HONG KONG – It was a hell of a party for a Monday night. More than 170 people, many of them from Hong Kong’s political elite, gathered at a tapas restaurant to celebrate the birthday of a local delegate to the Chinese Legislative Assembly.
The festivities lasted six hours. The red wine was flowing; chirped the karaoke. Guests were given purple masks but did not always wear them.
Until recently, such laxity might have been understandable in Hong Kong, a city that has largely kept the coronavirus at bay with stringent border controls. But even as the politicians partied, the Omicron variant roamed the community. By the time it emerged a few days later that at least one Covid-infected person had been at the party, the city was bracing for a new round of restrictions, with bars and gyms shutting down, and late-night dinners. in banned restaurants and flights from eight countries stopped.
The backlash to the party’s news – accompanied by photos of unmasked politicians singing and arguing – was immediate. Social media flooded with complaints about the hypocrisy of officials who had spoken publicly about the need to tackle the virus.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said she was disappointed with officials who attended, although she dismissed rumors that the scandal would torpedo her chances of running for a second term. The 170 guests and their close contacts were sent to a government quarantine facility, although some were released after a reported infection turned out to be a false positive.
“Much of the public thinks that senior officials are asking them to follow a rigorous diet of prudence and so on, while these same senior officials themselves don’t seem to be playing by the rules,” said Willy Lam, assistant professor of policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Around the world, little has done more to anger the masses under Covid restrictions than signs the elite are living by different standards – reports of a Christmas party hosted by Prime Minister’s staff Britain’s Minister Boris Johnson to exempt tennis star Novak Djokovic from the vaccine initially received for this year’s Australian Open.
But the Hong Kong scandal has landed in a city that is suffering not only from Covid closures, but also growing political repression. Criticism of the party has been tinged with anger at the establishment which has clamped down on dissent.
“People who feel politically mistreated are the most likely on the one hand to say it’s karma and on the other hand to say it’s utter hypocrisy,” said John P. Burns, professor emeritus at the University of Hong. Kong. “This further separates the authorities from at least this group of people and undermines confidence in the government.”
At least 19 people in the party were members of the Hong Kong Legislative Assembly, elected last month under a new system of rules designed to ensure that only “patriots” serve and largely exclude members of the party. political opposition. Party host Witman Hung, the delegate to the Chinese legislature, was pictured singing a song with her arm around Ellen Tsang, a member of the committee that chooses the chief executive and occupies many seats legislative.
Thirteen senior officials were also present, including Hong Kong Police Chief Raymond Siu; Caspar Tsui, the Minister of the Interior; and Au Ka-wang, the director of immigration. This was Mr. Au’s second Covid scandal; last year he was fined for attending a dinner party attended by more than four people.
In recent days, Mr. Au and other officials have issued a series of apologies, often using similar self-flagellation language.
“Regarding the added burden for the epidemic prevention work and the disruption to the public resulting from my personal behavior, I sincerely apologize to all Hong Kong people,” Au said. “I have reflected on this incident and will be more vigilant in the future.”
Ms Lam said officials would be put on leave and required to use their own vacation days for time spent in quarantine at Penny’s Bay, the government-run isolation center.
One reveler who did not apologize was Junius Ho, a fiery pro-Beijing lawmaker who denounced the government’s handling of his brief quarantine. In a live video stream, he criticized Ms Lam and others, punching a table until his phone was stolen.
“The government is completely broken down, completely dysfunctional,” he wrote on Facebook. He said if he had known that the health workers would just drop him off at a metro station after his release, and not take him home, he would have called his own driver.
The party may have damaged the credibility of local government not only in Hong Kong, but in Beijing, where Chinese leaders have enforced a strict zero Covid policy and regularly punished officials for failing to maintain it.
While Chinese officials have not commented on the scandal, some political observers believe it could hurt Ms Lam’s chances of securing a second term. She ordered an investigation into the party, but so far no official has been punished for attending, beyond being put on temporary leave.
Just weeks ago, Ms Lam slammed senior management at Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, after a flight crew member returning from the United States ignored quarantine requirements for eat in a restaurant with his family. Her father and at least one other person in the restaurant contracted the Omicron variant, the first known local infection in Omicron in Hong Kong. As of Sunday, the city had reported 240 cases of Omicron.
After the news of the holiday broke, Ms Lam said that while she was responsible for her government’s response to the pandemic, she was not responsible for the individual actions of her subordinates. This has fueled criticism that it does not live up to the same standards it imposes on leaders in Cathay, as well as others in Hong Kong.
“We live in an environment where we lack responsible government,” Mr. Burns said. “The Communist Party tells us repeatedly that the head of the executive is responsible to the center” – that is, the central government – “and it is true. But she is also responsible locally, and this part of the relationship with Hong Kong people has been abandoned for several years.