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This is a website for anyone interested in Sir John Cowperthwaite, post-war Hong Kong and economic growth more generally. For most people John Cowperthwaite is a now largely forgotten Scotsman. And yet he was central to designing and implementing the economic policies that enabled Hong Kong’s remarkable post-war economic growth.

When he arrived in Hong Kong in 1945 it had a per capita income of only 30% of its mother country, Britain. By the time Hong Kong was reunited with China in 1997 it had matched Britain’s gdp/capita. And now it is 40% higher.

 

How did that happen? Who was John Cowperthwaite? And are there lessons that we can learn today from this extraordinary success story?

 

Sir John Copwerthwaite

At the end of the Second World War, Hong Kong lived up to its description as “the barren island.” It had few natural resources, its trade and infrastructure lay in tatters, its small manufacturing base had been destroyed and its income per capita was less than a quarter of its mother country, Britain. As a British colony, it fell to a small number of civil servants to confront these difficult challenges, largely alone. But by the time of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was one of the most prosperous nations on Earth. By 2015 its GDP per capita was over 40% higher than Britain’s. How did that happen?

Around the world, post-war governments were turning to industrial planning, Keynesian deficits and high inflation to stimulate their economies. How much did the civil servants in Hong Kong adopt from this emerging global consensus? Virtually nothing. They rejected the idea that governments should play an active role in industrial planning – instead believing in the ability of entrepreneurs to find the best opportunities. They rejected the idea of spending more than the government raised in taxes – instead aiming to keep a year’s spending as a reserve. They rejected the idea of high taxes – instead keeping taxes low, believing that private investment would earn high returns, and expand the long-term tax base.

This strategy was created and implemented by no more than a handful of men over a fifty-year period. Perhaps the most important of them all was John Cowperthwaite, who ran the trade and industry department after the war and then spent twenty years as deputy and then actual Financial Secretary before his retirement in 1971. He, more than anyone, shaped the economic policies of Hong Kong for the quarter century after the war and set the stage for a remarkable economic expansion. His resolve was tested constantly over his period in office, and it was only due to his determination, independence, and intellectual rigor that he was not diverted from the path in which he believed so strongly.

This website examines the man behind the story, and the successful economic policies that he and others crafted with the people of Hong Kong.

 

Architect of Prosperity

Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the making of Hong Kong is a book about Sir John Cowperthwaite – the man Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman identified as being behind Hong Kong’s remarkable post-war economic transformation.

Despite there being some articles about him and effusive obituaries there have, until now, been no published biographies of Cowperthwaite.

This is a unique story of dogged free market economics coupled with post-war British public administration and the true grit and ingenuity of the Chinese people. Were these policies unique to a time and place, or are there lessons that we can draw from Cowperthwaite and Hong Kong’s success?

The book won the Gold Medal for best biography (2017) from Axiom Awards.

Architect of Prosperity is available at all good bookshops and at:

UK:   https://www.amazon.co.uk/Architect-Prosperity-John-Cowperthwaite-Making/dp/1907994696

USA:  https://www.amazon.com/Architect-Prosperity-John-Cowperthwaite-Making/dp/1907994696

Reviews

“During the 1960s, governments were responding to political unrest and economic challenges with nationalisation, centralised planning and public spending (financed by heavy taxes and debt). There was intense pressure for Sir John Cowperthwaite, the financial secretary of Hong Kong, to join the crowd… A new biography of Cowperthwaite by Neil Monnery, a former management consultant, tells of a man who replied to these demands with a qualified “no”, and in the process became that most unusual of things: a bureaucrat hero to libertarians. His approach would subsequently be labelled “positive non-interventionism”, meaning governance stopping just short of laissez-faire.”  The Economist October 5th 2017

“I have just read a fascinating new book called Architect of Prosperity by Neil Monnery. It’s about the role of Sir John Cowperthwaite, Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971 in setting the colony on the road to prosperity. It is an astonishing story… Its success derived from brilliant economic policymaking that involved reliance on market forces and minimising the role of the state… You might think that, given the economic record, Britain’s economic establishment, including the serried ranks of mandarins and their political masters, might feel that they have a good deal to learn. They have. They should read Monnery’s book.”  Roger Bootle, Chairman of Capital Economics, in The Telegraph

“Not before time we now have a fascinating book on one of those who helped create Hong Kong’s thriving economy. Cowperthwaite was a believer in free market economics well before this idea became popular again. Hong Kong should be grateful to him.”  Lord Patten of Barnes, last governor of Hong Kong and author of East and West (1999) and First Confession: A Sort of Memoir (2017).

“I am very pleased to celebrate the launching of Neil Monnery’s latest book. Indeed, Hong Kong’s post-war rise from destitution to its universally recognised status as the world’s freest economy is a fascinating story to tell. Sir John, during his decade-long steerage of Hong Kong’s economy, adopted a “positive non-intervention” policy, ensuring minimal government interference in the economic affairs of individuals and society. With free market as his prime principle, he worked to maintain a prudent fiscal policy and a simple tax regime buttressed by low tax rates, providing the conditions that would enable individuals and businesses to thrive. My congratulations to Neil Monnery for his remarkable new book.”   The Hon. Paul Chan Mo-po, Financial Secretary, Government of Hong Kong SAR

“This fascinating account of the rise of Hong Kong as a global economic powerhouse is well written and, as such, easy to read and understand. I’m happy to recommend it wholeheartedly to CapX’s discerning readership. [Neil Monnery’s] work has immortalised a man to whom so many owe so much. Architect of Prosperity is an economic and intellectual history. Above all, it is a tribute to a principled, self-effacing, consequential and deeply moral man. Monnery deserves our gratitude for writing it.”   Marian L. Tupy, Senior Policy Analyst at the Centre for Global Liberty and Prosperity in CapX

“To this day, people have little idea of Sir John’s achievements, which deserve a wider audience. This book fills a glaring void. I hope it will have the wide readership that it most certainly deserves.”  Yeung Wai-hong, Next Magazine (Hong Kong)

“Sir John Cowperthwaite, who arrived in Hong Kong in 1945 and topped off his career there as financial secretary from 1961 to 1971, was not one to blow his own trumpet and never cultivated a coterie of followers to do it for him. Thankfully, however, Neil Monnery has now published the first biography of Cowperthwaite. Cowperthwaite, a Scotsman by birth, was at the heart of economic policymaking in Hong Kong throughout this period and the colony’s success was largely attributable to his particular brand of free-market economics. For those interested in economic management, it is a remarkable tale, and one that Monnery tells with relish.”  Richard Cockett, The Literary Review

“There’s a book just out which everyone in the Conservative party ought to read: Architect of Prosperity by Neil Monnery. It’s the biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest unsung heroes, Sir John Cowperthwaite, the financial secretary in the British colonial administration whose determinedly low-tax, regulation-light, fiscally austere regime put Hong Kong on its path to prosperity.”  James Delingpole, The Spectator

“Hong Kong went from being a barren rock with no resources to becoming a dynamic economy with living standards higher than many European countries. A key role in this remarkable story was played by Sir John Cowperthwaite as Financial Secretary. He believed that expenditure should be determined by revenues, not the other way round, that private enterprise should decide where investment should be allocated, tax rates should be low to attract capital and create surplus profits to be re-invested to create compounding growth. He was against deficits because he viewed the taxpayer of tomorrow just as worthy as the taxpayer of today. The results were spectacular and made Hong Kong into the economic miracle it is today. This book charts his wonderful, inspiring and remarkable story and his philosophy is brilliantly expressed. The wonder is that other Governments in Europe don’t follow this example.”  Lord Lamont of Lerwick, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, author of In Office (1999)

“As President Xi visits Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the 1997 handover from the UK, he might do well to reflect on the name of Sir John Cowperthwaite and what this quiet British civil servant did to make the former colony so prosperous. Which was largely leave the people to their own devices… Cowperthwaite was the most important person behind these policies, as a new book by Neil Monnery, Architect of Prosperity, demonstrates. He ran the trade and industry department after the war then became financial secretary in Hong Kong—effectively the colony’s Chancellor—until he retired in 1971… It’s a fascinating story of a remarkable but quiet man, and the astonishing economic results of his benign policy. Perhaps it is a lesson not just for President Xi, but for us in the UK too, as we drift on doing so many of the wrong things that have made us 40% poorer than Hong Kong.    Dr Eamonn Butler, The Adam Smith Institute

“This book tells the story of Hong Kong’s success, focusing on the career of Sir John Cowperthwaite who played key roles in the colony’s administration from 1945 to 1971…Monnery tells the story with verve and accuracy, providing one of the best compact economic histories of Hong Kong in the second half of the twentieth century.”   Professor Jack A. Goldstone, Economic Affairs

“There are figures in history who deserve to be far better known and Sir John Cowperthwaite is one of those. Neil Monnery’s account of the way he shaped Hong Kong into a dynamic and successful economy now far more prosperous than its colonial ruler, Britain, is all the more fascinating in the light of the current debate about what drives economic development. Policy makers today can learn a lot from the focus and the willingness to ignore the conventional wisdom of the time demonstrated by Cowperthwaite and his colleagues.”   Diane Coyle, professor of economics at the University of Manchester and author of The Economics of Enough (2011) and GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History (2014).

“Anyone seeking to understand the true nature of inequality must read Neil Monnery’s excellent book. In Hong Kong Sir John Cowperthwaite created a society of great wealth inequality but of great freedom and opportunity. Refugees fled to Hong Kong from the imposed equality of the People’s Republic of China in pursuit of the greater equality of opportunity in the British Colony. This book raises fundamental questions about the nature of the equality we seek to pursue.”   Russell Napier – market historian and author of Anatomy of the Bear (2016)

“John Cowperthwaite is the neglected hero of the twentieth century: the man who, quietly and unflashily, but with great determination, created the greatest economic miracle on the planet. Now, thanks to Neil Monnery, he is neglected no more.”   Daniel Hannan M.E.P.

 “As I write, Oxford is in uproar with almost 60 academics and a pitchfork-wielding twitter mob denouncing the university’ s Professor Nigel Biggar for calling in a Times  article for a balanced appraisal of Britain’ s colonial history rather than the usual one-sided condemnation. If any of these self-righteously angry anti-colonialists happen on Neil Monnery’ s excellent new book on Sir John Cowperthwaite, apoplexy will surely follow. For Mr Monnery makes a convincing case for the beneficial effects of the governance of the UK’ s last major colony, Hong Kong. This is a beautifully produced book from which I learnt a great deal about Hong Kong’s development.” Prof. J. R. Shackleton in Economic Affairs (Vol. 38.1)

“an excellent introduction to the economic history of Hong Kong and the work of a talented civil servant who helped to make Hong Kong’s rapid postwar development possible.” Prof. Peter Cunich, University of Hong Kong in The Economic History Review (Vol. 71 Issue 4)

“Monnery’s biography of my favourite civil servant – Sir John Cowperthwaite – is superb” Steve Baker M.P.

“Cowperthwaite.  Sir John Cowperthwaite. An unlikely guru, to be sure. It was Cowperthwaite who, along with a small cadre of other civil servants, turned Hong Kong into one of the world’s most prosperous economies over the course of the 70-plus years since the end of World War II – this in the judgment of no less an authority than Milton Friedman. The story is set out by Neil Monnery in Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the Making of Hong Kong” David Warsh, Economic Principals

Blog

Hannan extols Hong Kong and Cowperthwaite

In today’s Sunday Telegraph, Daniel Hannan MEP praises Hong Kong and the role played by Sir John Cowperthwaite. He notes that “nowhere else on Earth so perfectly embodies the power of free trade” and rhetorically asks “Who made it happen? An unassuming Scottish civil servant called John Cowperthwaite.” See the full article “For an example …

The Social Review Magazine

Christopher Olewicz writes in The Social Review magazine about different models for post-Brexit Britain including the “Singapore model”, the “Hong Kong model” and the need for a Labour generated “British model” too. https://www.thesocialreview.co.uk/2018/11/21/the-british-model/