Baroness Thatcher is said to have once welcomed a visiting president to Downing Street with the words, “I hate Communists”.
But the former British Prime Minister is being held up as an inspiration for future leaders of the People’s Republic of China with words attributed to the Iron Lady being used to train senior members of the Communist Party.
At Shanghai’s China Executive Leadership Academy, one of the country’s most elite party schools, Lady Thatcher’s philosophy has found its way into a “crisis management” course.
The Daily Telegraph was this week given rare access to the leadership academy’s 104-acre, oak-lined campus, in a bid to show the Communist Party’s more cosmopolitan side ahead of a once-in-a-decade handover of power.
A lecturer, Prof Li Min, said that when it came to crisis management, Britain’s former prime minister was a model of excellence.
Quoting the words attributed to Lady Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s 2011 film The Iron Lady, she said: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Although there is no evidence that Lady Thatcher said the words in real life, Prof Li said: “Mrs Thatcher is a lady I quite admire. [She is] the Iron Lady.”
She also spoke of the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, which triggered five days of disturbances last August. “Why did a welfare state country, a nanny state, have massive urban riots?” she asked.
Lady Thatcher might seem an unusual choice for the curriculum of an academy grooming the next generation of Chinese leaders. But Shanghai’s Leadership Academy is no ordinary party school.
“We have an open attitude towards all civilisations that are useful to us, and [we] learn from them,” explained Prof Jiang Haishan, the head of its international programme.
Feng Jun, the academy’s executive vice-president, conceded that many outsiders found China’s party schools “mysterious”, but denied they were designed to indoctrinate officials with Marxist dogma.
“It is not brainwashing [we do] here, it is brainstorming – finding the answers and solutions to the problem,” he said.
Students were taught “to love Socialism and to strengthen their faith in the paths of Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Feng added. “[But] we intend for cadres studying here to free and broaden their minds. Many things can be discussed here.”
A prospectus says the “international, contemporary and innovative institution” offered “cutting-edge leadership training”. Gordon Brown and Romano Prodi have both visited while past speakers include Lord Patten and Robert Zoellick, then president of the World Bank.
Prof Frank Pieke, the chairman of Modern China Studies at Leiden University, said the academies were conceived because of Beijing’s “impatience with the lack of what they call the quality of local cadres and their inability to govern their localities or institutions effectively.”
But the Shanghai academy, one of five across China, is also part of a PR drive. “It is very much part of the new glossy face of the Communist Party under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao,” said Prof Pieke, whose book The Good Communist: Elite Training and State Building in Today’s China examines the education of party officials.
“This is what they want China to look like. This is how they want China to be ruled.”