Thatcher wanted cheaper menu for Beijing banquet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

During their historic 1982 talks in Beijing, thrifty Margaret Thatcher fretted about banquet expenses, while Deng Xiaoping worried over moves that might undermine Hong Kong's prosperity in the run-up to the 1997 handover.

Personal papers released yesterday show the extensive preparations for Thatcher's important trip to China in September 1982. It was the first visit by a British leader to the country, and was to include sensitive talks on the future of the British colony of Hong Kong.

Thatcher tried to offer the cheapest menu option for a banquet for dignitaries in China - but backed down when her ambassador said her guests would feel slighted by the absence of sea cucumbers and shark's fin soup.

Deng's worries, he told the then British prime minister, were that disturbances would be created not by governments but by individuals, "some Chinese, some British", during the transitional period.

"Deng said, 'Take for instance the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. No one knew how many banknotes it had issued," the record of conversation between the two leaders said. The then paramount leader did not elaborate on what worry he had about HSBC, the de facto central bank in Hong Kong at the time.

As for the menu, it " went through many, many, many phases of discussion", said Chris Collins, a historian at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

As for the menu, it " went through many, many, many phases of discussion"
Chris Collins, a historian at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Seeking a suitably impressive venue, Britain booked the vast Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and Thatcher decreed that the tables should be set with British naval silver.

Britain was offered the choice of a menu at 50 yuan (then about US$20) a head, or a more luxurious 75 yuan version.

Foreign Office officials advised Thatcher to choose the cheaper version, and she agreed - as long as Scottish smoked salmon was added to enhance the menu, her office wrote.

"She didn't want to squander public money and could see the headlines back home: Maggie cuts hospitals but spends a huge amount of public money on a banquet," Collins said.

But Britain's ambassador in Beijing, Percy Cradock, was adamant that this would not do.

"We cannot have a memorable banquet in the Great Hall of the People without paying for it," he wrote in a telegram. "Nor should we attempt to skimp on the drinks."

Thatcher relented.