Hong Kong minister resigns after Omicron karaoke party scandal

A senior Hong Kong official has resigned after attending a karaoke birthday bash in violation of the city’s tough “zero-Covid’ guidelines, embarrassing the government of Carrie Lam as it was seeking to brandish its credentials with Beijing

Caspar Tsui, Hong Kong’s home affairs secretary, attended the party alongside 14 other top officials including the police and immigration chiefs as well as pro-Beijing lawmakers in spite of a new Omicron outbreak in the city.

Days after news of the party emerged, new lawmakers selected under Beijing’s “patriots-only” overhaul of the political system held their first meeting but some were unable to attend as they were quarantined due to the festivities. The reforms weeded out almost all pro-democracy opposition candidates from the legislature.

“I have not set the best example during the recent outbreak,” Tsui said in a statement on Monday, in which he also said he had tendered his resignation to Lam.

The overhaul of Hong Kong’s political structures, under which aspiring lawmakers were vetted for their loyalty to China ahead of a legislative election last year, followed a broader political crackdown on freedom of expression in the wake of pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, revealed Tsui also did not use an official contact-tracing app when he entered the party that her administration has been pushing residents to download. This was despite staying at the party for nearly two hours. The party was attended by two revellers who later tested positive for Covid.

“[Tsui’s actions] are disappointing and have inevitably caused embarrassment to himself and the entire administration,” she said.

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.”

Three officials including Tsui were sent to a government quarantine camp but were released early after less than two weeks, owing to updated policies that shortened the mandatory isolation period for close contacts.

Hong Kong’s strict zero-Covid policy, which requires travellers and close contacts to be quarantined in hotels and government facilities, has come under pressure from the latest outbreak. The city has low vaccination rates for the elderly, with just over 30 per cent of those aged over 80 years old inoculated with their first dose.

Lam’s government has been trying to contain several Covid clusters, including one at a public housing estate where more than 400 positive cases were found in three buildings within a week.

Thousands of public housing residents have since been subject to lockdowns. The city has also ordered a cull of more than 2,000 hamsters after two suspected cases of animal-to-human transmission.

While not the only source of the outbreak, local authorities have been probing the city’s de facto flag carrier Cathay Pacific after its crew were accused of violating quarantine policies, seeding one of the clusters.

The zero-Covid policy is testing Hong Kong’s already restricted limits on free speech. The government was forced to issue a statement on Sunday clarifying that “making general remarks and discussion” about the effectiveness of its zero-Covid policy was not illegal.

This followed comments from outspoken pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho, suggesting that local experts calling for the city to “live with the virus” could be in breach of a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing more than one year ago.

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