Thatcher the 'supreme realist' did her best for city, ex-governor Wilson says

Former governor recalls Thatcher's strong belief in the city's free market and her determination to preserve its way of life

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

Margaret Thatcher would have preferred not to have been British prime minister when the future of Hong Kong had to be decided, former governor David Wilson says.

But as a "supreme realist", she did her utmost to ensure that Hongkongers' way of life would continue after 1997, he says.

In her 1993 memoirs, The Downing Street Years, Thatcher wrote that she "felt depressed" in 1983 when she told Beijing the British envisaged no link of authority or accountability between Britain and Hong Kong after 1997. It meant abandoning her original plan of exchanging Hong Kong's sovereignty for continued British administration after 1997.

Wilson, governor from 1987 to 1992, said Thatcher had a great affection for Hong Kong. "She believed strongly in its free-market economy and she admired the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the Hong Kong people," he wrote in an e-mail exchange with the South China Morning Post.

She believed strongly in its free-market economy and she admired the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the Hong Kong people
Former Hong Kong governor David Wilson

"It is probably true to say that she would much have preferred not to have been the prime minister in whose time the issue of 1997 and the future of Hong Kong had to be decided," Wilson wrote.

"But she was a supreme realist. Having accepted in the end that major changes had to come, she was determined to do her best to ensure that the way of life of the people of Hong Kong, and with it their economic prosperity, would continue.

"Happily she lived long enough to see the Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong, which she had signed in 1984, put into effect and prove to be a success."

In March 1979, Wilson, as a political adviser to then governor Murray MacLehose, joined the latter for a historic meeting in Beijing with then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping .

Deng told MacLehose that China "might" take over Hong Kong by 1997, but it would respect the city's "special status", according to British government files declassified from the National Archives in London.

Four years later, when Deng met Thatcher in September 1982, he told her that sovereignty was not a matter which could be discussed and Beijing would certainly regain sovereignty over the city in 1997.

After the meeting, the "Iron Lady" stumbled on the stairs outside the Great Hall of the People where the historic talks were held. The slip-up was caught on camera and played many times in Hong Kong.

Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel wrote in Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China that "the pictures conveyed the impression that Thatcher, shaken by Deng's tough stance, was kowtowing".

Thatcher also met then premier Zhao Ziyang during her visit. According to her observations, Zhao's "moderation and reasonableness" proved to be a great handicap to him in his subsequent career. Zhao was ousted in 1989 because of his sympathy with the pro-democracy movement.

In a meeting with ministers and Edward Youde, Hong Kong's then governor, in January 1983, Thatcher proposed that in the absence of progress in the talks with Beijing, London should develop the democratic structure in Hong Kong as though it was its aim to achieve independence or self-government within a short period, as it had done with Singapore.

"This would involve building up a more Chinese government and administration in Hong Kong, with the Chinese members increasingly taking their own decisions. We might also consider using referenda as an accepted institution there," she wrote in her memoirs. "At that time, however, nobody else seemed much attracted by my ideas."

Thatcher made another visit to Beijing in December 1984, during which she signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration to resolve Hong Kong's future.

In her second meeting with Deng during that visit, Thatcher asked him about the rationale for setting the lifespan of "one country, two systems" at 50 years after 1997. "Mr Deng said China hoped to approach the level of advanced countries by the end of that time," she wrote, adding that "the Chinese belief that the benefits of a liberal economic system can be had without a liberal political system seems to me false in the long term".

Additional reporting by Bloomberg