Cabinet Member Resigns Over Hong Kong Birthday Party Scandal

On Monday, Hong Kong’s Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui resigned over his role in “party-gate,” a birthday party hosted by government officials and attended by over 200 people in January during the early stages of the city’s Omicron outbreak. After flouting the government’s social distancing rules which he himself helped organize, Tsui has absorbed the blame for a scandal that has further strained the people’s trust in the city government and tested Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s efforts at demonstrating accountability. Kari Soo Lindberg from Bloomberg described the backstory to Tsui’s resignation:

Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui handed his resignation to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday and left the post immediately, he said in a statement. “As one of the principal officials taking the lead in the anti-epidemic fight,” Tsui said, “I have not set the best example during the recent outbreak.”

Tsui was among 15 officials who attended a party of some 200 people for the local representative of a mainland Chinese economic development agency on Jan. 3., where guests later tested positive for Covid. Days earlier, the government had urged the public to avoid large gatherings.

Lam said at a press briefing later Monday that 12 officials who attended the party had done so “just to exchange pleasantries” and wore masks, which was acceptable at that point as the city’s infection rate was low. 

Tsui, however, stayed for nearly two hours, didn’t wear a mask and failed to use the city’s contact tracing app, she added. “His conduct has brought the government into disrepute and his action has caused a negative perception by the general public,” Lam said. [Source]

The birthday party on January 3 was held at Spanish restaurant Reserva Ibérica in Wan Chai and hosted by pro-Beijing figure Witman Hung, Hong Kong’s delegate to the National People’s Congress. According to an invitation to the party, guests were asked to wear masks unless eating, to avoid toasting, and to avoid posting photos to social media. However, leaked photos of the party showed numerous attendees unmasked, toasting, and in close proximity to each other. Other high-ranking attendees included police chief Raymond Siu; immigration chief Au Ka-wang; head of the city’s Independent Commission against Corruption, Simon Peh; Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury, Christopher Hui; and 20 lawmakers. Since guests were not required to register before arrival, it is unclear exactly how many people attended beyond the estimated 200 cited by local media.

Primrose Riordan and Chan Ho-him from the Financial Times described how Tsui’s resignation was an attempt to show accountability on behalf of the Hong Kong government:

Sonny Lo, a veteran political commentator, said Tsui’s resignation was an attempt by Lam to hold “him accountable in the new era of Hong Kong [governance]” under the legislative reforms.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a Beijing-based think-tank, said Tsui’s resignation was important to strengthen public confidence in Beijing’s “patriots ruling Hong Kong” principle.

“[Tsui’s resignation not only] helps reduce damage already made to the government’s credibility,” said Lau. “The government can also show that it is walking the talk . . . and can [better justify] its stringent pandemic control measures.” [Source]

Hours after Tsui’s resignation, which he announced a day before the Lunar New Year holidays, Chief Executive Lam released the findings of an internal investigation into the scandal, which targeted 15 officials. Candice Chau from the Hong Kong Free Press reported that the investigation had relied on self-reported questionnaire responses without apparent attempts to verify these responses independently:

A questionnaire was issued to all 15 people, and they were told to give details including their arrival time, how long they stayed at the party, whether they had used LeaveHomeSafe, and whether they had worn a mask.

The chief executive said that it was no disciplinary issue with the officials accepting the invitation to the party, as all 15 of them had “different levels of work relations” with Hung, and that a lot of officials would see these sort of events “as part of their work duties.” [Source]

Gary Cheung and Natalie Wong from the South China Morning Post described the results of the investigation and Chief Executive Lam’s course of action:

Lam said [Tsui] had attended two core internal meetings on measures to tighten social-distancing rules on December 31 and January 3 – hours before going to the party.

[…] Allen Fung Ying-lun, political assistant to the development secretary, and Vincent Fung Hao-yin, deputy head of Policy Innovation and Coordination Office, are set to receive verbal warnings.

The investigation found Allen Fung had stayed at the party for more than four hours and could not remember clearly if he wore a mask as a result of alcohol. Vincent Fung failed to comply with a compulsory testing order on the day it was issued and imposed an infection risk on colleagues by returning to work the next day before going for a test.

Lam said they would only receive a verbal warning from their supervisors because they were not involved in anti-pandemic work.

[…] In the end, Tsui, immigration chief Au Ka-wang and Allen Fung spent 14 days at the government’s Penny’s Bay facility. [Source]

Not everyone was satisfied with the government response. Apart from Tsui, only two of the 15 officials under investigation were reprimanded, leading some critics to question whether the government partygoers got off too easily. Lawyers who reviewed photos of the party stated that they indicated potential evidence of criminal offenses including unmasked guests, large crowd size, and failure to use the “Leave Home Safe” exposure alert app—which carry penalties ranging from a fine of HK$5,000 (US$641) to jail terms of up to six months. Oiwan Lam at Global Voices compiled comments from Facebook and Twitter users who criticized the investigation and the officials’ lack of accountability:

“Even if the partygate did not result in an outbreak, we should slam the officials and lawmakers. The issue at stake is that these scumbags know the law and break the law. They are in collusion and after the scandal was exposed, they covered up each other.”

“Now that I know, being the head of the anti-graft authority can hang around and socialize in such a manner. What about the code of conduct for the commissioner? Master the law so that you can break it?”

[…] “Don’t divert the public attention, this is a clear violation of pandemic control regulations. What is needed is a public prosecution, not an internal investigation.”

“Internal investigation = to a protective umbrella for their own kind and an internal solution to law-breaking behaviour among the ruling bloc. They don’t have to resign after breaking the law, Beijing does not want to fire them and they are the heads of major government organs. Who can be responsible for the internal investigation?” [Source]

As elsewhere, the perception of government hypocrisy around COVID-19 regulations is fueling public outrage. When the fourth wave of the epidemic rattled Hong Kong in late 2020, Tsui blamed its resurgence on “violations of COVID-related rules by certain people.” Months later, Commissioner of Customs and Excise Hermes Tang Yi-hoi, Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang, and Undersecretary for Security Sonny Au Chi-kwong reluctantly admitted to attending a “lavish” dinner at a luxury club in Wan Chai in March 2021, and each of them were fined HK$5,000 (US$643) for violating the four-person limit on gatherings. At the time, Au Ka-wang stated, “I will exercise particular caution when attending events in the future and will be sure to meet with the requirement.” He was one of the two officials verbally reprimanded by Lam for his attendance at last month’s birthday party, which took place days before the government imposed stricter social distancing rules. Au will keep his job, and replacing Tsui will be Under Secretary for Home Affairs Jack Chan, who also attended the party last month.

The slap on the wrist for officials that failed to keep promises stands in sharp contrast to the government’s strictness in holding others accountable for spreading the virus. Hong Kong police have charged two former flight attendants of Cathay Pacific with violating COVID-19 restrictions, and they were subsequently fired, while the government threatened that it would “follow up seriously” and “take further legal action” if more evidence of violations is found. Chief Executive Lam stated, “Although the management may not be aware of all the actions that each employee takes, it’s not an excuse to not to be blamed.” Meanwhile, the government has culled over 2,000 hamsters and pressured pet owners to hand over more after a pet store owner tested positive for the virus in December, despite more humane alternative measures and little evidence of significant danger from the animals. One defiant pet owner stated, “If all people who attended the birthday party are culled then I will hand my hamster to the government.”


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