Thatcher's role in Hong Kong handover draws tributes from across China
Beijing expresses deep condolences to Britain as former PM's influence in China remembered
Cary Huang in Beijing, Gary Cheung and Tony Cheung
Beijing was full of praise yesterday for Margaret Thatcher, especially for her contribution to Sino-British relations and for negotiating the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty.
"Margaret Thatcher was an outstanding stateswoman, who in her lifetime made important contributions to the development of Sino-British relations, in particular the peaceful solution to the Hong Kong issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. He expressed the Chinese people's "deep condolences" over the death on Monday of the former prime minister.
"Baroness Thatcher will be remembered as the British prime minister whose signature appears on the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in Beijing in December 1984," Leung said.
"This agreement marked the beginning of Hong Kong's transition and return to China in 1997, when the principle of 'one country, two systems' in Hong Kong was successfully implemented."
People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, ran just a two-paragraph news story about Thatcher's death at the bottom of its inside international page yesterday.
Video: Margaret Thatcher on Universal Suffrage in Hong Kong and China
But the mainland's two main English-language newspapers and most commercial newspapers led their front pages with the story or gave it prominent front-page treatment.
Many newspapers also ran full-page pictorial and graphic packages inside.
Mainland social media sites were also filled with stories and pictures of Thatcher, along with memorial candles and words mourning the iconic politician who led Britain as its first woman prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
While comments on her role in global diplomacy and her economic ideology were mixed, most editorials and analysts praised her contribution to Hong Kong's return to China.
"It was a milestone event in Sino-British relations and also one of the most important diplomatic events in Chinese contemporary history," said Feng Zhongping, director of European studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
Thatcher's visit to China in 1982 launched the Sino-British negotiations on Hong Kong's future. The two nations signed the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's handover in 1984.
David Wilson, governor of Hong Kong from 1987 to 1992, said Thatcher admired the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Hongkongers.
"It is probably true to say that she would much have preferred not to have been the prime minister in whose time the issue of 1997 and the future of Hong Kong had to be decided," he wrote in an exchange of e-mails with the South China Morning Post.
"Having accepted in the end that major changes had to come, she was determined to do her best to ensure that the way of life of the people of Hong Kong, and with it their economic prosperity, would continue."
Tian Dewen, a British affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Thatcher had played an important role in helping push China's policy of reform and opening up.
"She was among the first influential Western leaders to call for China to be drawn into the global economy," said Tian, director of the CASS Institute of European Studies' social and culture division.
In a front-page report headlined "Thatcher helped push ties with China", China Daily said Thatcher played a key role in relations with Britain, especially the peaceful handover of Hong Kong. In an editorial, Global Times, an affiliate of People's Daily, said: "We have no reasons not to show our respect to this woman who signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration."
In Hong Kong, by 3.30pm yesterday, 11 mourners, including British Consul Caroline Wilson, had written in a condolence book opened at the British consulate to pay tribute to Thatcher.
One wrote: "You saved Britain, you saved the Falkland Islands - sadly you can't save Hong Kong."
The book will also be open for signatures from 9.30am to 12.30pm today and from 9.30am to 4.30pm tomorrow and Friday.