Howe twinkles at the little star

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 February, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 1997, 12:00am

This column normally tries to steer clear of television programmes. This is partly because the television is rarely switched on in the Week Ending household, except for the news and the endless replays of children's videos.

Partly it is because the last thing any self-respecting Hong Kong journalist would want to emulate is the habit of British and American columnists who, when short of an issue, get hot under the collar about the latest episode of some television soap opera.

This is not because we are above such things in Hong Kong. You only need to think of some of the lurid pictures on the pages of our newspapers to realise there is very little we would not stoop to. It is just that there is so little on Hong Kong television worth getting excited about.

But a rare vote of thanks is due to ATV for that delightful interview with Lord Howe in its memorial to Deng Xiaoping .

The former British foreign secretary was reminiscing about a meeting with the late New Helmsman. Suddenly, as we listened to that soft, reassuringly mumbled delivery of his, we found ourselves recoiling in dismay at what we thought he was about to say.

He was explaining how, during the negotiations on the Joint Declaration, he had found himself facing 'a small, male . . . '. He paused dramatically for effect - just long enough to bring on a wince of disbelief. No sane person could possibly have imagined that a man as urbane and diplomatically experienced as Lord Howe was about to say something even faintly racist and condescending. Which is why Week Ending, for one, was beginning to doubt his own sanity.

But then his lordship plunged on with the story. '. . . version of Margaret Thatcher,' he continued, with that faint Howe twinkle.

What a relief! What he had meant, apparently, was the resemblance between the Deng and Thatcher negotiating styles. He had hinted at the possibility of a compromise. Deng had lunged forward with a big smile to take his hand and enthused: 'We have a deal then!' Lord Howe was forced to point out that there had not yet been a negotiation or risk being forced into giving up everything he had come to Beijing for.

But the comparison struck us as an insight of wider significance. Was Deng a Thatcherite, or Lady Thatcher a Dengist? Both believed in freeing trade and opening windows even at the risk of letting a few flies in. Both believed in strong, centralised government, preferably under their own leadership. Both were superb and ruthless infighters, adept at crushing opposition and manoeuvring potential challengers out of the centres of power.

Of course, one could take such comparisons too far. Lady Thatcher was dogmatic. Deng was untroubled about the colour of cats. Deng eventually gave up smoking, we are told. Lady Thatcher became a US$1 million a year consultant to the tobacco company, Philip Morris.

Lady Thatcher, a grocer's daughter, took elocution lessons to sound posh. Although she lost her regional accent, she never sounded convincing. Deng, a landlord's son, preferred to promote himself as a rural hick and never tried to lose his thick Sichuan accent.

But, yes, there is a final something they did have in common. Both marked their departure from political life by lining up successors they thought would be less impressive than they were. What Deng thought of President Jiang Zemin in his final days we will probably never know. But we do have a notion of what Lady Thatcher thinks of John Major.

He lasted longer in office than she expected, of course. But, then, Mr Jiang might well last longer than Deng expected too.