Monday, March 06, 2006

The Champion of Hong Kong's Freedom

Thanks to Leif Smith and the Explorers' Foundation for this:

"The Champion of Hong Kong's Freedom", by Christian Wignall
Sir John Cowperthwaite, Hong Kong, 1941 to 1971

A talk given at Free Exchange, November 15, 2003. Presented here as unfinished notes, courtesy of the author, Christian Wignall, March 3, 2006.

The psychology of the Chinese in the post war decades was that Hong Kong was a port in a storm, a (hopefully) temporary refuge. They did not feel themselves to be citizens, with a stake in Hong Kong's future. They felt only too lucky to be let in at all. Only with the passage of time has the sense of belonging and with it the pressure for democratic representation emerged.

Because government officials were appointed, not elected, they had no temptation to court short term popularity with bread and circuses, they took the long view. Because government officials were not elected but appointed it was possible for some quite unlikely types of people to rise to positions of great authority. It was in this manner that someone with ardently libertarian beliefs came to be one of the most powerful people in the government in the nineteen-sixties. His name was John James Cowperthwaite.


... Yeung Way Hong, publisher of Hong Kong's most popular Chinese language magazine, "Next," has suggested erecting an heroic-scale statue of John Cowperthwaite.

'I am absolutely certain that his personality and upbringing are responsible for Hong Kong's prosperity.' was the verdict of one observer.


Professor Alvin Rabushka, described Cowperthwaite thus: "[He was] brilliant, well-trained in economics, suffered no fools, and was highly principled. He wouldn't have lasted five minutes in a similar post in Britain, since he was not predisposed to compromise any of his principles - only the constitutional structure of Hong Kong allowed him that power."

And what exactly were those principles? Again, I quote: "True to the ethics of Scottish Protestantism, he hates to spend money - especially if it belongs to someone else (like the taxpayer). For example, he never spent any money on the upgrade of his official residence in HK. Though he had a budget to do so, he refused. His successor turned [the official residence] into a palace, because - as he said to Sir John -, 'he believed in luxury'. Sir John did not. For him his job was a duty, not a ticket to luxury and riches. So there we have it: 'true to the ethics of Scottish Protestantism'. This man was a philosophical son of another Scotsman, Adam Smith."