By Mark Rogers

This is not an oxymoron. It is unfortunate that we live in an age when it is perfectly possible to link these concepts in this way.

I have been writing for for six months now, and thought it might be an idea to try to summarise my outlook, or, as they say, where I “come from”.

I come from Hong Kong. And that simple statement has coloured my entire political outlook. Indeed, during my childhood and youth in the colony I suppose I scarcely had one beyond the knowledge that we were free, especially as we also knew what was just across the border.

I will go further and say that Hong Kong was the freest polity in the world during the twentieth century. We were certainly exceptionally free of politicians in the modern sense of the word. There was an elected Legislative Council, which was little more than a local government authority charged with managing the basic public amenities, and although there were occasional attempts to politicise it, they never got anywhere.

Hong Kong: no welfare state

And there was no poverty, though there were of course poor people: but poverty as it exists in places like India and South America simply didn’t exist in Hong Kong, indeed, beggars were exceptionally uncommon. The government may have contributed, for example, small grants to schools for one-off purposes – the provision of new text books, perhaps – but there was no welfare provision on the scale that we have become accustomed to in Europe – and which is all but destroying the latter.

Medical treatment was freely available to all who needed it, whether they could pay for it or not. All doctors were private, and the hospitals were chiefly operated by missionary or religious organisations. The latter provided very expensive private ward treatment for the wealthy, which in turn subsidised treatment for those who could contribute either a fraction or nothing of the cost. There were also imaginative schemes run out of hospitals, such as the despatch of teams of nurses into the low cost housing or squatter hut areas, to discover those who needed treatment, to administer it for as long as necessary and to try not to hospitalise patients (unless they needed surgery) on the grounds that people got better more quickly surrounded by friends and family.

Community Chest

Chinese families were strong, partly as a result of tradition, and partly reinforced by the greater solidarity brought about by family losses as a result of the persecutions of Mao’s China. These bonds in turn produced an exceptionally strong philanthropic disposition on the part of Hong Kong’s rich, which in the course of time resulted in the setting up of The Community Chest. This brilliantly conceived idea, originating in such business organisations as The Rotary Club and The Lions, was based on the Chinese sense of “face” and the need not to lose it. Practically, it was designed to collect on a regular basis routine charitable donations into one fund which then was able to distribute those funds according to the immediate needs of all the regular charities, thus ensuring that at any given time the most pressing needs of any given charity did not go underfunded.

The face came in thus: regular lists of the names of donors were published in the paper of record, The South China Morning Post, in descending order of generosity, but without publishing the amount. Hong Kong’s wealthy knew pretty well how much they were all currently worth, and could therefore calculate the likely donations of their business rivals from their position in the list – and could therefore work out how much more they ought to give to try to outdo their rivals!

The immense commercial success of Hong Kong

This depended fundamentally on two things: its harbour and, in its modern history, its Financial Secretary, Sir John Cowperthwaite. He certainly did not suffer interference gladly:

“Asked what is the key thing poor countries should do, Cowperthwaite once remarked: ‘They should abolish the Office of National Statistics.’ In Hong Kong, he refused to collect all but the most superficial statistics, believing that statistics were dangerous: they would lead the state to fiddle about remedying perceived ills, simultaneously hindering the ability of the market economy to work. This caused consternation in Whitehall: a delegation of civil servants were sent to Hong Kong to find out why employment statistics were not being collected; Cowperthwaite literally sent them home on the next plane back.” (From an obituary which can be found here; there is another, fuller one, here.)

The economic success of the colony was also, of course, underpinned by the English Common Law. And the legal system operated in an unusually “pure” form; unencumbered by having to cope with government intervention at every level of private and public life, the lawyers and judiciary were able to work on the basic principles of the common law, precedent and equity. This was complemented (especially in the rural areas of the mainland and outlying islands) by recourse to native law and custom where either the parties requested it, or the magistrate thought it more appropriate. There is a marvellous account of life as a Magistrate in the rural New Territories of mainland Hong Kong: Myself a Mandarin, by Austin Coates (Frederick Muller, London, 1968, subsequently reprinted, Heinemann Asia, Hong Kong 1980; Oxford University Press Hong Kong 1987; and Oxford Paperbacks 1988).

The Law and Order Anarchist

This background, filled out over the years by my reading and my experience at close quarters of the British welfare state (the family courts, where the state is especially intrusive), has given me a deep distrust of welfare as a political process. Indeed, in the light of my observations and recollections of Hong Kong, the Welfare State seems to me to be truly the oxymoron: in order for the political class to establish and administer welfare systems, they must have onerous tax regimes which end up destroying the financial base upon which the welfare systems depend. Better by far to leave people alone to look after themselves, as indeed they did, through friendly associations, credit unions and the like (all of which flourished in Hong Kong) before the welfare state took over.

So, the problem with the modern polity is that by increments, state intervention destroys wealth creation and so destroys the ability of governments to “look after” people and equally destroys the ability of people to take care of themselves, until, reaching the very nadir of intervention (Nazism and Communism), huge numbers of people are themselves destroyed.

Another lesson from Hong Kong is that the legal arrangements come first and must be based ultimately on respect for property and freedom of contract. If the state takes over the administration of private life – from business and manufacturing, to education and health, to sports and the arts, and all other private spheres – then the legal basis of society is eroded, and, amongst other things, governments themselves become harder to render accountable.

I am, therefore: an anarchist when it comes to the size of the state; a liberal – and how sad and revealing that that once robust concept now has to be qualified – a liberal in the nineteenth century Gladstonian sense, because I believe in freedom; and a conservative because I do not believe that freedom is an abstraction: it must be embodied in institutions, which of necessity are anchored in their histories, and the most important of these is the law: historically the Anglosphere’s Common Law is the most productive and protective of individuals and their livelihoods.

The Border between Freedom and Tyranny

This must have happened when I was eight or nine. It was the time of the Cultural Revolution. Those who could, fled to the border with Hong Kong; the government’s policy was that anyone who crossed the border was welcomed (as had been the policy at the time of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and the revolution itself in 1949). The border was composed of a closed off portion of Hong Kong’s territory which consisted largely of villages and their fish farms, and then the river which constituted the border itself. In this low lying district, there was a hillock on top of which was the Police Border Post.

My father had some influence and was able to wangle a visit to this Post one midnight, taking me with him. In that part of the New Territories there were hardly any lights: all was black, with a few stars and in the greater distance the high and remote mountains of southern China dim against the horizon.

The ordinary soldiers of the Red Army border patrol had been assisting refugees to escape across the river during the daytime; when word of this got back, Peking sent in the teenage Red Guards to stop it.

As we stood on the Border Post, we could see far to the east and the west along the length of the river, little flashes of light, flicking on and off, on and off, like fireflies. But they were not fireflies: they were flashes of torchlight – under the cover of darkness, the old soldiers of the border patrol were still assisting their fellow Cantonese to escape.

Those little golden glows, flicking ever so swiftly and surely on and off, guiding people to the freedoms of Hong Kong: work and prosperity and a sense of human dignity, the opposite of all the socialisms that have destroyed human purpose so often throughout the twentieth century – and still threaten. Hong Kong, the moral and political gold standard.

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