January 17, 2022

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Hong Kong’s own ‘partygate’ exposes territory tensions

When Hong Kong’s new “patriots only” legislature convened for its inaugural session on Wednesday, many of the chamber’s 90 seats were embarrassingly vacant. Twenty lawmakers could only log in from home or government quarantine after being caught attending a large birthday party despite official advice to avoid such gatherings. At least one person at the party, which was also attended by 13 senior government officials, was later confirmed to have Covid.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, chosen last month through a rigged election that barred candidates deemed disloyal to Beijing, was intended to be a shining model of Chinese governance. There would be none of the vetoes or filibusters by a meddlesome pro-democracy camp that, in the eyes of both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, had marred the previous legislature. The people’s business would be conducted in efficient, dignified fashion, speeding through spending bills and addressing everything from pandemic management to the chronic housing shortage.

Most importantly, Hong Kong’s new patriotic legislature could help convince Beijing to allow quarantine-free travel between the territory and China. In return, Hong Kong would maintain the punishing three-week quarantines it imposes on those arriving from abroad.

But like Boris Johnson’s now infamous bring-your-own-booze lockdown garden party in the UK, the birthday bash has angered a populace exhausted by restrictions. Restaurants can seat patrons for breakfast and lunch but not dinner, when only take-out service is allowed, as if the virus were nocturnal. Primary schools are closing this week but not others — at least not yet.

“Things were just fine until this week — the kids at school, ballet, gymnastics, football,” one friend told me. “Then the plug gets pulled on all that — and [we’re] back to home schooling. The anger on the part of parents with primary school children is immense . . . The birthday party was the final straw.”

The 13 officials caught up in the controversy have been models of contrition. Like Johnson’s, their jobs are now on the line. Many of the lawmakers, by contrast, have instead sought to blame everyone from Cathay Pacific Airways to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s hapless chief executive. They accuse Cathay air crew of starting the last outbreak (a negligible one by international standards with just 383 cases over the past fortnight) and Lam’s administration for supposedly mishandling it. In a self-recorded outburst from quarantine that went viral, one legislator who attended the party demanded Lam’s resignation.

That could be dangerous talk in Hong Kong, where a malleable national security law and other colonial-era laws have been deployed to jail dozens of pro-democracy activists and force the closure of independent media. Forty seven democracy campaigners await trial for subversion, on the grounds that they tried to compete for and win enough seats in the legislature to block the government’s agenda and potentially force Lam’s resignation.

In much of the world, that is otherwise known as standard competitive politics. In Hong Kong, it is grounds for a very long prison term.

For pro-Beijing lawmakers Cathay, controlled by the UK-based Swire family, is an easier target. Communist party-controlled newspapers, whose editorials often presage follow-up government action, have said Cathay should be held liable for its crew’s alleged role in importing Omicron. Lam has said the government will investigate. This week, Cathay’s chair hit back at the criticism.

It is hard to believe that just three years ago Hong Kong was thriving in its traditional role as a bridge to China. Now the territory finds itself trapped, sealed off from both its Chinese hinterland and the rest of the world, with no end to its isolation in sight.

tom.mitchell@ft.com

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