Thrifty British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried to offer the cheapest menu option during a banquet for dignitaries in China — but backed down when she was told her guests would feel slighted by the absence of sea slugs or shark fin soup.
Personal papers released Friday show the extensive preparations for Thatcher's important trip to China in September 1982. It was the first visit by a British leader to the communist country, and was to include sensitive talks on the future of the British colony of Hong Kong.
Thatcher's private files from 1982, released by the Thatcher archive at Cambridge University, reveal extensive haggling over plans for a dinner the British held for their Chinese hosts.
"The menu went through many, many, many phases of discussion," said Chris Collins, a historian at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.
Seeking a suitably impressive venue, Britain booked the vast Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and Thatcher decreed that the tables should be set with British naval silver — a reminder, perhaps, of Britain's military might.
As for the catering, Britain was offered the choice of a menu at 50 yuan (then about $20) a head, or a more luxurious 75 yuan version.
Foreign Office officials advised Thatcher to choose the cheaper version, and she agreed — as long as Scottish smoked salmon was added to enhance the menu, her office wrote.
She also vetoed the proposed dessert of bread with butter and strawberry jam — a Russian favorite introduced to menus in the days when China and the Soviet Union were allies. Thatcher asked for it to be replaced with fruit salad.
"She didn't want to squander public money and could see the headlines back home: Maggie cuts hospitals but spends a huge amount of public money on a banquet," Collins said.
But Britain's ambassador in Beijing, Percy Cradock, was adamant that this would not do.
"We cannot have a memorable banquet in the Great Hall of the People without paying for it," he wrote in a telegram. "The 50 yuan per head menu lacks sharks' fin and sea slugs, both delicacies to a Chinese palate which would be conspicuous by their absence on an occasion such as this.
"Nor should we attempt to skimp on the drinks," he added.
Thatcher relented, and the items were added to the menu.
On other issues concerning the delicate visit, Thatcher stood firm.
"The Prime Minister does not wish to lay a wreath in Tiananmen Square" at the Monument to Revolutionary Martyrs, her private secretary wrote to Foreign Office officials before the trip.
She continued to refuse after it was pointed out that other Western leaders had done so.
"That was always a bad argument with Margaret Thatcher," Collins said.
Writing after the trip, Cradock judged the visit a success. Thatcher met Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and the two countries agreed to hold talks on the future of Hong Kong. The negotiations eventually led to the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Margaret Thatcher's papers: www.margaretthatcher.org/archive
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://Twitter.com/JillLawless