When Margaret Thatcher Came to China

What happened when the Iron Lady attempted to preserve British rule over Hong Kong.


A man looks at a 1984 photograph of Deng Xiaoping meeting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Beijing on the handover of Hong Kong. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)]

Most accounts of British foreign policy under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died yesterday at the age of 87, cite her stalwart defense of the Falkland Islands, prickly relationship with Europe, and warm partnership with the contemporaneous American president, Ronald Reagan. But from a Chinese perspective, Thatcher will best be remembered as the British leader who negotiated the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. A decade and a half later, the handover seems like a historical inevitability; a vestigial colonial power making way for a rising China. Hong Kong's status, though, by no means was inevitable; instead, it reflected the results of a tense negotiation in which the formidable Iron Lady met her match with the tiny, owlish Chinese leader: Deng Xiaoping.

For the British, who assumed control of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon following the Opium Wars in the 1840s, Hong Kong was merely another jewel in the country's massive empire. Yet for China, the loss of Hong Kong began "a century of humiliation", a calamitous period of war, territorial cessation, and decline that culminated with the reunification of the country under Communist rule in 1949. Once Deng Xiaoping assumed control of China in 1978 and put an end to the disastrous social experiments that characterized the Maoist years, negotiating the return of Hong Kong became a major government priority.

In an entertaining 1992 account of the negotiations published in the Independent, Robert Cottrell summarized Deng's state of mind regarding Hong Kong:
Deng returned to the offensive by repeating his rejection of continued British rule in more categorical terms. If he agreed to let Britain stay in Hong Kong beyond 1997, he said, he would be no better than the traitors of the Qing dynasty who had first yielded Chinese soil to Britain under treaties which were illegal and invalid. He could not do it. China must resume sovereignty over Hong Kong, and sovereignty must include administration. The British flag would have to go. The British governor would have to go. And it would be China alone which decided what policies were 'suitable' for Hong Kong in the future. None the less, he said, China hoped that Britain would 'co-operate' in the transition, and it was prepared to enter into 'discussions' to that end. But it would not be bound by their results. If they failed to produce an agreement acceptable to China within two years, then China would announce its own policies for Hong Kong unilaterally.
Thatcher tried to hold the line with Deng, insisting that any unilateral action by China to assume control over Hong Kong would be in violation of international treaty. But in the end, the diminutive Chinese ruler got what he wanted, and on a rainy July night in 1997, Thatcher was present for the formal transfer of sovereignty to the People's Republic.

Towards the end of her life, Thatcher expressed regret about how things turned out in Hong Kong, telling the Daily Telegraph that she felt "sad" and "disappointed" in regards to the handover. In truth, though, there was little Thatcher could do: The emotional appeal of Hong Kong to the Chinese public -- as well as the leadership -- was simply too strong.