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

Hong Kong – It was a great party on 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 legislature.

The festivities lasted for six hours. Red wine flow. distorted karaoke. Guests were given purple face masks but they didn’t always wear them.

Until very recently, this laxity was perhaps understandable in Hong Kong, a city that has largely kept the coronavirus in place with strict border controls. But even with politicians involved, the alternative Omicron has been haunting society. By the time it emerged, days later, that at least one person with Covid was at the party, the city was preparing for a new round of restrictions, with bars and gyms closed, nightly dining in restaurants banned and flights from eight countries grounded.

The backlash to the party’s news — accompanied by images of exposed politicians singing and speaking — was immediate. Complaints have mounted on social media about the hypocrisy of officials who have spoken out publicly about the need to combat the virus.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said she was disappointed with the officials who attended, though she refused to talk that the scandal would jeopardize her chances of winning a second term. All 170 guests and their close contacts were sent to the government quarantine facility, although some were released after one infection turned out to be a false positive.

said Willy Lam, assistant professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Around the world, he has done little more to anger fans who have endured Covid restrictions than signs that the elite are living by different standards – from reports of a Christmas party hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s staff in Britain to tennis star Novak Djokovic’s vaccination exemption. Initially received the Australian Open of the year.

But the Hong Kong scandal has landed in a city suffering not only from the Covid lockdown, but also increasing political repression. Criticisms of the party were tainted by anger at the establishment that had suppressed dissent.

said John P. Burns, professor emeritus at the University of Hong Kong. This further divides the powers at least from that group of people and undermines trust in the government. “

At least 19 people in the party were members of Hong Kong’s legislature, who were elected last month under a new system of rules designed to ensure only “patriots” are served, largely excluding members of the political opposition. The party’s host, Whitman Hong, a delegate to the Chinese legislature, was photographed chanting his arm around Elaine Tsang, a member of the committee that chooses the chief executive and holds several legislative seats.

Thirteen high-ranking officials were there as well, including Hong Kong Police Chief Raymond Siu; Caspar Tsoi, Minister of Internal Affairs; and Ou Ka Wang, Director of Immigration. It 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 language similar to self-flagellation.

“With regard to the additional burden on the epidemic prevention work and the inconvenience to the public as a result of my personal behavior, I offer my sincere apologies to all Hong Kong residents,” said Mr. Au. “I have thought about this incident and will be more vigilant in the future.”

Ms Lam said officials will take leave and will be asked to use their own days off for the time they spend in quarantine at Penny’s Bay, the government-run isolation center.

One of the attendees who did not apologize is Junius Hu, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, who decried the government’s brief handling of the quarantine. In a live video broadcast, he lashed out at Ms. Lam and others, and hit his fist on a table until His phone went flying.

“The government is completely broken, completely dysfunctional,” he wrote on Facebook. He said that if he had known that health workers would drop him off at a subway station after his release, and not take him home, he would have called his driver.

The party may have damaged the credibility of local government not only in Hong Kong, but in Beijing, where China’s leaders have enforced a tough no-Covid-19 policy, regularly punishing officials for failing to support it.

While Chinese authorities have not commented on the scandal, some political observers say it could hurt Ms Lam’s chances of being allowed a second term in office. She has ordered an investigation into the party, but so far, no official has been punished for attending, other than giving her temporary leave.

Just weeks ago, Ms Lam criticized the top management of Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s main airline, after a cabin 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 in the restaurant contracted Omicron, the first known local infection of Omicron in Hong Kong. As of Sunday, the city has reported 240 omicron cases.

After news of the party spread, Ms Lamm said that while she was responsible for her government’s response to the pandemic, she was not responsible for the actions of her individual subordinates. This sparked criticism that it does not adhere to the same standards as Cathay’s executives, as well as others in Hong Kong.

“We live in an environment where we lack accountable government,” Mr. Burns said. “The Communist Party repeatedly tells us that the chief executive is accountable to the center” – that is, the central government – “and this is true. But it is also responsible locally, and this part of the relationship with the people of Hong Kong has been abandoned for several years.”

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