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A chronicle of Chinese leaders’ death foretold by UK

The British Foreign Office had prepared draft condolence messages in 1987 to be issued in the event of the death of top Chinese leaders years and decades in advance.

world Updated: Dec 31, 2016 00:57 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Three draft messages of condolence for the major Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng sent to Margaret Thatcher.
Three draft messages of condolence for the major Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng sent to Margaret Thatcher.(UK National Archives)

It is normal for diplomats to make contingency plans but Britain’s Foreign Office planned years and decades in advance for the death of top Chinese leaders, drawing up condolence messages to be issued on behalf of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Files released on Friday by the National Archives show the Foreign Office had prepared draft condolence messages in 1987 to be issued in the event of the death of Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, Li Xiannian and Li Peng. 

Among the most influential leaders in China, Li Xiannian died in 1992, Deng Xiaoping in 1997 and Zhao Ziyang in 2005, while Li Peng is alive to this day.

In a note titled “Contingency planning – Death of Deng Xiaoping”, Robert Culshaw of the Foreign Office wrote to 10, Downing Street in April 1987 that a confidential report of the illness of then President Li Xiannian had brought the issue “into immediate focus”.

Culshaw wrote: “We have been considering contingency plans for message of condolence to be sent in the case of the sudden death of either of China’s two most elderly principal leaders, Li Xiannian and Den Xiaoping.”

The draft condolence messages were carefully reviewed by Thatcher and it was agreed they could be sent out by the embassy in Beijing without reference to London. However, a year later, the Foreign Office decided they needed to update the contingency planning in view of changes in the Chinese leadership.

It then sent to Thatcher what is considered “a rather remarkable document” with three draft messages of condolence for the major Chinese leaders, Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng. The longest message was for Deng. 

The latest cache of declassified files from 1989 and 1990 includes private correspondence between Princess Margaret and Thatcher, Britain’s concerns over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the sudden collapse of communism in Europe.