7 John Lee-isms: We try to decipher the thoughts and lingo of Hong Kong’s new leader

Screengrab of JohnLee2022.hk’s video of John Lee’s chief executive election campaign rally.
Screengrab of JohnLee2022.hk’s video of John Lee’s chief executive election campaign rally.

While we pride ourselves here at Coconuts on sourcing and breaking down the juiciest stories of the day, we’ve got to admit we are not experts in everything. But few things have perplexed us as much as new Chief Executive John Lee’s peculiar lingo and logic. This is, no doubt, due to some lack of understanding on our part about the nuances of political rhetoric. But now that he’s taken office and we’ve had a chance to hear much more from him about his policies and the direction he’d like to take, there’s no better time to try and crack the code, or at least attempt to decipher some of his most commonly used Lee-isms, to see what “wisdom” we can glean from them.

1. “Set results as the goal”

Stock photo. Photo: Pixabay/Tumisu

One of Lee’s favorite catchphrases in Cantonese roughly translates to “set results as the goal”. For example, he mentioned during his election campaign as well as in his inauguration speech that he would “set results as the goal” to solve societal problems, especially the city’s affordable housing crisis.

To the untrained ear, this slogan might sound like a rhetorical phrase lacking in substantive content, but current affairs commentator Fung Hei-kin said the phrase actually encapsulates “a great philosophy of life”. 

In a satirical Facebook post, Fung explained that the concept of “setting results as the goal” means that, whatever the result is, that is your target. 

“Visually speaking, if you shoot the arrow first, then draw the target, then no matter where your arrow flies, it will definitely hit the bull’s eye,” he added. Fung also said that it is a “no-lose” philosophy of life and political theory. 

We really like this one. Perhaps we’ll tell our boss during our next performance review that getting results will be our KPI too.

2. “If you solve one problem a day, you’ll have 365 solved in a year.”

Lee is certainly a man who is focused on results. During his inauguration speech, he also shared this important insight: “We are facing a lot of problems, but if you solve one a day, you’ll have 365 solved in a year. There should be results as they accumulate.”

This message seems to have resonated with many netizens, with some commenters on the popular LIHKG forum “praising” what he said and sharing similar insights:

“He didn’t calculate wrongly.”

“There are 60 seconds in one minute.”

“If you create one problem a day, there will be 365 in a year.”

The political world is often filled with lies, so we appreciate this accurate and factual statement from Lee. Our only problem: what happens in a leap year? (The next one is in 2024 and Lee should still be in office then.)

3. “I and we”

Screengrab of JohnLee2022.hk’s video of John Lee’s chief executive election campaign rally.

Perhaps the most perplexing of Lee-isms is the campaign slogan he used for the chief executive election in May (in which he ran unopposed). The slogan in Cantonese — which roughly translates as “I and We Begin a New Chapter Together” — is clunky, with the use of “I” being redundant as the latter pronoun already encapsulates the first-person singular pronoun.

So we had to do quite a bit of digging to find out why his 150-strong team came up with this slogan. We found this article by a columnist for the pro-government Sing Tao Daily, saying that he understood from sources that Lee’s campaign team felt that the use of “I and We” is more innovative. The columnist also pointed out similar language usage in a mainland China drama with a title roughly translating to “I and We Are Together”, adding mainland Chinese consider the phrase one with “a literary flair”. 

However, that did not seem to sit well with Hongkongers on a popular Facebook page dedicated to reviewing Lee’s Chinese language abilities, with some characterizing the use of the phrase as “complicating the simple”, which is against the basic rules of communication.

Paul Grice, a philosopher of language, has identified a number of maxims of conversations, which describe principles people intuitively follow for effective communication. One of those is the maxim of manner, which states that you should try to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as possible in what you say to avoid obscurity and ambiguity. 

As storytellers ourselves, we appreciate effective communication, so we’re not that big a fan of this particular Lee-ism.

4. “We and us”

Even more peculiar is the English version of the campaign slogan — “We and Us A New Chapter Together”. Many have pointed out that the translation should have been “I and We” — even though that in itself is clumsy. 

In response, Lee said in a Facebook post in May that, after much discussion, his team decided that the slogan should not be translated directly and it is more important to bring across a message of “everyone being together, without making a distinction between you and me”. He said it is necessary to use the first-person plural pronoun twice in the subject and object positions to bring across this message. The chief executive also said that “different people have different views, but [we] can respect each other’s differences for a pluralistic society”.

However, it seems like many Hongkongers didn’t buy his explanation. For example, the Facebook page that reviews his language use criticized him for dragging in issues of “respect, tolerance and diversity” into a matter of basic language usage for no reason, adding that he should just admit his grammatical mistakes and not find excuses. 

While we certainly aren’t the grammar police, we are particular about getting the right pronouns in the subject and object positions. From our understanding of the slogan, it is about the people of Hong Kong writing a new chapter together. Hence, it makes more sense to use only subject pronouns like “we”, which do or are something, instead of object pronouns like “us”, which are receivers of the action. We very much want to be respectful and tolerant, but we’ve got to side with the Facebook critiquer on this one.

5. “Mother secondary school”

Wah Yan College (Kowloon). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During his campaign, Lee was asked about his religious beliefs. According to independent media outlet immediahk.net, he replied in English saying, “Well I’m a Catholic. I believe in what I have been taught when I was in my mother secondary school, Wah Yan Kowloon. I thank [sic] for the education I received there, and the way I was brought up.” 

For your information, Wah Yan College (Kowloon) is a prestigious all-boys Catholic school in Hong Kong. That might make you wonder why his mother was studying at the school. For our non-Chinese speaking readers, the Cantonese translation for “mother school” actually means one’s alma mater. 

This Lee-ism could make for much confusion, so we’re not a fan of it.

6. A supermoon with the sun, earth and moon aligned?

Did you catch the recent supermoon? We did and so did our chief executive. In fact, he apparently saw it along with a lunar eclipse, as indicated by his use of hashtags in a Facebook post hinting that the sun, earth and moon were aligned in a line. 

Wow, that must have been quite a sight, seeing a lunar eclipse and supermoon together! Has such an astronomical anomaly ever been witnessed before? We still can’t see the lunar eclipse in his photo but are absolutely jelly that we don’t have as sharp an eye as Lee.

7. Saying explicitly how good Hong Kong is

In Lee’s first question-and-answer session with the Legislative Council earlier this month, lawmaker Chan Siu-hung asked the chief executive how the government would respond to smear campaigns by foreign forces and tell the story of China and Hong Kong in a good way.

Lee replied that, although Hong Kong is a “noble man”, there are many “villains” in the world, so the government would need to explain Hong Kong’s advantages and achievements to the world in an explicit manner.

His statement was scorned by many Hongkongers not only for being so direct, but also for the specific phrase he chose to describe this more explicit approach — roughly translating to “drawing cartoon characters with their intestines seen” — which is a colloquial usage that is seen as inappropriate for the formal Legislative Council setting.

The sight of cartoon characters with their intestines drawn out is a bit hard for us to stomach, so we’d prefer a bit more subtlety when it comes to promoting how Hong Kong is such an awesome place.

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