Chief Executive John Lee’s 2022 Policy Address aspires to unite the community behind the one country, two systems project and his policy proposals, and to “give full play to our fine traditions of inclusiveness, unity and respect for different viewpoints” (in Para. 5). This is a laudable objective that everyone could support.

On October 20, during legislative questions about the address, legal sector lawmaker Ambrose Lam expressed his appreciation. The address, Lam said, “is not afraid of the smear [抹黑] of collusion between government and business.” Lam was probably referring to Lee’s call for public-private partnerships in housing and health care and other forms of business-government cooperation.

john lee policy address
Chief Executive John Lee met the press after announcing his first Policy Address on October 19, 2022. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

John Lee’s reply was very strange. He said:

“First, the so-called ‘collusion’ mentioned in the question just now is a term used to stir up social conflict during the period of anti-China strife [反中亂港] in Hong Kong, and we have to oppose such destructive discourse of sowing dissension and stirring up conflicts… ‘Collusion’ between X and Y mentioned earlier [by Lam] is a deliberate attempt to create social division and contradictions.”

He repeated his aspiration that “the whole community should be united and pool their strength together.” He referred to “collusion” as “bad thought” [壞思想]. This view is problematic.

First, collusion is a legal concept that refers to “a deceitful agreement or secret cooperation between two or more parties to limit open competition by deceiving, misleading or defrauding others of their legal right.” Lam was referring to an often secret agreement between the government and one or more businesses to deceive, mislead, or defraud others, in this case other businesses and/or the public.

legco legislative council
File Photo: LegCo.

Second, collusion between businesses to fix prices is a well-known practice in many parts of the world, including in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, we have seen allegations of collusion in the way the government awarded to a single developer the contract to build Cyberport. So widespread was the perception of collusion that former leader Tung Chee-hwa in his 2005 Policy Address stated explicitly that the government “resolutely opposed” collusion. Former leader Donald Tsang also denied that the project was collusion. Therefore, to deny even the possibility of collusion between government and business is disingenuous and problematic.

Third, collusion between businesses and government officials is common on the mainland. The Chinese Communist Party has railed against this practice for many years and has exposed and punished officials and business leaders for collusion.

Therefore, there is no reason that we should assume that collusion in future transactions between government and business is not possible and that to raise this possibility is a “smear.”

Kiran Ridley Tear peaceful protest human chain lion rock protester umbrella
Photo: Kiran Ridley.

It is also untrue to say that the term collusion “creates” or “sows” social division and contradictions. Lee associates collusion with anti-government protest in Hong Kong. These protests did not create social division but exposed it: especially political disputes over the future of political reform in Hong Kong.

Social division in Hong Kong takes two forms: First, most importantly is division among social classes, between the haves and have nots. Hong Kong glories in its free-wheeling capitalism. According to Marx, capitalism is a system of class exploitation. Marxism is the founding ideology of our nation. We should take this analytical frame seriously. Revolutionary movements like the Chinese Communist Party exploited class conflict to gain power. The party mobilised popular hatred of an exploiting ruling class.

Colonial authorities were particularly sensitive to the possibility that agitators could mobilize the poor in Hong Kong to rise up against the government and/or the rich. Wealthy families demanded protection. It is not a surprise then, that the 1938 colonial law of sedition, incorporated into the Crimes Ordinance (Cap 200) criminalizes inciting ‘feelings of ill-will or enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong’. The law ignores the possibility that hatred of an exploiting ruling class may be well deserved. The history of modern China is about nothing if not this.

Hong Kong sedition law
Hong Kong sedition law. Photo: HKU.

Second, social division refers to political contradictions, especially over the issue of political reform in Hong Kong. The 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests both focused, at least in part, on this sort of divide. Collusion between government and business played no role in fomenting these political conflicts. Class conflict and political division intersect: the rich and the poor both tending to support the government, while the middle class protested, largely for political reasons.

John Lee wants unity, social cohesion, and solidarity in Hong Kong. To damn discussion of collusion as the language of divisive enemies is to deny the reality that Hong Kong is divided along social class and political lines. Lee’s comments on collusion amount to a denial of conflict and of legitimate politics itself.

John Lee
Chief Executive John Lee walking out of the Legislative Council chamber after announcing his first Policy Address on October 19, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Politics is about who gets what, when, and how. It is about the distribution of power. The wealthy in Hong Kong have more political resources to get what they want than do the poor. Although class interests in Hong Kong are muted, they are still here, clearly visible. Government policies have empowered the wealthy in Hong Kong and helped to create the hugely unequal distribution of wealth (and monopoly and oligopoly) and power that we see here today.

No amount of effort can wish social divisions and contradictions away. John Lee’s job is to recognise these conflicts and manage them. Collusion does not “create” or “sow” social division. Rather it exacerbates conflict when the victims of collusion learn how they have been treated. So, while our elite congratulate themselves in the naïve belief that talk of collusion is a smear, they should understand that the possibility of collusion is very real and be wary of appearing to collude. History shows that the public is watching and will not tolerate it.

A Chinese version of this column first appeared in Ming Pao last week.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.