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Trying to save an old police station and prison in Hong Kong - a curious case of the long reach of the law?

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The renovated police station and prison in Hong Kong as proposed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Preservationists do not like the design and want the station and prison left as a monument to “collective memory”.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported on the controversy aroused in Hong Kong over renovating the old Central Police Station and Victoria Prison. I have never been sentimental about police stations or prisons, not even the Tower of London, but Hong Kong’s longing to preserve physical memories of the past, in this case the British past, reminded me of a letter to the editor from a Chinese citizen of Hong Kong which I read years ago and which introduced a new idea to my mind. The letter came from a woman who knew what it was to be a refugee in a city of shanties quite different from the Hong Kong we know today.

William McGurn wrote about 1950s Hong Kong -

By any measure, the future for this Asian country looked bleak. Enormously overcrowded, its normal population had skyrocketed, increased not just by a naturally high birthrate but also by revolution in a neighboring country - forcing thousands of desperate refugees upon its borders. Lacking natural resources and utterly dependent upon its unpleasant neighbor for water and food, the country's situation had deteriorated so badly that a local UN official declared the only way for it to survive would be with massive Western aid. An American newspaper proclaimed the country to be 'dying,'. . .

'Virtually every sizable vacant site . . . was occupied, and when there was no flat land remaining, [people] moved up to the hillsides and colonized the ravines and slopes which were too steep for normal development. The huts were constructed of such material as they could lay hands on at little or no cost - flattened sheets of tin, woodened boarding, cardboard, sacking slung on frames. . . . Land was scarce even for the squatters and the huts were packed like dense honeycombs or irregular warrens at different levels, with little ventilation and no regular access. The shacks themselves were crowded beyond endurance. . . . Density was at a rate of two thousand persons to an acre in single-story huts. There was, of course, no sanitation.'

There was, however, a British administration and the rights and protections of common law. There was also the inestimable Sir John Cowperthwaite, Financial Secretary of the Crown Colony, who arrived in 1961. He did not respond as Democratic candidates in America or Labour MPs in Britain would respond to this sort of crisis – with promises of big government programs.

Cowperthwaite was a classical free-trader in a tradition that stretches from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman and Sir Keith Joseph. Like them Cowperthwaite believed that The only cases where the masses have escaped from grinding poverty. . .the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. . .There is no alternative way of improving the lot of the ordinary person that can hold a candle to the productive activities of the free-enterprise system – and productive, creative and energetic people ruled by just law.

Under Cowperthwaite’s administration Hong Kong became a city with six million prosperous and largely peaceful citizens under a non-interventionist government whose foundation was British common law. it was also knit together with the institutions, charities, trusts, schools, associations and societies that help people to help each other.

Which takes me back to the the high feelings aroused by the renovation of an old prison and the Chinese lady who wrote to a Western newspaper years ago.

She wrote simply, in words something like these, 'When we came to Hong Kong we had nothing, and we were given nothing. We had no social safety net. We had only the law. We knew that no one could come to us in the middle of the night in our shop and take what we had earned. We knew that the law would protect us.'

Hong Kong had Chinese and British creativity, free trade, and common law. Perhaps that is why people in Hong Kong care so passionately about an old police station and prison - or perhaps free trade has been so successful, and so many new buildings have been built, there are few historic buildings still extant?

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