Painting or porcelain? Thatcher eager to please China’s Zhao Ziyang during 1985 visit to Britain

Keen to secure trade concessions and assurances on the Sino-British Joint Declaration, then prime minister spent a week discussing gifts for Chinese premier, declassified records show

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 9:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 11:49am

Britain was eager to please former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang during his visit to London after the two countries concluded a treaty in 1984 on Hong Kong’s future, so much so that Margaret Thatcher and her aides spent a week discussing what gift to give him, declassified records show.

The documents, from the latest batch of British cabinet office files released by the country’s National Archives, shed light on the government’s preparations for a lavish event to receive Zhao in June 1985, six months after he signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with the then British prime minister in Beijing.

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The focus of Zhao’s week-long visit was on Hong Kong and trade, but the archives reveal anecdotes about Thatcher’s cabinet and details of a frank exchange between Zhao’s deputy, vice-premier Tian Jiyun, and a British minister.

“They [the delegation] were delighted by their reception with the prime minister and the general spirit of friendship and by the fuss made of them by all concerned,” concluded Lord David Young, minister without portfolio who later became secretary of state for trade and industry, in his report to Thatcher summarising his conversations with Zhao and Tian on their trip to Cambridge.

Young also wrote that Tian had told him “Marxism today would not work and they greatly regretted adopting the Russian model in the early 1950s”.

“The effect of the Hong Kong agreement has not yet disappeared. We are now probably in an even better position to obtain commercial business. But it will depend upon our performance.”

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The “fuss” Young referred to started with a discussion, with much sensitivity, on what gift should be given to their guest. Thatcher dismissed the idea of a watercolour painting of a scene in London. A bolt of suit fabric was also brushed aside, with an unknown official advising that Zhao would probably complain about the obstacles for Chinese textile exporters in Britain.

“The tortuous Chinese mind might conclude you think he dresses badly!” added Percy Cradock, Thatcher’s foreign affairs adviser. In the end the prime minister settled on a fine piece of Royal Worcester porcelain with a Scottish cashmere travel rug.

The British were also anxious to get Zhao to offer public assurances that China would implement the declaration. Zhao did so, saying Hongkongers would be fairly represented on a Basic Law drafting committee.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Ngo