One Hour & Four Minutes with Mrs. Thatcher

Pierre-Antoine Donnet/AFP/Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher with, from left to right, Chinese President Li Xiannian, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian, Beijing, December 1984

When a woman from the Cabinet Office at Number 10 Downing Street, the residence and offices of the British prime minister, told me over the phone that I was invited to the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, I immediately suspected it was a scam. I get regular calls intended to extract money from me. I said I would call her back, looked up the Cabinet Office phone number, and when I called, the same woman answered. “Why me?” I asked. “I was nothing to Lady Thatcher.” She told me I was “on the list,” and that she would send me an invitation by courier.

Why me? I had never been a parliamentary journalist. My career was as a foreign correspondent in China and Hong Kong. Margaret Thatcher’s visits to China were brief and unsatisfactory. But I did have a little history with Mrs. Thatcher, including four personal encounters. Here’s how they happened.

As leader of the opposition, Mrs. Thatcher had gone to China in 1977 and hadn’t liked it. In 1982, now prime minister, she went again to Beijing to negotiate the handover to China of British-ruled Hong Kong, stipulated by a nineteenth-century colonial treaty to occur in 1997. For three days she argued with Premier Zhao Ziyang and Senior Leader Deng Xiaoping for some sort of special arrangement that would not include the colony under direct mainland rule, but was forced to agree to what actually occurred, namely that Hong Kong would return to China on July 1, 1997, although Deng agreed that Beijing would not interfere with Hong Kong’s internal arrangements for fifty years.

My own meetings with Mrs. Thatcher took place after that agreement. In early June 1989, I returned to London from Beijing, where I been a correspondent for The Observer. The Armed Police in Tiananmen Square had assaulted me on the night of June 3, knocked out five teeth, fractured my left arm, and beaten me black and blue. A few days later I found myself at a reception of some sort where, unknown to me, the prime minister was also present. I was led up to her and introduced. She told me she had been reading my dispatches and asked if “we,” her preferred pronoun for herself, could do anything for me, did I have a good doctor, and to let her know if there was anything I needed. We shook hands. One minute.

In 1997, not long before the handover to which she had reluctantly agreed, Lady Thatcher, as she now was, came to Hong Kong to deliver a highly paid speech to the Chinese and British Chambers of Commerce. I was now East Asia editor of The Times of London. The day before her…

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