Good governance: Strong citizens

Citing Confucius, last governor Lord Patten says, 'A people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.'Citing Confucius, last governor Lord Patten says, 'A people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.'

By Chris Patten –

One of the many pleasant lessons that I learned during the five years that I lived in Hong Kong – the happiest years of my life – was the ubiquitous relevance and wisdom of Confucius. I had not read the Analects before I came here, aged almost fifty, in 1992. That was worse than a mistake, it was a shame. Since then, I have turned back to the Analects again and again. They contain sound wisdom and moral counsel.

I want to begin today with an exchange with the Master that goes right to the heart of the issue of good governance. Tsu-Kung ask him what constitutes good government. The Master replied, “Enough food, enough weapons, and the confidence of the people”. Tsu-Kung goes on to ask, “Suppose you definitely had no alternative but to give up one of these three, which would you relinquish first?” The Master said, “Weapons”. Tsu-Kung goes on, “Suppose you definitely had no alternative but to give up one of the surviving two, which would you relinquish first?” The Master said, “Food. From of old, death has come to all men, but a people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.” Such people, greater than presidents, premiers, monarchs, party secretaries and governors, are of course citizens. And it is citizens who are both the beneficiaries and the creators of good governance.

When you look up good governance on the Internet, you are offered a huge selection of books, studies and reports on the subject. There are plainly far more analyses of what it is than there are practitioners! The subject goes wider than the question of national or local government. It covers international and corporate bodies, civil society and most other types of institution. But many of the attributes of good government have a broad common relevance. They are invariably desirable features of both a national or provincial government and of public and private corporations. Accountability, for example, is relevant everywhere.


Secondly, there are not separate and distinct Western, African or Asian models. Just as human rights are universal, so too is good governance. This argument was challenged in the 1990s – a proposition subsequently much devalued by the Asian financial crash of 1997-98 – by the contention that there was a civilizational clash between Asia, and the so-called West. As a result, it was suggested, what might be desirable in a western government and society did not matter so much in Asia. Despite the opposition of Asian politicians and thinkers like the Korean Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Kim Dae-Jung, the Nobel Economics Laureate, Amartya Sen, and the disgracefully incarcerated Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim, the argument about Asian values was given some intellectual heft by the father of the Singapore City state, Lee Kuan Yew, and his acolytes. The probable reasons for their embrace of this argument are subjects for another day; for the moment I will only mention the absurdity of the overall proposition. So let us consider for a moment what values of governance embrace dictatorship in Central Asia, the largest democracy in the world in India, and Stone Age totalitarianism in North Korea? Even if you narrow the field, for political convenience, and look at East Asia alone, you have to contend with totally different sorts of government from (to be polite) guided democracy in Singapore, to Leninism with some capitalist characteristics in China, to democracies in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, and to aspirations for democracy in Hong Kong. But is Hong Kong really less Confucian than Shanghai or Beijing? Rather unlikely I should have thought.

No perfect model, some versions work better

That said, I do not believe that there is a perfect model of government, let alone a perfect Western world, which can be wheeled out and installed anywhere and everywhere. In most of the democracies that I know best, citizens and voters know very well the weaknesses in their own systems. That is certainly true in America and Western Europe. So while there is no perfect model, there are certain versions that work better than others, and there is also a self-reinforcing series of arrangements that create an impact greater than separate influences. For example, corruption is less likely to be endemic when there is a free press, a strong regulatory system and the rule of law.

There is also plainly a powerful connection between sustainable economic success and good political arrangements Societies where economic policies are inclusive, allowing everyone the chance of ownership and a share in creating prosperity, are more likely to flourish where politics too are inclusive. Where a privileged elite has a monopolicy of economic opportunity, it will defend the political arrangements that have spawned this inequity. In Russia, for example you cannot allow open and clear political competition without challenging ownership of the economy’s commanding heights by a few favoured oligarchs or ex-KGB officials. The result has been and will be accelerating economic degradation.

So taking account of these cross-cutting issues what are likely to be individual features of a well-governed community?

Rule of law makes difference

In what is in effect Siena’s town hall, there are three great paintings by the Renaissance artist, Lorenzetti. At the centre, there is the Allegory of Good Government, showing Justice (in the shape of course of a woman) pointing to the scales of justice held by the personification of Wisdom. On either side of this painting, there are two others showing, respectively, the effects of good and bad governance. What makes the difference between the one and other? Above all, it is the rule of law that does that. In the words of the Council of the International Bar Association in 2005:

“The Rule of Law is the foundation of a civilised society. It establishes a transparent process accessible and equal to all. It ensures adherence to principles that both liberate and protect”.

The rule of law is different from rule by law. As Aristotle argued, “even the guardians of the law are obeying the laws.” The ruled are subject to the law as well as those whom they are entitled to rule.

I recall a conversation with the late Director, Lu Ping, a civilised man who spoke excellent English. I was trying to explain the difference between the rule of laws and rule by law. I noted that when I had been a British Cabinet Minister, Secretary of State for the Environment, my decisions had been regularly challenged and occasionally overturned, in the courts. (Something similar has just happened to the British government over Brexit). I had had to change my policies as a result. I think that Director Lu thought I was making it up.

Rule of law cornerstone of good governance

The integrity of the rule of law depends on an independent judiciary and court system. It guarantees fair trial and due process. It applies domestically agreed laws and ensures compliance by the state with its obligations under international law. The rights which it guarantees and the protections which it offers to citizens cover many of the features of a well-governed society. It protects, for example, fundamental human rights; it prohibits torture; it ensures the rights to a fair trial, to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression and assembly; it protects property. The rule of law is the cornerstone of a good and well-governed society, in which guilt and innocence are determined by an independent judiciary in independent courts not by political apparatchiks. To take a relevant example, a corrupt act may be investigated by the police and by agents of the state, but whether or not the law has been broken is determined by a court.


I have always believed that the most important guarantee of Hong Kong’s freedom, stability and well-being is the rule of law. I have considerable admiration for the judges, barristers and solicitors who have stood up for it here. They are in the front-line in ensuring that the freedoms which Hong Kong was promised in an international and binding treaty are preserved. The rule of law is fundamental to Hong Kong’s freedom and prosperity.

The second feature on which I should like to comment is called (rather circumspectly by the World Bank in their analysis of good governance around the world), voice and accountability. I think what the Bank have in mind is what most of us would call democracy. They obviously wished to avoid being thought to recommend a particular sort of democracy; there are, after all, many models from which to choose. There are single and bi-cameral legislatures; there are executive led legislatures; there are legislatures which are partly elected and partly selected. So let me be clear about what seem to me to be essential ingredients of any system which gives citizens a voice in the way their community is run and applies an open and effective way of holding those who run it to account.

First, the system of election – whether for a legislature or for an executive – should be fair, giving equity at the ballot box to citizens. Some votes should not count more than others. The choice of candidates should be open without restrictions that go beyond the requirements of a local constitution. For example, as a member of the Westminster Parliament – it is true for both chambers – I have to make an oath of affirmation of allegiance to the Queen. Elected members who refuse to do this, like members of the Northern Ireland Sinn Fein party, cannot take their seats. That does not seem to me unreasonable. But to insist, as happens in Iran for instance, that only those approved by another (in this case confessional) authority can be considered for elected office would not seem to me either free or fair. The electoral arrangements should be determined within the constitution by the local legislature itself. To be credible and ensure proper accountability, an elected legislature should be able to get rid of its executive, unless that choice is in the hands of the electorate through direct election. Elections that cannot change anything, or not very much, are a farce. In real democracies governments change.

Fairness like elephant: you know it when you see it

You could go on and on about what exactly constitutes fairness. I suspect that in many respects it is a little like the elephant – difficult to describe but you know it when you see it.

But I just want to make three other points about democracy.

A democratic, plural society is not created simply by holding an election. Democracy can turn into populist majoritarianism unless it comes complete with much more soft-ware and hard-ware, some of which I will mention. Since the rule of law is at the heart of a well-governed community, a majority should not try to buttress its position by stacking the courts with its supporters. A mature democracy will recognise the importance of taking account of the opinions of the minority and not trying to trample over them. For its part, the minority in a democracy will recognise the consequence of both winning and losing elections. I think there are lessons in this for both Britain and Hong Kong today.

Democratic government is not easy. Like millions of others I simply think that it is better than any alternative. With good and responsible leadership it enables communities to come to accept the need to take tough decisions without authoritarian measures. When we allow citizens to decide where they live and work, what schooling their children have, how they save and spend, it seems to me odd to try to deny them a say in the other choices that effect their lives. That is one of the reasons why, when I first came to Hong Kong as a young MP in 1979, I argued for the introduction of democratic elections for District Councils and wrote about this when I got back to Britain.

Two other things I would say about parliamentary democracy. First, it is a much better, more sophisticated way of taking decisions than so-called direct democracy through referendums.  We are starting to pay the price in Britain for holding a referendum on our membership of the EU, a decision which should have been taken through parliament and if necessary with the ultimate choice being made through a General Election. Second, democracy does provide a government with safety valves when popular pressure builds up about a policy issue or about the government’s own record. We have seen that regularly in India, which has held together despite such extraordinary diversity of religion and ethnicity.

Better government under a democracy

Government effectiveness was third in the World Bank’s list. I have always believe that governments are likely to be more competent when they are subjected to close invigilation through the democratic process. In Britain, the government is better when there is a good and credible opposition to it.

Of course, effectiveness also depends on the quality of the civil service which manages its operations. I have worked with several different bureaucracies – in the United Kingdom and Europe as well as Hong Kong. Without any question the most competent civil service that I worked with was that in Hong Kong in the 1990s. I hope it has not lost any of its vitality and morale since then.

There were three principal reasons for Hong Kong’s public service record in the 1990s. First, there was a first rate team, well-paid, strongly motivated, intelligent and with a sense of the value and honour of working for the public good. This commitment was in no way disturbed by political considerations. Civil Servants were, for instance, appointed and promoted entirely on merit. Second, their integrity was unquestioned. Corruption was negligible, certainly on a much lower scale than in many European countries as well as Asian ones. Third, there was a real commitment to complete the task assigned by government. This means for example that when you put together Hong Kong’s natural entrepreneurialism with the determination of civil servants to complete, preferably ahead of time, the tasks allotted to them, infrastructure projects were finished in much less time than would have been taken elsewhere.

When I was the British Environment minister in the late 1980s (it sounds like the Middle Ages) the government had been talking for some time about building a new terminal at Heathrow airport.   I came to Hong Kong in 1992. In my first week here Sir David Ford took me to see the dredgers dumping soil to begin the building of Chek Lap Kok. By the time I left in 1997 it was virtually finished despite the verbal and negotiating impediments that the process had to overcome. I returned to London to discover that people were still talking about building that new but still non-existent terminal. I hope that Hong Kong has not lost any of these qualities of public service.

A fourth distinction of a well-governed community is political stability and lack of violence. Several factors come into play. Good, clean, visible and respected policing is one. Another is growing prosperity, the proceeds of which seem to be fairly distributed. I am not a Socialist. I believe in properly regulated markets as the best way of creating and distributing resources. But I also believe that government itself has an important role in protecting the weak and helping the strong to prosper. Some Republicans in the United States used to use a joke that the most worrying words in English were: “I’m from the government; I’m here to help”. This was a spectacularly foolish way of down- playing the role of government in promoting economic and political stability, and was contrary to much of what the most successful administrations, including Republican ones like Eisenhower’s, have actually done.

‘I was a Communist with Hong Kong characteristics’

Here in Hong Kong I always believed that we should avoid the sort of social engineering practised in Singapore where it undoubtedly worked. I thought we were better served by allowing the market and low taxes to work their magic. But I also felt strongly that we should use some of the proceeds of growth to improve welfare, health, education and housing. As a result some of my critics in the north denounced me as a communist! Clearly I was a communist with Hong Kong characteristics.

Political stability is also more likely when a government is sensitive to the aspirations of its people. Recognising them as citizens, with rights and responsibilities, is one way of doing that. There is a shed-load of evidence throughout history around the world about how to manage political aspirations sensitively and how, on the other hand, if you fail to do this you can easily turn moderation into extremism. If you treat people as responsible citizens, they are more likely to behave responsibly, with vigorous civil society institutions as intermediaries between them and the government. They should be free to demonstrate without violence; free to say and write what they want; free to worship as they please. Their churches should be free of government control; their universities should be self-governing and autonomous.

It is worth saying a word more about this, a subject on which I feel strongly as the past chancellor of several universities here and in Britain and the present Chancellor of Oxford, recently placed at the top of the world rankings doubtless in part thanks to the number of Chinese (including Hong Kong) students and professors we have. Universities are not agents of the state – departments of government as it were – nor are they simply adjuncts to the corporate sector, fuelling GDP growth. They are liberal pillars of pluralism and freedom. It should be a matter of huge pride in this community that Hong Kong, with a small population, has two great universities in the world’s top fifty; three in the world’s top 100. This is a remarkable achievement. It is partly of course a result of the universities having the freedom and autonomy they were promised by international treaty and local laws. University freedom and academic self-governance does not mean that universities can avoid accounting through appropriate machinery for any public funds they receive. We have to do that at my own university in Oxford. But we have and we exercise academic freedom – as Socrates wrote “we follow the argument where it leads”. We undertake research on what we want; we take our enquiries as far as we wish; we teach as we deem best; we select our own academics and administrators; we choose our own pupils on their ability. We are free to speak out on anything and everything, regardless of whether the Government likes what we say. It is in universities operating like this that the frontiers of knowledge are advanced for the good of our own societies and of humanity as a whole. I am sure that here in Hong Kong you recognise that your universities, with their own freedoms, are jewels in this great city’s crown.

There are two other qualities to which I would like to refer. First of them is regulatory quality; the way, for instance, in which commerce is regulated needs to be transparent and fair. This should demand of private sector corporations themselves a high degree of transparency and compliance with the best standards of private sector corporate governance. I am sure that officials in China are aware that there is a general view, borne out by much academic research, that Indian companies are thought to be better governed than those in China, with no political interference in their boards and greater compliance in meeting international standards. Unless the issue is properly addressed, it will become a drag on China’s international economic performance. That is in no-one’s interest. The world needs a China that thrives and prospers.

A free press exposes corruption

The final mark of good governance is the control of corruption. This is not just a question of making laws and establishing institutions to fight this political and economic disease. Corruption goes right to the heart of politics and, rather obviously, freedom. A free press exposes corruption and the corrupt. That is one reason why authoritarian and totalitarian governments want to suppress the media and its modern technological cousins in the internet. The media in all its forms strengthens the citizen against corruption, which is a tax on the law abiding and a corrosive and destructive element in society. If political power determines ownership of assets, it is impossible to exercise the authority to root out corruption. Corruption becomes endemic to the whole system of government.

The governance I have tried to describe has at its heart the citizen. Citizens are the test of its health and integrity. They have liberties, privileges and responsibilities, not least the responsibilities of good neighbourliness. They have the freedom to argue as well as to agree, to write, to speak out from a soapbox in the public square, to follow and enjoy education in whatever subject they choose, to decide on their jobs and careers, to talk about politics to whoever they want without worrying about who might over-hear, to go to law in the confidence of fair and just treatment, to read and hear real news about what is happening in the world, to make fun of the government when it deserves it, to travel to other countries, to go to their church or to go racing, to express their own views of citizenship and patriotism in their own way. There is a document that covers all of those aspects of a free society. It is a treaty, lodged at the United Nations. It has been there for about 30 years. It is called the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Lord Patten is the last governor of Hong Kong. This is his speech given at the Project Citizens Foundation Forum entitled Governance in Hong Kong: Are the Pillars Crumbling?

Photo: Pictures provided by the Foundation


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