John James Cowperthwaite

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The Honourable Sir
John James Cowperthwaite
John James Cowperthwaite.jpg
Financial Secretary of Hong Kong
In office
17 April 1961 – 30 June 1971
Governor Sir Robert Black
Sir David Trench
Preceded by Arthur Grenfell Clarke
Succeeded by Charles Philip Haddon-Cave
Personal details
Born (1915-04-25)25 April 1915
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Died 21 January 2006(2006-01-21) (aged 90)
Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom
Spouse(s) Sheila Mary Thomson
Children John James Hamish Cowperthwaite
Alma mater Merchiston Castle School
St Andrews University
Christ's College, Cambridge

Sir John James Cowperthwaite, KBE, CMG (Chinese: 郭伯偉爵士; 25 April 1915 – 21 January 2006), was a British civil servant and the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971. His introduction of free market economic policies are widely credited with turning postwar Hong Kong into a thriving global financial centre.

Early years[edit]

Cowperthwaite attended Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, Scotland, and later studied classics at St Andrews University and Christ's College, Cambridge.[1] He joined the British Colonial Administrative Service in Hong Kong in 1941, but left briefly during World War II to a posting in Sierra Leone.[1]

Hong Kong[edit]

He returned to Hong Kong in 1945 and continued to rise through the ranks. He was asked to find ways in which the government could boost post-war economic outlook but found the economy was recovering swiftly without any government intervention.[1] He took the lesson to heart and positive non-interventionism became the focus of his economic policy as Financial Secretary.[1] He refused to collect economic statistics to avoid officials meddling in the economy.[2] According to Catherine R. Schenk, Cowperthwaite's policies helped it to develop from one of the poorest places on earth to one of the wealthiest and most prosperous: "Low taxes, lax employment laws, absence of government debt, and free trade are all pillars of the Hong Kong experience of economic development."[3] The Economic Freedom of the World 2015 Report ranks Hong Kong as both the freest economy in the world, a distinction it has held since this index began ranking countries in 1975, and among the most prosperous.[4]

Throughout the 1960s, Cowperthwaite refused to implement free universal primary education, contributing to relatively high illiteracy rates in today's older generation. Compulsory education was only introduced under the governorship of Sir Murray MacLehose the next decade.[5] At a time when Hong Kong's roads were crippled by traffic congestion, Cowperthwaite also steadfastly opposed construction of the Mass Transit Railway, a costly undertaking which was nevertheless built following his retirement.[6] It would later become one of the world's most heavily utilised (and profitable) railways.

In 1960, he was appointed as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE)[7] and, in 1964, a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG).[8] He later became a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1968.[9] He was highly praised by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman just before his death.[1][2]

Commentators have credited his management of the economy of Hong Kong as a leading example of how small government encourages growth.[10][11]

Post–civil service career[edit]

After leaving his retirement, he was international adviser to Jardine Fleming, the Hong Kong-based investment bank until 1981. He retired and left Hong Kong for St Andrews, Scotland and became a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

Personal life and death[edit]

He married Sheila Thomson in 1941, they had one son. He died in Scotland on 21 January 2006, aged 90; his son predeceased him.


External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Arthur Grenfell Clarke
Financial Secretary of Hong Kong
Succeeded by
Sir Charles Philip Haddon-Cave