Which British individual has done the most good for the world during the last half century or more since the Second World War? I nominate Sir John Cowperthwaite, Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971, who died last Saturday.
By applying laissez faire ideology to Hong Kong with greater inflexibility than anyone else was at that time even attempting, anywhere, he became, in Patrick Crozier’s words, the father of Hong Kong’s economic boom.
And that, if you think about it, makes Cowperthwaite the grandfather of the Chinese economic boom.
Without the shining example of Hong Kong, and the economically benign influence that Hong Kong has for a long time now had on nearby places still governed by Beijing, who knows what economic – and political – state China would be in now?
Cowperthwaite was criticised during his time in office for not taxing the people of Hong Kong more, and for ignoring, in particular, education. But has there ever been a more stupendous exercise in business education and everything-else-you-can-think-of education than Hong Kong? Hong Kong has been a University of How To Do It for millions upon millions of Chinese, Chinese who are now struggling to turn China itself from a suicidal and murderous world threat into a creative contributor to the world. The productive and trading templates now being followed in China were mostly devised in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong still provides a huge connection between China and the rest of the world.
So, there is at least a decent chance that China will emerge onto the world stage not as a belligerent superpower in the Soviet mold, but as a creative superpower more like nineteenth century Britain or nineteenth century USA.
Of course China still faces severe problems, as has been well explained here. It could all, and quite soon, go horribly wrong. China’s creatively earned wealth and strength might yet – following some kind of economic melt-down – be cashed in to pay for the means to make only mischief on a huge scale.
But China’s economic strength is not a total illusion, any more (well, maybe a bit more) than the USA’s economic strength was wholly illusory in the late 1920s. (The worry about that comparison being that the USA proved that it could be the engine of world economic growth only after a huge depression and a huge world war.) And if, in a hundred years time, historians are able to look back on a century of (mostly) Chinese creativity and progress rather than of Chinese chaos and ghastliness, Sir John Cowperthwaite will arguably deserve more credit for that happy outcome than any other single individual.
The nightmare always was that the Chinese people would feel that they had to fight and to destroy to get the world’s respect. Cowperthwaite’s Hong Kong showed the Chinese people that they were capable of unleashing a better and more creative way to be respected, a way that the whole world is already benefiting from.
Patrick Crozier, to whom thanks for the link, picks out this particularly choice quote from the Telegraph obituary of the great man:
As for the paucity of economic statistics for the colony, Cowperthwaite explained that he resisted requests to provide any, lest they be used as ammunition by those who wanted more government intervention.
The state is not your friend. The less it knows, the better.