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Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui in September last year. Photo: Nora Tam

Decision on whether to axe minister over Omicron ‘partygate’ set to reveal how Beijing will enforce accountability among Hong Kong’s new ‘patriotic’ political elite

  • Home affairs chief Caspar Tsui is said to be on his way out after angering city leader Carrie Lam by apparently flouting social-distancing rules at a birthday party
  • But axing a minister is hardly straightforward in Hong Kong, where power lies with Beijing as well as the leader

A rare expected departure of a cabinet minister in Hong Kong has revealed the delicate relationship between the central authorities, the city’s leader and Beijing loyalists on political appointments and where the buck stops.

Insiders revealed that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had insisted on being tough towards Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui Ying-wai, the most high-­profile Hong Kong official who attended an infamous Omicron-hit birthday bash early this month, despite intense behind-the-scenes lobbying from his party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).

Tsui is likely to vacate his post as the central government had already started on the procedures involved, several sources familiar with the matter told the Post.

Executive Council member Ip Kwok-Him. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
Under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, the appointment and removal of principal officials in Hong Kong must be approved by the central government. Establishment sources said this was not a mere formality, as Beijing had the final say, especially on more senior positions, even if there was room for the city’s government to also seek to influence such decisions.

While Lam was pushing for a tough approach toward Tsui, Beijing had to consider carefully the impact of terminating a minister this way, a source familiar with Hong Kong-mainland Chinese affairs said.

It would mean setting a precedent on the standards of accountability for ministers, with implications on not just the conduct expected of them, but also their handling of problems. This was why there had to be careful deliberations, the source said, adding the pro-establishment camp had been advised “not to add fuel to the fire”.

Privately at least, they had done so, with, for example, Ip Kwok-him, a member of the Executive Council, Lam’s de facto cabinet, raising Tsui’s fate with the city leader during three meetings of the top policymaking body since the incident hit the headlines on January 6, sources told the Post.

Ip, a veteran DAB leader, initially felt indignant following Lam’s harsh criticism of the home affairs minister after pictures surfaced showing him at the party without a mask. But Ip later called on Lam to be lenient towards him.

Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong hails return of lustre to ‘Pearl of the Orient’

As a meeting of the Executive Council drew to a close on Tuesday, Ip raised the issue again and asked for an update.

Lam replied that since the incident involved a principal official appointed by the central government, there was a need to communicate with Beijing and seek its advice.

She also told the executive councillors the evidence and details the government obtained during the investigation into the conduct of the officials who attended the birthday party on January 3 indicated that Tsui’s actions during the bash were “worse than what have been reported”.

Ip did not respond to the Post’s request for comments on Wednesday.

Happy birthday? Not in the end for ‘party animal’ Witman Hung and 170 guests

A source familiar with the situation said the investigation led by the director of the Chief Executive’s Office, Eric Chan Kwok-ki, had been completed and found Tsui was photographed chatting without a mask at the party in an apparent breach of social-distancing rules, an act punishable by a HK$5,000 (US$642) fine.

“The investigation found evidence showing that Tsui had breached social-distancing rules to an extent that Lam regarded as serious and having overstepped the mark,” the source said.

Another source familiar with the interaction between Hong Kong and the central government said: “If it doesn’t involve the removal of a principal official, there is no point for the chief executive to take it to the central government. If Tsui is just asked to offer an apology to the public, Beijing doesn’t have to step in.

“Carrie Lam must have got a tacit understanding from the central government before she formally took Tsui’s case to Beijing,” the second source said.

However, the source did not indicate if the considerations for Beijing might be different if the official in the probe involved someone of a more senior rank than Tsui.

A mainland China expert familiar with Hong Kong affairs said the political impact of removing Tsui was relatively manageable as he was “just a home affairs secretary”.

“Removing him is not such a big deal,” the expert said.

National safety at risk if Hong Kong loses Covid-19 fight: pro-Beijing media

At a press conference on January 6 about the birthday party, Lam singled out Tsui for censure as she vowed to take “appropriate actions” after conducting an investigation.

Fifteen officials and 20 lawmakers were among more than 200 guests who attended the 53rd birthday party of Witman Hung Wai-man, a delegate to the national legislature, at a Spanish restaurant in Wan Chai on January 3.

They were all ordered into quarantine for varying durations when it emerged two people who were later found to be infected with the coronavirus were at the party.

In the end, Tsui, Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang and political assistant to the secretary for development Allen Fung Ying-lun spent 14 days at the government quarantine facility at Penny’s Bay.

On Tuesday, Lam said the results of the probe would be announced before the start of Lunar New Year.

Lam said they had to “look deeply into” Tsui’s case as he was an official and had stayed “for a pretty long period and during a pretty late time at the dinner party”, which ended at midnight. She ordered Tsui to remain on leave until at least February 4 while other officials returned to work.

The accountability system shouldn’t exist just in name
Tik Chi-yuen, centrist lawmaker

Apart from Ip, DAB heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung, who is the city’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the nation’s top legislative body, said on January 7 he saw no problem with the private birthday party. Tam, a former DAB chairman, argued that as the home affairs minister, Tsui was supposed to liaise with people from various sectors.

The mainland expert said the removal of Tsui would enhance the reputation of the Hong Kong government as it showed to the public that top officials did not merit special treatment. But another source said Beijing was also weighing whether residents would approve or the move could backfire and lead to more doubts on the handling of the entire pandemic.

“You have to deliver something new after the central government’s ‘patriots-only’ overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system. Hongkongers have higher expectations of senior officials and lawmakers after the revamp,” the mainland expert said.

Tik Chi-yuen, the sole non-establishment lawmaker, said it would be necessary for Lam to “set things right” by asking Tsui to leave his role.

“The accountability system shouldn’t exist just in name. She might hope to use this crisis to restore public confidence about the system ahead of the chief executive election,” he said.