The British Empire Library

Governing Hong Kong: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China 1862-1997

by Steve Tsang

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor Brian Hook (Hong Kong Cadet and AO 1958-1963)
In 1841, at the penultimate stage in Anglo-Chinese relations culminating in the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, Lord Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary, referred disparagingly to Hong Kong as 'a barren island with hardly a house upon it'. By 1997, when the effect of the provision of the Treaty ceding Hong Kong was reversed, it had been widely acknowledged as the 'pearl of the orient'. Earlier, in their book Free to Choose (1980), Milton and Rose Friedman had cited Hong Kong as 'an excellent example of limited government and free market societies with one of the highest standards of living in Asia'.

In GOVERNING HONG KONG: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China 1862-1997, Steve Tsang, Fellow of St Antony's and Reader in Politics at the University of Oxford, addresses the central question; to what could be ascribed its good governance? The same question, differently phrased, has been regularly posed by visitors impressed by its stability, prosperity, infrastructure, lifestyle and Cantonese 'joie de vivre' over the past five decades. They were curious to know, as the author puts it, what, in the absence of a democratic system of government, made Hong Kong tick?

The focus of Dr Tsang's book is the central importance of the cadre, numerically relatively small, of colonial administrators known from 1862-1959 as cadets and thereafter as administrative officers (AOs). In the early life of the colony, the administration was weak. It took time to improve after the appointment of the first cadets. It was evidently sufficiently good at the turn of the century to have impressed Dr Sun Yat-sen, leader of the republican movement. Addressing students at Hong Kong University, his alma mater, just over a decade after the overthrow of the monarchy, he urged them to carry the example of English good government, whence had come many of his ideas, to every part of China.

It was not always to be so. By the outbreak of war in the Pacific, serious shortcomings were evident. These included legally-sanctioned racial discrimination, a low standard of awareness, of preparedness and a wanting ethos. After the defeat of Japan in 1945 and a year of military administration, civil government was restored and much had begun to change for the better under Governors Young and Grantham. In 1946, Paul KC Tsui became the first ethnic Chinese to be appointed to the Colonial Administrative Service; he was made a cadet in 1948. Tsui, a wartime HKU graduate, had served in the British Army Aid Group behind Japanese lines and in the British military administration. Also, in 1946, five cadets were appointed from the military administration who went on to distinguish themselves in the Hong Kong government.

At this time of post-war progress, Hong Kong was entering into what would become the most challenging decades of its history; they also became the decades of great achievement. Yet, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army halted at the border in 1969, nobody dared to predict how long the colony would survive.

Meanwhile, the administration responded successfully to major challenges. Among these were mass migration from the mainland, resettling refugees, raising standards of health and education, restructuring the economy, civil disturbances, the Cultural Revolution, syndicated corruption, structural reform, the Vietnamese 'boat people', and the introducing of democratic representative government.

Against this background, Hong Kong became a manufacturing economy, benefiting from the human capital transposed from Shanghai, a major exporter, and, ultimately, a financial and services-based economy, having transferred its manufacturing base to the Pearl River Delta. There, directly or indirectly, in an increasingly symbiotic relationship with the mainland, it has created some 12 million jobs. Within the administration, localization, after a slow start, had gathered pace.

The main part of the analysis for the book is drawn from material related to those years of challenge and achievement. Methodologically, Dr Tsang has trawled a comprehensive range of sources. Among the primary sources are official archives, government records, library materials, interviews, questionnaires, personal communications, memoirs and diary entries. Among the secondary sources are scholarly literature, autobiographies, biographies and the media. Uniquely, the manuscript benefits greatly from knowledge gleaned by the author from his having run the Oxford University Hong Kong Project in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he conducted a series of interviews with some 20 top level AOs, the transcripts of which are in the Rhodes House Library. Many remain subject to a time ban.

The outeome of this research is a valuable contribution to knowledge. It incorporates observations on, and assessments of, the outlook and policy responses of governors and senior AOs. Among the former are Young, Grantham, Trench, Maclehose and Patten. Among the latter are Rowe, Cowperthwaite, Jordan, Topley, Lightbody and Hayes, to name but a few. There are some gaps. There is no mention of Governor Black. Arguably, there could have been greater focus on the Wilson term (1987-1992) whieh was a critical period in relations between Britain and China and Britain and Hong Kong. The manuscript could also have benefited from factoring in more views and policy responses of Chief Secretaries, including those of Lord, a former Secretary for the Civil Service, and from more clearly depicting the dependency of the AO cadre on the professional, and other generalist, grades (the clerical service included) in governing Hong Kong.

Aside from these observations, the main thesis that cadets and AOs made a huge difference to the quality of governance in Hong Kong is well supported by the evidence. In 1997, the cadre of over 500, gender-balanced, predominantly local AOs, among them, the then first local Chief Secretary (currently an elected legislator) Anson Chan and the then Financial Secretary (currently the Chief Executive) Donald Tsang, formed a politically neutral, well-trained elite within the government. This cadre, and the rule of law, are the most valuable British legacies. Another intriguing conclusion is that AOs were characteristically highly able and dedicated rather than individually brilliant and charismatic. Those qualities, plus team work, an esprit de corps and a willingness to accept limits to the exercise of power, were the keys to their securing good governance. This book should be read by those with a serious interest in Hong Kong, in comparative colonial governance and in imperial history, and by scholars and students of public administration. It is also a valuable companion to and reference for the largely autobiographical books recently published by Hong Kong University Press.

These include Friends and Teachers by James Hayes (1996), Hong Kong Metamorphosis by Dennis Bray (2001), Feeling the Stones, Reminiscences by David Akers-Jones (2004) and Times of Change by Eric Peter Ho (2005) and by other presses, Hong Kong's Journey to Reunification: Memoirs of Sze-yuen Chung (Chinese University Press, 2000), and Good Second Class: Memories of a Generalist Overseas Administrator by Trevor Clark (Stanhope: the Memoir Club, 2004).

Governing Hong Kong by Ian Lightbody
It was in 1992 that two retired members of the Hong Kong Administrative Service decided that the time had come to produce a history of the Service up to the hand-over to China in 1997. They were convinced that this was a story well worth telling, not least because of the high regard in international circles for the way in which Hong Kong coped with its very many daunting problems.

There were of course two possible approaches to producing this book. One was to solicit contributions of memoirs from retired members and collect them together; the other was to seek a suitable writer, preferably one with a good understanding of the problems faced by Hong Kong in the past and the Government’s response to them - a pretty tall order. So a Steering Group made up of retired members in the UK was set up to get the project started, meeting in the Hong Kong Government’s London Office.

The Group very quickly decided to abandon the memoirs approach, as it was likely to be too uneven and unbalanced, and began the search for a writer. Several possibilities were considered but fell through, either because of the candidate’s lack of familiarity with Hong Kong affairs, or because their intended publisher did not think such a book would sell well. Meantime, the prospects of raising funds for the project were not good - for example, it was not the sort of scheme which the Hong Kong Jockey Club could support. And of course until someone had agreed to write the book and had agreed on terms for doing so we could not decide how much funding was needed.

Then we had a stroke of luck. We established contact with Dr Steve Tsang, Louis Cha Fellow and University Reader in Politics at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and he agreed to take on this new commitment even though he was already busily working on another book. Like us, he felt that this was a piece of history that shouldn’t be allowed to pass unrecorded and he was in fact the person best placed to record it; over the late 1970s and early 80s he worked on a project for interviewing and recording the views of retiring top Administrative Officers, formerly called Cadets, so he had a keen understanding of the Service, the problems it faced and its responses to them.

With Dr Tsang’s help we worked out what funds would be needed and a retired member of the grade living in Hong Kong persuaded two Hong Kong companies to make generous donations to cover our needs, including the cost of producing a Chinese translation.

The book describes the development of the Service from its establishment in 1862 but focuses largely on the post-Second World War years. It is highly readable and should prove popular with international agencies on the lookout for models of good governance as well as with former members of the Service.

British Empire Book
Steve Tsang
I B Tauris
978 1 84511 525 8