Posted by: Sam Olsen | April 9, 2013

Hong Kong and Lady Thatcher

Whilst in the UK Lady Thatcher is remembered for her economic policies, in the US and Eastern Europe for her role in defeating communism, and by Arthur Scargill every time he closes his eyes, here in Hong Kong she is recalled as the politician most linked to the then-colony’s handover to China in 1997.

In fact, the media has been highly complementary about the ‘Iron Lady’. The South China Morning Post called here a “Giant of the twentieth century”, and even the China Daily, not one to normally come out in favour of Western politicians, printed flowery tributes and noted that “she was an outstanding woman and is admired by many Chinese girls and women”.

Making the HK news

Making the HK news

For some people here in Hong Kong, the former PM is not the most popular person in history, thanks to her limiting the number of locals that were granted British citizenship in the run up to Handover. This did not go down well, and was considered a betrayal by many – “We should all be allowed to come to Britain when it is they that made us, but now they are washing their hands of us and giving us over to the communists” is how one person put their then-thoughts to me. The cold reality though is that no British politician would ever have given out 7 million passports, no matter how hard-working the Chinese would have been when they arrived.

What is interesting is that she is currently very much in the public conscience here for another reason, linked to the run up to universal suffrage in 2017.

At present the Chief Executive (PM equivalent) and the Legislative Committee (like the Parliament) are not voted for in true democratic style, something that is due to change in the next few years.

Yet there is great anxiety amongst part of the local Establishment that some of ardent Hong Kong pan-democrats, who despise Beijing with great passion, will use the democratic transition to ensure that an anti-Beijing candidate is elected.

Many people here are worried about that because they cannot see how Mainland Chine would stand back and allow someone clashing with the Motherland to stay in power. As one newspaper here points out, Margaret Thatcher tried and failed to prolong British administration in Hong Kong. “If the ‘Iron Lady’ with the backing of a country could not get Beijing to agree to terms that would be closer to the British demands, it’s highly doubtful the pan-democrats here could change that three decades later.”

The message is quite clear: confront Beijing at your peril.

I was actually lucky enough to meet someone who was involved with the negotiations between Mrs Thatcher and the then Chinese supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping. My friend was one of the official translators for Deng, and described the scene thus:

The Lady was turned

The Lady was turned

“Deng sat waiting, chain-smoking as he always did, when Mrs Thatcher came in. He immediately started banging the table, telling her that China was not going to compromise, and that Hong Kong would return to China whether she liked it or not. The only question was how.”

I suggest that it would have been a brave person to have spoken to such a formidable leader as Thatcher, but Deng was a man who had twice managed to survive Mao’s purges, so he was not exactly a wilting flower. There was though very little she could have done, for although Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were British for ever, the New Territories lease was up, and there was no way that the colony could have survived without its hinterland. Besides, hanging on the Hong Kong would have made the arguments with Argentina over the Falklands look like chicken feed in comparison to what would have been a constant thorn in the side of Sino-British relations.

The new generation of Chinese leaders may not be quite in the same mold as Deng (although they are no doubt talented – you don’t reach the top of a 1.3 billion-branch tree without a modicum of ability) but they are still going to play hardball when it comes to China’s interests.

That is what makes a good statesman stand out. Just ask the EU about Margaret Thatcher.


  1. She didn’t have very good cards in the HK negotiations but she played them fairly well.

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