Remembering Margaret Thatcher – A Personal View from China

April 22, 2013

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Margaret Thatcher’s passing has generated an outpouring of opinion on the legacy of her time as Prime Minister of England.  She was a controversial figure in life and continued to be in her death.  Because she was so firm in her beliefs, one might say unyielding, there will likely never be a final judgment on her tenure in leadership.  Conservatives will deify her and liberals will denounce her.  But no one can deny that she was a consequential leader.

FleishmanHillard’s President of China, Li Hong, noted her passing with some personal remembrances on the firm’s China blog. As Li Hong points out:

If you look back over Margaret Thatcher’s life, you can see what an extraordinary road she traveled. Whether you look at her rise to become the youngest Cabinet member of her generation or her very humble beginnings through to her studying chemistry at Oxford University, whether it is her support of her husband, Denis Thatcher, or in her towering strength in her convictions in beating her former-mentor Prime Minister heath, Thatcher was a once in a generation politician.

Li-Hong-with-Mrs-Thacher

But it is Li Hong’s description of her in a private meeting he had with her after she left office that is most compelling.

I was fortunate enough to meet Margaret Thatcher in person some 13 years ago. It was September 2000 and it had been ten years since she had stood outside Downing Street and announced she was stepping down. I was fortunate to be selected as an interpreter for the meeting between Margaret Thatcher and   late Chinese state leader Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, Miss Deng Rong, while she was visiting London. The meeting was arranged through Mr. Miles Young, then the Asia Pacific Chairman of Ogilvy through his connections with Carol Thatcher’s best friend, Valerie.

I was excited by our forthcoming meeting. For one I had read her biography, ‘The Downing Street Years’ but I was also keen to see her reaction when she met the daughter of Deng Xiaoping.

It was a bright sunny afternoon and I remember sitting with Carol, Valerie and Miles having lunch close to the Thatcher residence in quiet area of London, preparing for the afternoon meeting. Once inside you never got the impression of luxury, but more an understated elegance and magnificence. We were taken to the second floor living room where Mrs. Thatcher asked the guests to sit at the table close to the fire place. I, and Miles, sat beside her. This was an extremely arresting moment because I simply couldn’t believe that I was allowed to sit so close instead of my normal arranged position behind the host as a translator, for which I had become very accustomed. I had a feeling that she liked to be close to everyone she was meeting, to allow them to feel comfortable and to make the situation feel as natural as possible. Even though, at this point, she had been a decade out of office, she still dressed with style and her hair was the familiar style seen the world over.

Li Hong goes on to describe the conversation where she shared her views on a number of issues, including the handover of Hong Kong, the newly elected U.S. President, George W. Bush and what it was like to be the first female Prime Minister of England.  Her answers were typically blunt and candid.

It is a great personal account of a meeting with one of the towering figures of the 20th century.  It is worth reading in its entirety.