So nostalgic to have a public row about senior civil servants hobnobbing with millionaires. Brings back happy memories of the Donald Tsang days.

I refer, of course, to the brouhaha over the discovery that the Deputy Secretary for Security, along with the heads of the Customs and Immigration services, participated in a hotpot dinner at which six other people were present, in flagrant violation of the social distancing rules.

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

This is something of a microscandal. Many of us have been in restaurants where more than four people were seated at a long table, with occasional sheets of perspex to divide them into notional groups of four. The three top officials were all hit with fixed penalty tickets costing HK$5,000. This is not a big deal for people on six-figure salaries but it’s enough.

I am also not too bothered by the revelation that the whole meal was paid for by a mainland property developer. It is a venerable principle in journalism that you should not accept anything which cannot be eaten, drunk or smoked in one sitting. The ensuing implication is that a hotpot dinner is OK as long as you don’t take a doggy bag home.

Photo: momo via Flickr.

The entertaining part of all this is watching the slow-motion PR car crash caused by desperate attempts to explain the whole thing away.

First up was a nameless spokesperson for the Security Bureau, for which all three of our hotshot hot-potters work. “There were only three SAR officials present at the dinner,” we were told. “They were invited to attend it at a place which they were told by the host was a private premises, and therefore mistakenly believed that the venue fell outside of the regulation on group gathering.”

Just stop right there. The gathering, it is not disputed, took place in a Wanchai club. I think we can assume that the three officials were not blindfolded and led into the building so they had no idea what they were inside. Did they think the host lived in a Wanchai club?

This was a fairly limp excuse but at least it was an admission of error. The three also apologised, apparently, though only after they were exposed to the public; the incident actually took place in March.

The white separators are used as precautionary measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus seen at a food court. Since May 5, people getting together in groups of more than eight in a public place, either indoors or outdoors, have been liable to a maximum fine of up to HK$25,000 and six months in prison. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

“As the trio’s work requires frequent communication with different sectors in the community, the dinner that day was an ordinary social gathering,” the statement went on. But this is a resounding non sequitur. People whose work requires communication with different sections of the community do not team up with two senior mates and accept lavish invitations. The resulting get-togethers are not “normal social gatherings”.

There was a time, when I was a person with an important sounding title in the media business, when parts of the government – and the occasional Consul General – wished to communicate with me. They did not expect me to entertain them in Wanchai clubs, or anywhere else, for this purpose. The person who wants to communicate pays the bill.

In this case it appears the bill was rather big. A figure of $3,000 per head was mentioned.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press on June 22, 2021. Photo: GovHK, via video screenshot.

Apparently referring to this, the spokesman said that the meal comprised “normal hotpot ingredients”. This offers us a choice of three possibilities. One is that the Security Bureau’s idea of a normal hot-pot is stunningly expensive. Another is that this particular Wanchai club is a rip-off. The third is that the bill was inflated by the need to pay for other – non-food – parts of the entertainment. Was there live music, “normal” cognac, topless waiting staff?

By the time Carrie Lam met the press on Tuesday the focus had rather shifted to the question of how normal the ingredients had been, because civil servants are barred by regulation from accepting “lavish” entertainment.

There was no precise definition, she said, and the three hot-potters could not have known in advance what would be served. Indeed. When you are invited for an evening out with a mainland millionaire the possibilities are endless. Maybe just a beer and a sandwich?

Ms Lam then demonstrated her usual talent for changing the subject and answering a point which nobody had made: it would be a pity if civil servants were entirely forbidden to attend social events, she said.

On Wednesday, possibly sensing that this was not going down well, Secretary for Security Chris Tang tried a different line. The three officials, he said, had “sacrificed precious time with their families to do their jobs,” as RTHK put it. Goodness. I don’t suppose there was a dry eye in the house.

“As officials we have to keep in contact with different sectors, of different nature. It’s because when we’re formulating our strategies and our work, we have to know what the society is thinking,”

If this is their job, I cannot help thinking, some further thought needs to be given to the methodology employed. I cannot think of a government which shows less sign of having the slightest idea what “the society is thinking”. This may be, of course, because so much of the data on this important topic is gathered at boozy gatherings with mainland millionaires.

What society is thinking about this case, I suspect, is that if you civil service heavies want to go out on the town with rich outsiders, fill your boots. But don’t come back afterwards and tell us that you were beavering away on our behalf and sacrificing precious time with your families. Ignorance was not a very good excuse but bullshit is worse.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.