A hotpot dinner attended by three Hong Kong officials fined for violating social-distancing rules was indeed expensive, but also an example of how civil servants were frequently required to sacrifice time with their families, the city’s security secretary said in defending the trio on Wednesday.
Chris Tang Ping-keung also said he believed customs chief Hermes Tang Yi-hoi, immigration director Au Ka-wang and security undersecretary Sonny Au Chi-kwong would have made a different decision had they known how expensive the meal was beforehand.
Addressing the scandal for the first time on Wednesday, Tang said it was necessary for senior officials to stay in touch with different sectors of the community in order to form good policies.
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“As officials, after working hard every day, we want to spend time with our families. But we have to sacrifice our family time and engage in these kinds of gatherings because it is an important part of our job,” he told reporters outside the Legislative Council.
Tang’s comments came a day after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said no further action would be taken against the three security officials, who a senior legislator and a former anti-corruption investigator have said broke ministerial and civil service codes by accepting the “lavish entertainment”.
Under Civil Service Bureau regulations for public sector workers, which apply to both the customs and immigration chiefs, civil servants should not accept “lavish, or unreasonably generous or frequent” entertainment that could put them in an “obligatory position in the discharge of their duties”.
Tang said that in addition to avoiding that sort of obligation, senior officials also had to ensure their attendance at social gatherings did not create a conflict of interest or damage the government’s reputation.
“I have personally looked into this matter, and I could not see any of these three elements,” he said.
But Tang conceded the civil service code stipulated that government employees not accept lavish entertainment.
“Our [three] colleagues did not know beforehand that the meal was so expensive, as reported by some media. They also did not realise during the meal that it was so expensive,” he said.
“As officials, we have to avoid or be alert about any lavish treatment. But the point [in] this case … [is that] there was no reasonable suspicion [on the part of] the three officers that the meal was lavish.
Of course, if they knew it was lavish, I am sure they ... wouldn’t have done what they did.”
According to a menu that circulated on the internet, a dinner at the Wan Chai club where the hotpot was held can cost as much as HK$3,880 (US$500) per person, and include food such as Wagyu beef, lobster, mussels and lamb.
But a Security Bureau spokesman last Friday said the food served “consisted of normal hotpot ingredients”.
Tang, like Lam, said the three officials had been fined for their social-distancing violation, and paid a price in terms of their reputations.
“I have reminded them to be more careful in the future,” he added.
The nine guests at the dinner reportedly included an executive of a mainland real estate giant.
Police discovered the three officials had been there while investigating the alleged sexual assault of a woman in attendance.
Tang said he could not disclose the identity of other dinner attendees, as the case was under criminal investigation, though the three officials were not involved in the probe.
Additional reporting by Natalie Wong
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