Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who died this month, and the late Henry Fok Ying-tung, may have been worlds apart in certain respects, but they also had much in common; not least in the way they put their own nation's interests at the heart of long-term strategic thinking.

Both also valued education. The daughter of a grocer, Thatcher's career was founded on a combination of scholarships and her own solid effort. Fok - who would become one of Hong Kong's wealthiest and most influential businessmen - attended the elite government boy's school Queen's College in the 1930s, although his studies were disrupted by war with Japan and never subsequently resumed.

Both Thatcher and Fok tended to play up their "humble" beginnings. In Fok's case, his family had a prosperous boat business, but enduring local legend depicts him as having been a poverty-stricken sampan boy who scrambled his way up from the typhoon shelter through his own sheer effort and innate ability. In reality, entry to Queen's College was simply not an option for the poor in Fok's time.

His business empire had its roots in wartime Macau. Kerosene refining and re-export were the main activities at that time - and for some years afterwards, as smuggling routes along the South China coast were later used to circumvent the United States' efforts to cut off trade and engineer the downfall of the new communist regime. These networks played a critical role during the United Nations-mandated Korean war embargo period after 1950.

In science, credit tends to go to whoever publishes his find-ings first - think of the contest between Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace over evolution. Similarly, received wisdom has it that the late Percy Cradock, the then British ambassador to Beijing, and Thatcher were the ultimate architects of "one country, two systems".

But while there is no doubt that their pragmatism in the face of Chinese determination to recover sovereignty of Hong Kong did much to ensure the handover's success, others were at work on the concept, too, and much earlier.

Thatcher may have signed the Joint Declaration, which paved the way towards Hong Kong's return to China, in 1997, but it was Fok who first recognised that a "one country, two systems" approach to the city's future sovereignty - given its vital role in financing, facilitating and progressing the nation's ongoing modernisation programmes - might be workable.

Implicitly trusted on the mainland for decades as an unswerving patriot who had generously assisted the country in times of critical need, Fok proposed a version of this solution to the country's leaders in the political and economic thaw that followed US President Richard Nixon's historic visit to Beijing, in 1971.

The overall concept evolved gradually. In effect, it meant keeping what worked best from the incumbent system. Eventually, as the rest of China progresses and develops, the need for something separate in Hong Kong will diminish. With every passing year, gaps previously thought unbridgeable between Hong Kong and the mainland close over. Anyone with an eye for honest appraisal can see it happening in front of them.