Chinese media old and new have rushed to mourn the passing of “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher – with many forgetting, or glossing over, her famous run-in with an equally iron-willed Deng Xiaoping 30 years ago over the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
News about her passing drew heavy attention from China’s online community. It topped the hot topic list in Weibo, Sina Corp’s microblogging service, as Tuesday afternoon, and stayed in the top 10 most-searched list of Baidu, China’s Google-like search engine.
Many in China spoke highly of her push in Britain for a free-market economy, her shake-up of state-controlled enterprises and and firm stance in safeguarding national interests –- issues high on the current list of priorities for much of the Chinese public as well. “A real Iron Lady,” wrote Zhang Xin, a self-made real estate mogul and a Cambridge graduate. “From centralization to democracy, from planned [economy] to market [economy], she was an amazingly outstanding stateswoman,” said Ms. Zhang.
Her image received prominent display on the front pages of China’s domestic newspapers on Tuesday, as well as on television broadcasts. “The legend of this Iron Lady will stay forever,” read the front page of a local newspaper based in China’s northern Henan province, with half-page picture of a smiling Ms. Thatcher.
Ms. Thatcher visited China four times since 1980s, making her well-known among many in the Chinese public. But the relationship between the late prime minister and Beijing hasn’t always been positive. At a speech at the Hoover Institution in 2000, she said China “has even perfected a system, combining enterprise, corruption and slave labor, that allows it to benefit from growing prosperity,” adding “nor should it be appeased, particularly over Taiwan.”
Many in China know her best for her stumble outside the Great Hall of the People in 1982 during a state visit. That stumble served as a metaphor for Ms. Thatcher’s visit, which marked a rare foreign-policy setback for a leader who took on both Argentina and the former Soviet Union. Bent on pressing for continued British sovereignty for Hong Kong, she met firm resistance from Deng. Records suggest their negotiations were less than pleasant. The Daily Telegraph quoted Deng as muttering to an aide: “I cannot talk to that woman, she is utterly unreasonable.”
“The Chinese public had a very complicated mentality towards this negotiation and frictions of the two parties, “ said Wang Yizhou, professor of School of International Studies of Peking University. “ But it has been a long time and Hong Kong returned to China smoothly, so people here are more impressed with her statesmanship, which kept Britain in the top rank of the world.”
Beijing’s official response followed the tone of respect struck online and in the media. “Margaret Thatcher was an outstanding statesman. She made an important contribution to the development of China-UK relations, in particular the peaceful solution of the Hong Kong issue,” said Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, at a daily briefing on Tuesday.
“As Chinese, we don’t have any reason for not showing our respect,” said nationalist tabloid Global Times in an editorial on Tuesday (in Chinese).
The response to her death contrasted with the relatively flat response over the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. “What Chavez actually did was far behind what he publicly preached and promised,” said Mr. Wang.
“Mrs. Thatcher brought prosperity to Britain during her second term,” he said. “In China’s academic circle, she is regarded as an excellent leader.”
China has a checkered track record of its treatment of powerful women in the history books, ranging from Lu Zhi – an empress more than 2,000 years ago who dismembered her rivals — to the dowager Empress Cixi to Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong who plotted the Cultural Revolution.
What explains the positive sentiment of Chinese public towards this strong female leader?
“The answer is obvious: She is a foreigner,” said Lu Pin, a prominent female rights activist based in Beijing, who says the adulation comes despite Mrs. Thatcher’s humble background as a grocer’s daughter. “If she was of noble roots, like Queen Elizabeth, she would be even more popular than now.”