Mrs Thatcher’s encounter with China

By Xu Peixi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 9, 2013
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Many remember former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s close friendship with then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and her approval of Soviet Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as her involvement in spearheading a war against Argentina. But in China we remember her formidable personality through her negotiations with former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping over the handover of Hong Kong.

Mrs. Thatcher is remembered positively in China, if only because her encounter with the Middle Kingdom happened at just the right moment with the right person (Deng Xiaoping), and much of Mrs. Thatcher’s Chinese legacy stems from her confrontations with the former Chinese leader.

Late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher [File Photo]

Late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher [File Photo] 

One reason involves the past. Mrs Thatcher naturally falls into Chinese collective memory as one of the symbols marking the farewell to a lasting historical trauma of being insulted by Western hegemonies. Her signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 would return Hong Kong back to China in 1997, and came nearly a century and a half after the signing of Nanjing Treaty which ceded the territory of Hong Kong as a result of China’s most remembered failure in early 1840s – the Opium War.

Like their Indian neighbors, the Chinese have learned to live with this historical trauma, but the psychological damage remains. Today, many residents in Hong Kong still differ fundamentally in their interpretations of the Opium War from those on the mainland and Taiwan. But Mrs. Thatcher’s decision to return Hong Kong, though unwillingly because China was not Argentina, told the Chinese that Britain had at least ceremonially settled this territorial debt and it was China’s turn to make peace with its past.

The other reason involves the future. Mrs Thatcher’s encounter with China occurred in the context of China abolishing its old system of a planned economy and embracing market-oriented reforms. In terms of economic policy, Mrs. Thatcher can be said to have been a strong supporter of the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reform and opening-up policy. One anecdote said that she went to a Beijing market to buy some grapes from an individual vendor, one of many newly liberalized from the early restraints of rigid economic controls.

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and Margaret Thatcher [File Photo]

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and Margaret Thatcher [File Photo]

China developed rapidly under Deng’s administration, pulling hundreds of millions out of poverty to create an economic engine that has lasted until today. China jumped on the information bandwagon. The next Jiang-Zhu administration expanded upon Deng’s legacy, and the Hu-Wen administration supplemented it with sustainable growth models. And the newly installed Xi-Li administration is both handling the side-effects of a rising Gini coefficient and following Deng’s goal of building a better off society centered on further development.

Mrs. Thatcher thus got involved with China at a historical turning point that partly settled the past and opened the future. Like those of other big personalities of her time, her legacies deserve scrutiny from a perspective of the global south.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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