Margaret Thatcher sought meeting with ousted liberal Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang in 1991, declassified files show

  • Iron Lady was admirer of former Chinese premier, who fell from grace after opposing Tiananmen crackdown in 1989
PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 10:20am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 5:21pm

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher sought a meeting with ousted liberal Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang during her visit to China in 1991, according to recently declassified British files.

The Iron Lady was an admirer of the ex-Chinese premier, who was forced out after opposing the Tiananmen crackdown. The two leaders signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s future in Beijing in December 1984.

After the incident on June 4, 1989, which saw hundreds, possibly more than a thousand killed, Zhao was deposed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and party conservatives for allegedly “splitting the party” and “supporting unrest” – accusations he firmly denied.

He was placed under house arrest, where he was to spend most of the next 16 years until his death in 2005 at the age of 85.

In a note written on September 12, 1991, then British ambassador to China Robin McLaren wrote that during her 36-hour visit to China, Thatcher had meetings with Chinese leaders, including then Chinese president Jiang Zemin, premier Li Peng and vice-president Rong Yiren.

Documents from reformist icon Zhao Ziyang give rare insight into China at crossroads

“Jiang Zemin entertained her to dinner after their early evening meeting. Mrs Thatcher also asked for a meeting with Zhao Ziyang but was told by Li Peng and others that this was not possible,” McLaren wrote.

According to Thatcher’s 2002 memoir, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, Li explained that she could not meet Zhao because the ousted premier was still “under investigation” by the Communist Party.

“I asked when this process might be completed, because I felt loyalty to all my old friends,” she wrote. “He [Li Peng] undertook to pass on my best wishes. He said that Zhao was living comfortably in his old residence. Indeed, his salary had increased, added the Prime Minister [Li] with a mirthless laugh.”

The records were declassified this week by Britain’s National Archives in London.

Thatcher wrote in her 1993 memoir, The Downing Street Years, that Zhao's “moderation and reasonableness” were a great handicap to him in his career.

McLaren wrote that Thatcher had discussed with the Chinese leaders topics including Hong Kong, the prospects for economic and political reform in China, human rights in the country and the situation in the Soviet Union.

“I also understand that Mrs Thatcher spoke strongly on the latter subjects and that there were some animated exchanges,” McLaren wrote.

Thatcher stepped down as prime minster in 1990 and died in 2013.

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

Britain was eager to please Zhao Ziyang during his visit to London in June 1985, six months after he and Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, so much so that the prime minister and her aides spent a week discussing what gift to give him, British records declassified two years ago show.

Thatcher dismissed the idea of a watercolour painting of a scene in London. A bolt of suit fabric was also brushed aside.

She ultimately settled on a fine piece of Royal Worcester porcelain with a Scottish cashmere travel rug.