Hong Kong's progress from postwar ruin to global business center has been so well documented and admired that we assume it to have been inevitable. But it was not always fated to become China's most dazzling metropolis. As recently as the 1960s, it was a stuffy colonial backwater. Public spending on education, health, the arts, indeed almost every field was kept to a miserly minimum. The wealth derived from the city's burgeoning trade and light industries was not shared with those at the bottom of the social order. And virtually nobody not the refugees pouring in from mainland China, nor the expats, nor even the Hong Kong Chinese thought of the place as home. In place of a sense of civic identity, there was simply the overwhelming desire to get rich and get out.
Enter Sir Crawford Murray MacLehose. Arriving in 1971 as Hong Kong's 25th governor, this patrician Scot at once set about transforming the city from colonial embarrassment to imperial jewel indeed, government expenditure grew by over 50% during his first two years in office. Sir Murray greatly improved government accountability through a system of elected District Boards and consultative committees. By recognizing Cantonese as an official language, he ended a longstanding colonial injustice. He expanded a public-housing program to accommodate some 40% of the populace, set in motion huge infrastructure schemes (including construction of the Mass Transit Railway) and announced the provision of free primary education. He also set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption prompting a police rebellion but eventually ending a decades-old system of graft. Finally, by expanding community and arts facilities (and instigating territory-wide campaigns against everything from litter to violent crime) he created a new sense of social cohesion and belonging: Hong Kong people no longer felt like transients but citizens. Many hidebound colonial officials objected to these changes or did not think they were worth the trouble: Sir Murray pressed on regardless and gave Hong Kong the modern shape we recognize today. With new homes, prospects and representatives, the people of Hong Kong were able to do the rest.