HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Over the past year, Hong Kong has threatened protesters with jail for holding demonstrations banned to due virus-control measures. Now, a decision to forgive three senior officials for attending a dinner in violation of Covid-19 rules has provided a new rallying cry for pro-democracy activists.
"The government has double standards," Mr Wai Chu, a 41-year-old engineer, said on Wednesday (July 14). "As long as the person involved is on their side, they will be very tolerant, but when it comes to dealing with young people - the opposition - they will handle it rigorously."
The so-called hot pot scandal - named for the communal soup dish served at the dinner - erupted after local news outlets including Ming Pao and Stand News named the three officials earlier this month and disclosed they each paid a HK$5,000 (S$870) fine for attending the dinner on March 2.
Government attempts to explain why the "hot pot trio" weren't fired fuelled more outrage. Security Secretary Chris Tang argued on Wednesday that such events required officials to "sacrifice" time with their families.
The incident has exposed deep political rifts in the Asian financial hub, where resentment simmers over a government crackdown on dissent, including Beijing's enactment of a national security law last year carrying sentences as long as life in prison.
Not only do two of the officials involved sit on the panel that oversees the law, the dinner at a private club involved at least nine people - five more than allowed at the time.
Moreover, the event was attended by a top Hong Kong executive from China Evergrande Group, local media including HK01 reported. The involvement of one of the mainland's biggest property companies highlighted the industry's deep political connections in the world's most expensive home market.
Authorities learnt about the dinner after a female attendee accused the executive of sexually assaulting her later that evening, HK01 said, without saying where it got the information. Police have since charged the man with attempted rape, the news site reported.
The Hong Kong government has defended the fines as sufficient punishment, saying the three officials - including Immigration Director Au Ka-wang, Customs Commissioner Hermes Tang and Undersecretary for Security Sonny Au - "admitted that they were negligent" and pledged to be more careful. There's been no indication that any of the officials were aware of the alleged attempted rape.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters on Tuesday that it would be "too harsh" to expect officials to know every detail about a dinner before accepting or "leave once they see the piece of abalone" on the table.
"These three colleagues have already paid other costs beyond the law," she said, citing personal attacks against them on the internet.
"We know the three officials, work with them - we know who they are," Mrs Lam said. "Our view is that it is an incident that doesn't require any further investigation."
Government officials around the world have been accused of flouting coronavirus measures they demand others to follow, with former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock forced to resign last month for such a breach.
But Hong Kong's appeal for leniency stands in contrast with its zero tolerance of attempts to organise protests that authorities say could spread the coronavirus.
Police have in recent weeks deployed thousands of officers to enforce bans on demonstrations marking the anniversaries of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule in 1997 and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, threatening those who attend with as many as five years in prison.
In May, a Hong Kong court added 10 months to jailed activist Joshua Wong's sentence for attending the Tiananmen vigil last year.
The episode feeds concerns that politics are influencing more legal decisions in the financial centre, which has credited its reputation for the fair administration of justice with its enduring global appeal.
Complaints about police accountability were at the centre of mass protests that rocked the city in 2019, unrest that subsided only after social-distancing regulations drove demonstrators from the streets.
Hong Kong activists have contrasted the government's response to the hot pot scandal with its current warnings toward those who attempt to commemorate a man who stabbed and injured a police officer before killing himself on July 1.
In particular, government officials have ramped up pressure on a University of Hong Kong student group that passed a resolution "appreciating the sacrifice" of the attacker.
Mr Chung Lo, a 40-year-old technician, called the government's response "unacceptable" and said it diminished the city's record of punishing official misconduct.
The national security law had led government officials to believe they can't be challenged, he said.
"They can do anything with no consequence - the rule of law cannot apply to them anymore," Mr Lo said. "The law will only apply to the young people, professors, protesters who chanted a few slogans, to show support to the man who stabbed the police - all will be arrested."
While members of the HKU student council have resigned, apologised and withdrawn the motion, at least one government adviser has suggested they could be prosecuted for inciting terrorism under the security law.
In the same briefing in which she defended the officials this week, Mrs Lam endorsed further action in the students' case.
"This was very infuriating," she said. "Whether as the chief executive, as chancellor of the university, or as an ordinary citizen, I am very angry about this, and a bit ashamed of this university, where a student council had done something like this."
Mr David Webb, a local activist investor and frequent critic of government policy, questioned the consistency between Mrs Lam's position on the two cases.
"A bunch of teenagers apologised and resigned their office, so we must pursue them, but a bunch of senior official grown-ups apologised and didn't resign, so give them a break," he wrote on Twitter.