Officials’ Party Galls Hong Kong, Chafing Under Covid (and Political) Controls

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 festivities went on for six hours. The red wine flowed; the karaoke warbled. Guests were given purple face masks but did not always wear them.

Until quite recently, such laxity might have been understandable in Hong Kong, a city that has largely kept the coronavirus at bay with rigorous border controls. But even as the politicians partied, the Omicron variant was stalking through the community. By the time it emerged, 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 closing, nighttime dining in restaurants banned and flights from eight countries halted.

The backlash to the news of the party — accompanied by photos of unmasked politicians singing and chatting — was immediate. Social media surged with complaints about the hypocrisy of officials who had spoken publicly about the need to fight 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 their close contacts were sent to a government quarantine facility, though some were released after one reported infection was found to have been a false positive.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said officials sent into quarantine would have to use their own vacation time for it. Credit…Vincent Yu/Associated Press

“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 criticism over the party has been tinged with anger toward the establishment that has carried out the repression of 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.”

Take-out orders were being prepared on Friday, when a ban on nighttime dining in Hong Kong restaurants took effect. Credit…Lam Yik/Reuters

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 stream of apologies, often using similar 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.

Penny’s Bay, the government quarantine center where guests at the party and their close contacts were sent. Credit…Hong Kong Information Services Department

One partygoer who did not apologize was Junius Ho, a firebrand pro-Beijing lawmaker who denounced the government’s handling of his brief quarantine. In a live video stream, he criticized Mrs. Lam and others, pounding his fist on a table until 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 the party, but so far, no officials have been punished for attending it, beyond being put on temporary leave.

Masked commuters in a Hong Kong subway station on Friday. Credit…Lam Yik/Reuters

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 least one other person at the restaurant contracted the Omicron variant, the first known local Omicron infections in Hong Kong. As of Sunday, the city had reported 240 Omicron cases.

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. That has fueled criticism that she does not hold herself to the same standards to which she holds Cathay executives, as well as 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.”

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