A great leader's way

Li Hong reflects on Margaret Thatcher's thoughts on politics and society - shared at a meeting 13 years ago - and what they tell us about a great leader's fearlessness and detached judgment

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 3:04am

You can love her, you can hate her, but you cannot ignore her." These words, from Carol Thatcher, the daughter of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, give us an insight into the nature of this unique woman. These are the opening words to the BBC documentary The Iron Lady, first broadcast hours after Mrs Thatcher's death earlier this month. The words have been repeated often of late, because there is much truth behind them.

It is no exaggeration to say that Mrs Thatcher was the most controversial figure in British history. The chaotic political and economic environment in Britain in the late 1970s required new thinking, and it was through privatisation and reining in the unions that Mrs Thatcher achieved it. This, of course, led to her distinctive love-hate relationship with many people.

The BBC documentary underlined the mixed reaction to her legacy. It also described what it regarded as one of the major failures of her time in office - allowing the sovereignty of Hong Kong to pass back to China, instead of affording the people true self-determination.

I was fortunate enough to meet Mrs Thatcher, in September 2000, 10 years after she stood outside Downing Street and announced she was stepping down. I had been selected as an interpreter for a meeting between Mrs Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping's daughter, Deng Rong, while she was visiting London.

I was excited by the meeting; for one, I was keen to see her reaction when she met Deng's daughter.

We were taken to the second-floor living room of Mrs Thatcher's residence, where she asked the guests to sit at the table close to the fireplace. I sat beside her. This was an arresting moment; I couldn't believe I was allowed to sit so close rather than in my normal position as a translator, behind the host. I had a feeling that she liked to be close to everyone she was meeting, to allow them to feel comfortable.

Soon, the talk turned to the main subjects. When talking about Deng, she said: "Deng Xiaoping is a great man and he is a leader of intensity. His economic reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty; he has afforded them a better life."

On the question of Hong Kong, she outlined the essence of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, namely the importance of the "return of sovereignty", "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" and a "high level of autonomy". She felt that each of these fundamental pillars "became the consensus for the future of Hong Kong after long years of negotiation". She said: "To this end, years of Sino-British politicians have made great sacrifices, put to one side cultural differences and ideologies, and with great wisdom have come to a solution."

She spoke of how delighted she was that the handover had not descended into unrest as so many people had predicted. In fact, she was pleased to see that Hong Kong, as one of the leading world's financial centres, had maintained its social stability and the people's lives had remained peaceful.

She went on to discuss how she thought that it didn't matter whether you were male or female; it is always difficult to be a politician. She described how, as a scientist - "never forget that I'm a research scientist by background" - there are many different ways to try before achieving a goal; and the way you achieve your goal becomes science. She said that a businessman has many ways to become successful; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. However, as a politician, you are left with only one way, you have got to win or you lose.

On the then newly elected US president, George W. Bush, she appeared anxious about his lack of international experience, saying, "it's hard to imagine [how] a president with a lack of international experience can lead a country as powerful and influential to the world as the United States". If you view the war in Iraq in this context, Thatcher's concern may be a strong footnote when it comes to the importance of international experience for political leaders.

The meeting took place in a peaceful and amicable manner, and we failed to realise that it had overrun by some time.

When I look back at this unforgettable day, I understand that a successful politician, when implementing a major social change or reform, will have to face challenges and differences in opinion, and should not be scared of being in a minority. To a certain extent, the controversies after Mrs Thatcher's death can be seen as reasonable. What is unique to a politician is that he or she has to make choices that will decide the political future of a nation. These must be made without fear of causing disagreement, and this is true for every leader in history.

Britain in the 1970s witnessed sluggish economic growth. Mrs Thatcher's reforms boosted the economy and fundamentally shaped development in the 30 years that followed. Amid any major social change, the benefits of some groups will be sacrificed; other groups will see their position strengthened. Only an extraordinary politician can find a balance and achieve his or her goals.

The life of Mrs Thatcher also makes me realise one other thing. One can have allies and colleagues but when it comes to the pressure caused by change and revolution, people's interests will diverge.

A leader can end up misguided if he or she is too emotionally attached to an issue. To lead with clarity, he or she must be strong when dealing with emotions.

Mrs Thatcher was in power for 11½ years, during which time she achieved many of the things she set her sights on. Even though opinion will remain mixed, she is still, in my mind, the equal of Winston Churchill as one of the two greatest British prime ministers of the 20th century.

Li Hong is a senior partner and president at Fleishman-Hillard International Communications (China)