Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher passed away on Monday, 8 April, at the age of 87.
To the people of Hong Kong, Mrs Thatcher was probably the best known British prime minister in history, primarily for her role in the Sino-British talks that determined the political fate of Hong Kong after 30 June 1997, when the 99-year lease of the New Territories under the Second Convention of Peking (aka The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory) expired.
To be honest, I didn't, and still don't, feel too strongly hearing the news. Given her age and ailing health, it was somewhat expected. The question is not whether it would happen, but when.
Having read the local press and online coverage of her passing, however, I was surprised to realise how little the people of Hong Kong seem to know about her policies and legacies. The news coverage was incredibly short, and the so-called analysis was little more than a Chinese translation of foreign news syndicates. Comments were sought from various local politicians and scholars as a matter of routine, but those were mostly personal views that didn't shed much light on how Mrs Thatcher's policies and their impact should be assessed and understood.
Mrs Thatcher was the first British prime minister I knew. I was six when she took office in 1979. My first impression of Britain at that time was a problem-laden country thousands of miles away where the people seemed to lead a hard life. As far as I could remember, television news footage of Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was often flooded with striking workers and the police's violent arrests and suppressions, terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army that killed and wounded scores and hundreds of people at times, and a war fought over some remote lands called the Falklands. I felt sorry for the people, who seemed to live under tremendous pressure and uncertainty, not knowing if they would lose their jobs, or even get killed any time. But I didn't know why, and what made all those happen.
Only until I studied the history of the British empire two years ago, and read books on political history such as Dr Li Pang-kwong's work on governance of colonial Hong Kong based on closed official archives that have recently been opened to public access, Dr Lui Tai-lok's insightful review of social changes in Hong Kong, as well as Noam Chomsky's Occupy and David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism, did I come to realise how ignorant we were about our former coloniser. Too many of us simply follow the practices and procedures and take them for granted, without bothering to question why they are so and how they came by in the first place.
Mrs Thatcher's impact on Hong Kong was certainly more than the Sino-British Joint Declaration. For example, her paramount belief in the power of the free market, a reduced role of the government, privatisation and self-help, and thus the contempt of dependence on social welfare, has pretty much become the so-called "core values" of Hong Kong. While there are also social and historical factors that help explain why Hong Kong is so receptive to these notions, it may be fair to say that Mrs Thatcher's philosophy has reinforced some of our underlying beliefs and struck a chord with the people of Hong Kong.
Unfortunately, it seems backfiring now. And few of us are aware of how dear the price can be.
In any event, may you rest in peace, Baroness Thatcher. Thank you for all the good and bad. It is now time for us to learn the lesson and clear the mess on our own.
To know more, check these out:
Obituary by Hugo Young, Mrs Thatcher's biographer, who died in 2003. He wrote this two weeks before he died.