In the last days of British rule of Hong Kong, many Chinese in the territory took pictures of their young
children in front of colonial coats of arms adorning the exterior of government buildings. No doubt most
did so to capture a snapshot of history that would shortly disappear. But some, I dare say, were paying their
final respects to a departing, father-like symbol they would remember with fondness and admiration.
Why so? As Hong Kong marks the 10th anniversary of its return to China, and ponders the nature of its
future relationship with the mainland, it's worth recalling one of Britain's most important legacies to the
city: good governance, possibly the best experienced by any colony ruled by any power at any time. Despite
the absence of democracy, and the accountability and transparency democracy engenders and encourages,
by the early 1980s the British administration in Hong Kong had proven itself essentially honest and
effective in meeting the demands of its citizens.
Hong Kong Travel Guide
British Hong Kong was not always well governed. Indeed, the first two decades of colonial rule were awful.
That period was marked by petty infighting among senior officials, corruption reaching nearly the very top,
administrative inefficiency and gross discrimination against local Chinese. As John Bowring, Hong Kong's
Governor in the 1850s, admitted: "We rule in ignorance; they obey in blindness."
But a break from this dismal state of affairs occurred in 1862, when three young graduates of British public
schools and of Cambridge University—Walter Meredith Deane, Cecil Clementi Smith and Malcolm Struan
Tonnochy—were appointed on the basis of merit rather than patronage to serve as cadets in the colonial
administration. Such cadets, who gained the modern title of administrative officers (AOs) at the end of the
1950s, were well educated, generously remunerated, and meant to be put on the fast track for promotion to
high office after they had learned Cantonese. Some rose to be Governors, either of Hong Kong or other
These early gentlemen administrators laid the foundation for a modern civil service based on merit, a
concept that had been accepted in Britain itself only seven years earlier. They created an esprit de corps
that took on any task, saw corruption as beneath them, and made decisions on the basis of what in their
own conscience and judgment were in the best interests of the colony—a concept that slowly evolved from
focusing on the needs of the tiny expatriate community to the welfare of the majority Chinese population.
While AOs were able officials, they were not necessarily the brightest or most imaginative of individuals.
Many were also arrogant. Yet they did not simply serve themselves, their superiors or specific sectors in
Hong Kong. The AOs saw their worth and achievement as being measured by what good they were able to
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do collectively for the colony. For example, when Hong Kong Travel Guide built its first cross-harbor tunnel in the late 1960s,
then Governor David Trench, a former AO, insisted on two tubes of four lanes, overruling the engineers' cheaper
one-tube blueprint, which, he rightly concluded, the city would quickly outgrow.
Hong Kong's current Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, says that, unlike in the colonial era, today's officials need to
be less élitist and more responsive to public opinion and needs. As a onetime AO himself, Tsang should know
better—he's not giving his former British colleagues due credit. If anything, Tsang needs to make his own
appointed ministers, who oversee the civil service, more accountable. The way to do that is to force them to face
elections. That's the essence of the Westminster model, which is part of Hong Kong's heritage as a former crown
colony: elected ministers, nonpartisan civil servants, all working for the people. It is no longer politically correct
to say or think so, but to shape its future, Hong Kong should draw from its past.
With reporting by Steve Tsang is Louis Cha Fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford University, and author of the
forthcoming book Governing Hong Kong
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