As news emerged of the deadly fire at an unlicensed Nepalese restaurant in Jordan, Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui took to Facebook to tell the world how much he had enjoyed a bowl of sugar water.

Tsui is allegedly responsible for matters such as this. But in the non-elected world of Hong Kong government where responsibility has no meaning, the valiant Secretary could not even bring himself to apologise for his callousness. Instead, he chose to comment that “multitasking is not conflicting”. Yes, he actually wrote that.

Photo: Caspar Tsui’s Facebook.

This sordid combination of arrogance and rank irresponsibility is characteristic of the way the Lam administration conducts itself. On the one hand they know full well they are not accountable to the people of Hong Kong, and on the other hand they know that their positions are secure as long as they regularly abase themselves before the bosses in Beijing.

Sitting at the top of this mouldering pile of nonentities and time-servers is the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO), Carrie Lam, who rushed to the scene of the fire in time to be photographed showing what passes for concern. With equal speed she bustled away after leaving instructions that this was a matter that needed following up, a statement of such bland meaningless as not even to merit much coverage by the usually tame chorus line of the so-called mainstream media.

In an elected system even the most incompetent practitioners of the admittedly complex business of government understand that in the face of a tragedy they must be careful about what they say and do. The more competent then set about trying to solve the problem that led to the disaster.

Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Seven people lost their lives in this fire and another seven have life-threatening injuries following an inferno that almost certainly would not have produced fatalities in a well regulated building with adequate anti-fire precautions and viable escape routes.

This rundown structure in Jordan had none of these things. Moreover, it is entirely typical of the down-at-heel tenement structures found throughout Hong Kong. Indeed, what happened in Jordan is very reminiscent of the blaze that cost nine lives in Mong Kok back in 2011.

The tattered thread that links these two tragedies is appalling building conditions in poor areas. The Mong Kok tragedy provoked much wringing of hands and a bustle of clipboard- wielding bureaucrats clumping around issuing violation tickets. These almost certainly resulted in fines but did nothing to address the fundamental problem.

The restaurant where the fire broke out in Jordan. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

In the wake of this disaster they were at it again: focusing on the problems of unlicensed restaurants and flaying around trying to find people to prosecute.

The real problem is not one of micro detail but the dire standard of buildings in Hong Kong’s poorest areas. Instead of looking for ways to improve the building stock at the lowest end of the spectrum, the government is far more interested in environmentally destructive schemes for swanky new edifices on reclaimed land, and finding other ways to feed the rapacious appetites of property developers.

Building renovation in places like Jordan does not interest the pumped-up officials who much prefer to focus on their legacy projects instead of tackling the hard-to-tackle problem of improving the housing stock and providing resources to ensure safety.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam (third from right) with the five newly appointed secretaries. File photo: GovHK.

This is where the link between unelected government and tragedy coincides, because elected officials simply could not get away with this level of indifference. Even the worst among them get called to account at election time. But in Hong Kong accountability is meaningless and the muppets who populate the flaying Lam administration can be guaranteed to blunder from one disaster to the next, especially where the victims are the so-called “undeserving poor”.

Meanwhile, I hope Mr Tsui is enjoying his tohng seui, (sugar water) or whatever other fragrant dessert is coming his way.

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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship