong.
Mr. Burns stated, «We live in an environment where we lack accountable government.» «The Communist Party frequently informs us that the chief executive is responsible to the centre» — the central government — «and this is correct. But she is also responsible to the people of Hong Kong, and this aspect of the relationship has been neglected for several years.»