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Release of MT's private files for 1982 - China & Hong Kong


After the Falklands, British prestige markedly rose around the world and MT found herself in high demand diplomatically. This was one Falklands factor she was more than happy to exploit.

1982 september: strenuous preparations

The 75 Yuan menu

MT's first big overseas visit after the Falklands was to Japan, China and Hong Kong. The Chinese leg of the trip was particularly significant because it kicked off the long negotiation on the return of Hong Kong to China, leading to the signature of the Joint Declaration in December 1984. There are important files on this visit in her private papers, among them records of her meetings with the Chinese leadership which were not released at TNA in Kew with her other 1982 files.

MT prepared very extensively for the trip, choosing to consult widely rather than simply relying on the FCO. The latter were informed of the fact - they would surely have discovered anyway - but they can hardly have been entirely comfortable with it. And the Foreign Secretary wasn’t even invited on the trip, a fact widely noted at the time. MT's relations with Pym, post-Falklands, seem to have been pretty bad. It looks as if she was avoiding contact with him whenever she could, and long plane flights together would have been particularly difficult. Even short ones: on a visit to Bonn and Berlin in November 1982, to which he was invited, they flew separately. He was dropped from the government following her re-election in June 1983.

Seeing plans for the trip on 8 March 1982, which had her going to Japan before China, MT commented: "Should prefer to go to China first - Communist countries are always the most strenuous & I prefer to do them first". That proved impossible, but one gets a sense of her meaning from the files, because she evidently felt obliged to examine every detail of the visit, wary of the symbolism, determined to make a powerful impression at every point. There is a list of the clothes she was planning to wear, meeting by meeting for the whole trip - a rare survival. The outfits all have names: 'Smoky', 'Fuchsia', 'Gold Bows', 'English Garden', 'Plum Stars'. She refused outright to lay a wreath at the "Monument to Revolutionary Martyrs" in Tiananmen Square. "Many Western heads of government have done so recently", an official pointed out, but this was never a good argument to make to MT, who liked to argue from first principles rather than crowd psychology. The machine would have done better to tell her no one had done it before, the exact argument made when she visited Berlin in November and was invited to place a wreath on memorials to those killed trying to cross the Wall. She chose white lilies, on that occasion.

She spent an astonishing amount of time planning the British return banquet, which was held in the Great Hall of the People, the only place big enough. Silver table settings were supplied by the Royal Navy, several other military options being examined and rejected; there was a Prime Ministerial preview of the assembled finery at Lancaster House. Percy Cradock, then Ambassador to Peking, commented in his memoir Experiences of China (1994) that "these splendid  trophies, redolent of past military glories, struck a slightly incongruous note among the chinoiserie; and I doubt whether the Chinese, insofar as they understood them, relished their presence" (p181). Of course, it is unlikely she had past military glories in mind so much as recent ones, and if the Chinese didn't like them, perhaps they weren't intended to. She would have been delighted to explain what they were, as well, given the opportunity, and probably did. But maybe Cradock had a point, all the same.

There was also a ridiculous argument about the menu for the banquet. Struggling between "the conflicting calls of economy and prestige", MT favoured the 50 rather than the 75 Yuan option, saving £1,200. Officials thought this a great mistake and Cradock weighed in, pointing out that the cheaper menu omitted shark's fin and sea slugs, "both delicacies to a Chinese palate which would be conspicuous by their absence". "Nor should we attempt to skimp on the drinks", he warned. Traditional beverages were de rigueur, including fizzy orange and maotai. MT submitted to the local expert, though she baulked at "bread, butter and strawberry jam" for dessert, surely not a local delicacy. Even this merited official discussion, the FCO explaining that it had been considered a great treat in the days of Sino-Soviet entente - jam being scarce in the USSR perhaps - and was still put on for foreigners. She opted for fruit salad.

1982 september: strenuous visiting

MT's informal consultations before the China/Hong Kong visit pointed in all sorts of directions. She was warned against "a post-Falklands sovereignty emphasis" by the Hong Kong Government's Financial Secretary, John Bremridge, a view certainly shared by the FCO, though the same man hedged his bet by urging her "not to go crawling to Peking". Michael Sandberg of HSBC had a simple formula: "British administration must be maintained. Ceding of sovereignty purely cosmetic". Henry Keswick of Jardine Matheson told her that it was unlikely the essentially agricultural Chinese economy "would ever make any real economic progress per capita" and that Hong Kong would revert to China in 2098. The consultations, like the opinion polls, suggested strong support in Hong Kong for a Sandberg type solution - confirming pretty much what the FCO was telling her in fact - and so MT was persuaded to look for a deal that would trade British sovereignty over Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, which in our view was absolute and secured by treaty, for continued administration over the whole, including the leased New Territories. She was certainly sceptical of the recently deployed Chinese notion of "One Country, Two Systems", writing to one correspondent on 25 August: "I am very well aware of the direction in which the Chinese are thinking. Like you, I doubt whether their objective - to leave Hong Kong in practice as it is - and their formula are compatible. It is going to be a very difficult visit and I should be grateful to have any more information or views that may come to you".

The serious business involved two meetings with the Chinese Premier, Zhao Ziyang, and a single long meeting with Deng Xiaoping at the end. MT would have liked two meetings with Deng, but was denied a second. Her first meeting with Zhao Ziyang, on 22 September, dealt with issues where there was common ground (particularly the Soviets); they only came to Hong Kong in the second, the following day, and the tone changed. The crucial exchange arose when Zhao Ziyang bluntly asserted Chinese sovereignty over "the entire Hong Kong area, including Hong Kong Island and Kowloon". In his view we had nothing to trade. Nor was administration to be sub-contracted. "China would not let others administer Hong Kong on its behalf nor place Hong Kong under the trusteeship of others". "The Prime Minister had said that if China recovered sovereignty, then confidence and prosperity in Hong Kong would be destroyed". MT denied that she had said that, but Zhao Ziyang simply repeated it. In case his meaning was not sufficiently clear he explicitly stated that if there was any kind of conflict between Chinese sovereignty and Hong Kong prosperity, sovereignty mattered more.

The meeting with Deng Xiaoping on 24 September was the important one of course. There has been some dispute as to how contentious this conversation really was: MT remembered it in fairly grim terms, afterwards describing Deng to Cradock in terms of some revulsion, commenting how 'cruel' he seemed. It began with Deng listening patiently enough to MT's presentation, but the atmosphere rapidly deteriorated when he threatened that China would move into Hong Kong before the expiry of the lease 1997 if there were "very large and serious disturbances in the next fifteen years", mentioning HSBC by name as a potential agent of such disturbances, implying it might choose to debauch the currency. This threatening remark certainly gives force to MT's argument that there was a risk of financial collapse in Hong Kong if they were unable to agree a sensible communiqué. Eventually it was agreed to say that the two sides would "enter into further talks through diplomatic channels with a common aim of maintaining prosperity and stability". This had only limited reassurance value in fact: there were big drops in the stock exchange and in the value of the Hong Kong dollar following the meetings and her remarks back in Hong Kong, which she visited immediately after. It did not help that, after the meeting, MT fell when she was walking down the steps of the Great Hall of the People. In Hong Kong her slip is still remembered, because for many it presaged the fall of the British themselves.

The files contain records of her meetings with the Hong Kong government and the 'Unofficials', prominent Hong Kong Chinese figures coopted into the Executive and Legislative Councils which ran the city, as well as local businessmen. She spoke with care, evidently aiming to reassure while not raising false hopes, and so predicted a long and difficult negotiation with the Chinese, "perhaps as long as two years". She certainly doesn’t look to have been ready to give up on the concept of trading sovereignty for continued administration, however poorly received it had been in Peking.  But she cannot have thought the prospects good.

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