The three top Hong Kong security officials who violated Covid-19 social distancing rules attended the nine-person hotpot dinner for work purposes, Secretary for Security Chris Tang has said.

The newly appointed Secretary for Security Chris Tang in his first Legislative Council meeting on July 6, 2021. Photo: LegCo, via video screenshot.

The three top officials from the customs, immigration and Security Bureau had to forgo personal time for social events similar to the hotpot dinner with an executive from Evergrande Group, Tang said during an address to the press on Wednesday. Evergrande is a mainland real estate developer listed in Hong Kong.

Director of Immigration, Au Ka-wang, Customs and Excise Commissioner Hermes Tang, and the Under Secretary for Security Sonny Au admitted last week to attending a dinner at a private Wan Chai club in early March after Stand News revealed that the trio were fined by police for violating the four-person seating limit at restaurants.

“As officials, we have a responsibility to connect with people from all walks and ranks of the society. This allows us to know what goes on in society, what people from different classes are concerned about and how we may set policies,” Tang said.

“[A]fter working tirelessly every day, we all hope to spend time with family. But why do we have to sacrifice time for our families on these gatherings? Because this indeed is a crucial part of our work,” he said.

Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang, Under Secretary for Security Sonny Au , and Commissioner for Customs and Excise Hermes Tang. Photo: GovHK.

Tang said he did not see any conflicts of interest, favour or reputational damage to the government following a personal enquiry into the incident. The officials have apologised to the public and will be more cautious in the future.

The hotpot dinner that took place at a private club in Wan Chai would have costed a minimum of HK$2,380 per head, the online news outlet reported, citing the venue’s minimum spend amount. NowTV later cited government sources as saying that the officials were not aware of the dinner’s cost as they were being treated.

The dinner was also attended by an investor relations executive at Evergrande, Chen Fen, several local media reported. The government did not disclose the identities, age, and gender of the remaining five attendees.

The fines came to light while police were investigating a case of a woman who was sexually assaulted in her home after attending the dinner. A man has since been charged with attempted rape.

Anti-corruption guidelines

Anti-corruption guidelines for civil servants do not provide clear definitions on whether provision of food and drink to officials is inappropriate or whether they are excessive.

A Code on Conduct and Discipline for the Customs Department penned by Hermes Tang in 2019, however, stated that “an officer should not accept lavish, or unreasonably generous or frequent entertainment, or indeed any entertainment that is likely to… put the officer in an obligatory position in the discharge of his duties” or “give rise to any potential or real conflict of interest.”

The cover for the Customs Department Code on Conduct and Discipline, penned by dinner attendee Hermes Tang. Photo: HK Gov screenshot.

It would be “inappropriate” for officials to accept offers of food and drinks depending on “whether they have any direct official dealings,” the Code read.

Meanwhile, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that no further investigation into the dinner was needed as she knew the standing of the three officials. They have already paid for the Covid-19 fines, she said.

Ramon Yuen of the Democratic Party said Tang’s comments were a “shameless excuse” for the officials.

“Top officials should face extra punishment for violating rules, but now none of the three have been suspended from duty, or faced investigation or discipline, which allows the public to see that these are privileges enjoyed by chiefs of the disciplinary services,” Yuen said in a statement on Wednesday.

“If the three believe they have nothing to hide and have no secrets to tell, they should face enquiries directly, provide all details and apologise sincerely to the public.”

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.