However, in the course of researching a book on Hong Kong, I have found that Mrs Thatcher, for one, had less cause for remorse than she may have thought. Indeed she may have set an example. About a year after watching Chris Patten and the Prince of Wales sail away in a storm on the royal yacht Britannia, I was browsing one afternoon in the Foreign Languages Bookstore in Beijing when a snappy new title caught my eye.
Mao Zedong on Diplomacy, published in 1998, contains official papers and transcripts from the “liberation” of China to late in Mao’s life. A light-hearted read it is not, until the last pages, in which the chairman greets an unctuous Edward Heath, then leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, for a chat about world affairs on May 25, 1974.
‘I cast my vote for you!’ declares Mao, ignoring an aide who asks if he is not afraid of offending Harold Wilson, the sitting Labour prime minister. Mao was on record as preferring conservatives, De Gaulle and Nixon among them, to liberals and socialists. No doubt he found something to admire in pragmatism tempered by ruthlessness.
He trusted Heath to send a message to the British government about Hong Kong. ‘We won’t discuss it at present,’ said Mao, ‘This will be the business of the younger generation.’ Heath was back eight years later. This time he met Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, and inquired again about the colony. ‘How could we face our ancestors and the Chinese people if we did not take it back?’ said Deng, according to a memoir by a senior Chinese official. It landed in Mrs Thatcher’s in-tray just after the Falklands War. Britain’s lease on the New Territories ran out in 1997 and the Foreign Office pressed her to make a deal.
She did so, but it troubled her for the rest of her life to see millions of British subjects handed over to a Communist dictatorship. Yet her resolve may have got them a better future than Deng ever intended to grant.
We knew that her meeting with Deng in September 1982 was grim. ‘A tiny man who radiated power,’ says a British official who advised her. Deng dismissed the 19th-Century treaties granting Hong Kong Island and part of the Kowloon peninsula to Britain in perpetuity. She was shocked. Deng said he could take Hong Kong in an afternoon. He chain-smoked and spat. But I did not know that when Mrs Thatcher steadied and held her ground, the Chinese leader had private cause for doubt. Memoirs by Chinese officials and Communist Party histories – all laudatory of their own wisdom, of course – show that her firmness changed Deng’s political calculations.
The People’s Liberation Army had a plan for invading Hong Kong, on the shelf since the Cultural Revolution. But Deng knew the PLA had come off badly in a brawl with Vietnam. Plus, China had no friends. Deng still feared the USSR. He had to do economic reform, so he needed the United States. Perhaps, the Chinese leader thought, this difficult woman might actually make a fight of it. One never knew.