Will Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam win hearts and minds with Covid’s ‘no mercy’ approach?

Our government is seemingly powerless to stop millionaires from hosting parties in clubs and restaurants, where invited senior officials can congregate in defiance of Covid restrictions. However, when faced with three household helpers sharing the same piece of cardboard under a central upper deck, she springs into action.

The series of fines for domestic helpers who congregate in groups of more than two is a classic example of the government receiving an unnecessary stick because its members cannot keep quiet.

Party host Witman Hung and Ellen Tsang, both election committee members at a party in January where Covid-19 was detected. Picture: Internet.

There seems to have been some concern over the past week about the danger of domestic workers meeting on their day off. Leaflets had been distributed and warnings issued. Nobody would have noticed – except the assistants themselves, if Carrie Lam hadn’t decided to say a few words about it at a press conference the following Friday.

“We,” Ms Lam said, temporarily joining the police force, “will show no mercy anymore.” And the following Sunday, dozens of sanctions were duly imposed on the helpers. That’s actually a rather low number, given the thousands of domestic helpers who share a day off on Sundays, and suggests the warnings have been quite effective.

Six officers approach two domestic workers to remind them of the two-person group gathering limit. Photo: GovHK.

But “show no mercy” is not a good look. If Ms Lam wants Hong Kongers to “feel her emotions” (her reason for not wearing a face mask against the press), she might try to avoid the kind of phraseology that suggests we are listening to a hard-faced bureaucratic robot.

For the sake of accuracy, she should also avoid suggesting that, in the interests of public health, caregivers should be encouraged to stay “at home”. The government’s official position is that no aide is at home in Hong Kong; their presence is definitely temporary, whatever the length of their stay, and therefore never leads to the right of residence, which falls effortlessly on bankers, academics and journalists after seven years.

General Manager Carrie Lam. File photo: GovHK.

What officials are asking now is that helpers stay at their workplaces.

The new “ruthless” approach produced a predictable reaction. Some people have created a website to collect donations to pay the fines of sanctioned caregivers. This quickly raised over HK$100,000.

Enter Labor and Welfare Secretary Law Chi-kwong, who said on a radio show that people who collect money “may be suspected of abetting a crime”, and added that he had asked the Department of Justice to investigate.

The people responsible for collecting the money then consulted a lawyer and decided to reject the whole idea. Contributors will be reimbursed.

Two years ago, I would have said that was pretty amazing. No law prohibits you from paying other people’s fines. I discovered this many years ago when I was still a child. My father, at the time a respectable and successful businessman on excellent terms with the law and order industry, showed up at the local magistrate’s court to appear as a witness.

Chi-kwong law. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP,

As he waited in the public gallery, he saw a lady convicted, unjustly according to him, of a minor driving offense. So he paid her a fine. Nobody suggested that it was illegal, that it was to encourage the offense or anything like that.

For a current example, we can consider Judge Frank Caprio, who became famous (website here) because his cases are regularly televised. People send him money with the intention that he use it to pay the fines of hardened defendants, which he shamelessly does in front of the cameras.

Mr. Law, however, followed the recent playbook of repression in which national security law hangs over us all. “You may have good intentions, but we cannot rule out that you are maliciously hampering our entire anti-epidemic efforts.” Is this subversion? Who knows?

The point that will not have escaped the money-collectors, however, is that “complicity in a crime” would involve the usual type of procedure and trial. “Maliciously obstructing the government,” on the other hand, sounds like a year in prison on remand before you even meet your government-chosen national security judge.

A policeman distributes a Covid-19 leaflet. Photo: GovHK

So Helping Helpers, the group concerned, marks a new record – an NGO appearing and disappearing in a matter of days. Obviously, the flow of advice from the continent is not limited to medical matters.

The underlying problem behind all of this is that the fixed fine was set too high. Fixed fines are generally limited to small amounts as they are effectively an instant fine without any of the usual safeguards against error or abuse.

This is reflected in the penalties imposed for other offenses subject to similar procedures: minor driving offenses from HK$250 to HK$1,000; smoking HK$1,500; littering and related offenses also HK$1,500. Earlier in the outbreak, the penalty for gatherings was HK$2,000.

The sum of 5,000 Hong Kong dollars is not only higher than the legal monthly salary set for domestic helpers. That’s more than the standard Social Security payment for an able-bodied adult — or even a disabled one unless they need constant care. It is also much more than the “fruit money” that people in my age group are supposed to survive on.

This is the kind of legislation you get when you have a legislature purged of opposition.


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