24 October 2016
Under the governorship of Sir Murray MacLehose (left), during 1971-1982, Hong Kong started to take flight as a trading and manufacturing hub in East Asia. Photos: GovHK, internet
Under the governorship of Sir Murray MacLehose (left), during 1971-1982, Hong Kong started to take flight as a trading and manufacturing hub in East Asia. Photos: GovHK, internet

Secrets of HK’s successful governance under the British

I mentioned in my previous column key elements that underlie good governance.

The World Bank’s method for rating governance emphasizes the pillar aspects of social harmony, benefits to citizens and economic development.

Democracy, along with the other core values acclaimed and preached by the West, is obviously absent here.

Admittedly, democracy matters a great deal to our civilization and all human being’s dignity, but I do not buy the notion that it is something so indispensable that good governance can’t do without it.

The truth is that only a small fraction of the world’s entire population is fortunate enough to live in places with both democracy and good governance.

Most people acknowledge that during the colonial era Hong Kong did not have democracy but enjoyed remarkably good governance.

Today, democracy remains distant, but the good governance we all once took pride in is fading away.

However, pinning one’s hopes on democracy and universal suffrage to restore good governance merely feeds into the government’s accusations that Hongkongers lack patriotism and youngsters are troublemakers.

Now let me take a pragmatic approach to examine why the chief executives of Hong Kong have all failed in performance and popularity when compared with the colonial governors.

From a nationalist’s point of view, Hongkongers being colonized was nothing glorious.

Yet as early as 1923, in his speech at the University of Hong Kong, Sun Yat-sen noted that Hong Kong’s sound governance back then ignited the spark of his advocacy to modernize China through revolution.

At that time, Hong Kong still lagged behind the West, and Sun applauded the colony only because China was afflicted with chaos and dire poverty.

There was no trace of democracy in Hong Kong back then, and I wonder what impressed Sun was the striking contrast between China’s “rule of man” (top policymakers could move the goalposts whenever they liked) and Hong Kong’s rule of law (both the government and citizens must abide by established rules).

No one denies that the rule of law was the cornerstone of British Hong Kong’s great success.

Indeed, the city’s contribution to China is not being a model of how democracy or freedom works but rather one of how the rule of law serves as the bedrock of effective governance.

Another secret behind the ability of the colonial period to thrive for more than a century was that as long as the public stayed obedient to British rule rather than opposing it, the colonial authorities – who were also granted a high degree of autonomy — would adjust to changes and popular sentiment to avoid antagonism between the people and the government.

Thus, the second essential element after the rule of law that contributed to the flourishing of the colonial era was autonomy, which ensured that the people’s demands would be heeded.

(As an old-line democracy, Britain, in loosening control of its overseas territories and granting ultimate decolonisation after World War II, was also reflecting the will of its people.)

The third element was the authority and popular support the colonial authorities commanded.

Not a single governor throughout the colonial era was ever trapped in any scandal, subjected to rumors or questions about his integrity or conduct, or suspected of unlawful acts.

The fact was that colonial governors were all immune from the Anti-Corruption Ordinance, which meant that the guarantee of the top leader’s unquestioned integrity was not only the governor’s own personal reputation but also the honor and glory of the British Empire.

Hongkongers’ trust of the governors appointed by London had nothing to do with servility but was based on their proven track record.

While safeguarding the interests of Britons and British firms, London would, when necessary, also respond in a timely fashion to Hongkongers’ outcries and needs. This was the fourth element.

Sir Murray MacLehose, the longest-serving governor of Hong Kong, from 1971-1982, was an exemplary figure in this regard.

The many groundbreaking achievements during his decade-long tenure (such as establishing the Independent Commission Against Corruption, initiating the 10-year public housing program, rezoning land for country parks, planning Hong Kong’s first mass transit railway, as well as the introduction of nine-year compulsory, free education) reshaped Hong Kong and paved the way for the city to ascend to its global eminence.

MacLehose also sustained and consolidated the two pillars of Hong Kong’s good governance: recruiting and pooling a large number of high-caliber administrative officers with political acumen (Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary John Tsang all started their official career back then) as well as transforming the Hong Kong Police Force into a professional, efficient and corruption-free world-class law enforcement team.

Even the last governor, Chris Patten, who was mocked by the pro-Beijing camp as a democracy salesman, greatly enhanced the transparency of all government departments and set a precedent for direct dialogue and interaction with the public (question-and-answer sessions in the Legislative Council, joint radio phone-in programs and televised forums) that the chief executives after the handover have inherited.

The fifth element was the numerous consultation and advisory bodies and panels, more than 400 in total, that helped the authorities build consensus as a viable substitute for the lack of public engagement within an undemocratic framework for governance.

None of these elements falls into the category of democracy.

Some may argue that Hong Kong’s governance after 1997 is totally different from that in colonial times, and thus these elements may have little relevance today.

But since the Basic Law stipulates that existing systems shall remain unchanged, isn’t that a big nod toward the good governance of the city under the British?

I will explore in my next column why these vital elements have somehow failed to function in the post-handover years.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 20.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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