The Chinese government expressed condolences this week for the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on Monday. Thatcher, said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei, “was a prominent stateswoman who made great contributions to the development of Sino-British relations, including the peaceful settlement of the Hong Kong issue.” Her part in the return of Hong Kong to China, over which she later expressed regret, has dominated reactions to her death both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. At South China Morning Post, Patrick Boehler surveyed responses on social media:
Keywords that dominated posts on Chinese blogs included positive words such as “historic”, “wise” and “great, according to data compiled by the social media consultancy Meltwater. More than 130 comments on her passing appeared on Sina Weibo every minute in the first three hours after news of her death broke.
[…] “You don’t have to worry about China, because China will not provide any new ideas to the world – not in the next few decades or century,” Hangzhou-based lawyer Yuan Yulai said quoting Thatcher in a reaction that has since been shared 7,500 times.
Kai-fu Lee, the former head of Google China and one of the most influential voices on Weibo, shared the historic picture of her and Chinese counterpart Zhao Ziyang signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, the bilateral treaty which secured the July 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
“Thatcher and who?” the IT-investor and prominent commentator Charles Xue quipped, when re-sharing the photo. Searches for Zhao Ziyang, who was purged in 1989 for siding with protestors at Tiananmen Square, are still blocked in China.
At China Real Time Report, Lilian Lin explained the place of the Hong Kong negotiations in Chinese memories
Many in China know her best for her stumble outside the Great Hall of the People in 1982 during a state visit. That stumble served as a metaphor for Ms. Thatcher’s visit, which marked a rare foreign-policy setback for a leader who took on both Argentina and the former Soviet Union. Bent on pressing for continued British sovereignty for Hong Kong, she met firm resistance from Deng. Records suggest their negotiations were less than pleasant. The Daily Telegraph quoted Deng as muttering to an aide: “I cannot talk to that woman, she is utterly unreasonable.”
“The Chinese public had a very complicated mentality towards this negotiation and frictions of the two parties, “ said Wang Yizhou, professor of School of International Studies of Peking University. “ But it has been a long time and Hong Kong returned to China smoothly, so people here are more impressed with her statesmanship, which kept Britain in the top rank of the world.”
In Hong Kong itself, Thatcher’s handling of the handover still has some sharp critics. From Te-Ping Chen, also at China Real Time:
“That marked a very, very dishonorable chapter in the history of the British Empire,” said Ms. [Emily] Lau, who argues that the former British prime minister “didn’t look after the well-being of Hong Kong people.”
Still, though, Martin Lee, a former Hong Kong legislator and the city’s best-known crusader for democracy, said that those years were a time of greater optimism about the city’s political future. […]
[…] On the eve of the 1997 handover, Mrs. Thatcher sounded an optimistic note in an interview, saying that she hoped Hong Kong would one day be a model for all of China. “Chinese people will come to Hong Kong, they’ll see and they’ll say why is it different, and what is the difference?” she said. “It is the same people, the same talents, but here there is a rule of law founded on the belief that each and every person matters in personal lives,” she said. Hong Kong, she said, “is a flagship of what the China people can do.”
While former Conservative candidate Richard Harris wrote at the South China Morning Post that Thatcher “always had a soft spot for the ordinary people of Hong Kong“, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr recalled her “unabashedly racist” warnings about Asian immigration. The South China Morning Post’s Tom Holland argued that Thatcher “had thrown away her best trump card” in the handover negotiations for the sake of blocking Hong Kong Chinese immigration to the U.K.:
In 1981, her government passed the British Nationality Act, introducing a new class of British citizen and denying the right of abode in Britain to those, like the majority of Hong Kong’s population, who were merely British subjects.
Years later, Monitor asked one senior member of Thatcher’s first cabinet why she had undermined her own negotiating position in this way. He answered that at the time Britain could not possibly have accepted mass immigration from Hong Kong.
But, protested Monitor, the actual number of migrants would have been small. Guaranteed the right of abode in Britain, Hongkongers would have felt secure at home, and London could have got an even better deal for them in Beijing.
Yes, admitted the former minister, but that’s not how the British newspapers would have portrayed it. There was no way, he said, we were going to risk headlines in the London press warning that three million Hong Kong Chinese were heading towards British shores. It would have been political suicide.
Global Times took a somewhat different view from Wang Yizhou’s assessment that Thatcher had “kept Britain in the top rank of the world”. Her rule, it suggested, was one of the final spasms of Britain’s, Europe’s and the West’s global dominance, though she “could well enter history as a distinctive female politician” nonetheless.
A political legacy is always hard to define, and the love and hatred still felt toward Thatcher are distinct. Joining hands with former US president Ronald Reagan, she played a crucial role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. During and after the Falklands War she impressed the world with her hard-line stance, which no Western politicians could compete with afterward.
[…] Her restoration of the British economy represented one of the last glorious achievements of Great Britain, or even Europe.
[…] The moment makes the man, or in this case, the woman. After Thatcher left office, there haven’t been any “iron men” or “iron ladies,” partly because the decline in European power means they cannot uphold an iron stance. The evolution of Western electoral culture makes politicians weak at solving domestic problems.
Also at Global Times, Tian Dewen of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences credited Thatcher with pioneering Western engagement with Beijing:
Thatcher was also [one of] the first Western leaders to propose that the West should press China to engage in international system, instead of excluding it. There were ideological reasons for this. Thatcher hoped “peaceful evolution” in China through the country’s engagement in the international system. However, Thatcher’s proposal also created external conditions for China’s reform and opening-up.
[…] As a right-wing politician, Thatcher was theoretically hostile to communist ideas.
However, on the other hand, she also realized that China’s development was inevitable and the development of China was of significance to the UK.
Historically speaking, as long as any politician can recognize these development trends, he or she is a friend to China anyway.
Actress Melissa Rayworth, who played Thatcher in a state-sponsored TV film, recalled attitudes towards her somewhat differently:
For weeks, we’d been shooting pivotal scenes that chronicled Thatcher’s meeting with Deng in 1982 to negotiate the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, at that point still 15 years away. This tiny, awkward moment — a re-creation of Thatcher’s brief stumble while walking down these very steps after that meeting with Deng in the Great Hall — seemed more important to them than any of her powerful speeches.
They needed the villain to be brought low.
They saw her not as a real person but as a cartoon bad guy – the embodiment of an empire that, in their eyes, had taken a piece of China more than a century before and held the Middle Kingdom hostage when it tried to get the island back.
In any case, some of Thatcher’s influence still lingers even in the Party itself, according to The Telegraph’s Tom Phillips last year:
At Shanghai’s China Executive Leadership Academy, one of the country’s most elite Communist Party schools, Thatcher’s philosophy has found its way onto a “crisis management” course that also focuses on the 2011 UK riots.
[…] Professor Li Min, a lecturer at the institution, said when it came to crisis management Britain’s former prime minister was a model of behaviour.
Baroness Thatcher might seem an unusual choice for the curriculum of an academy grooming the next generation of Chinese leaders. But faculty directors say Shanghai’s Leadership Academy is no ordinary Party school.
“We have an open attitude towards all civilisations that are useful to us, and [we] learn from them,” explained Professor Jiang Haishan, the anglophile head of its international program.
Thatcher has also provided inspiration to China’s neighbors, according to The Economist:
[… I]n South Korea Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female leader, who has been compared to Mrs Thatcher for years and has only encouraged the comparison, expressed “great sorrow” at her death.
Mrs Park now faces her own Falklands moment with the growlings from Pyongyang; but it is Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, who has been more recently inspired by Thatcher the warrior, in his confrontation with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. He admitted being moved to tears by the scene in the film “The Iron Lady” where Mrs Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, speaks about the war in the House of Commons.
In Taiwan, meanwhile, Streep also starred in CTi News’ coverage of Thatcher’s death, replacing footage of Queen Elizabeth that had been used by mistake.