Li Yuanchao, other world leaders head to South Africa for Mandela memorial
Vice-President Li Yuanchao will attend as Chinese in South Africa remember Nelson Mandela as broad-minded and a friend of China
Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao today joins an unprecedented gathering of dignitaries past and present, celebrities and thousands of ordinary South Africans at the main memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
As they prepared to celebrate his life, Chinese people in South Africa and elsewhere hailed him as a friend of China.
More than 70 national leaders from US President Barack Obama to Iran's Hassan Rowhani were flying to South Africa to pay tribute to one of humanity's great peacemakers at the Soccer City Stadium in Soweto.
The Dalai Lama, who has twice been unable to obtain a visa to South Africa, will not attend, with a spokesman saying only that "logistically it's impossible at this time".
Li, who will be in South Africa until tomorrow, said Mandela spent all his life advocating and implementing racial equality and reconciliation.
That sentiment was echoed by Chen Yuling, president of the South Africa Chinese Education Foundation, who said her heart was broken as if she had lost an old friend or a family member when she heard of the former South African president's death.
"When Mandela was in office, he visited Beijing twice, and he also liked to visit Chinese companies and Chinese people's homes. I had the honour to meet him face-to-face a few times. Mandela was a very kind, wise, broad-minded person," Chen said.
Fang Wubin, a Chinese entrepreneur in South Africa, could hardly speak through his tears as he described Mandela as a good friend of the Chinese people. "When I saw the horrible news on TV, I could not help but cry ... The flag in the courtyard of my company [is] half down, and I hope Mandela will live well in heaven," Fang said.
More than 80,000 people will attend the memorial service at the stadium where Mandela made his last major public appearance for the 2010 soccer World Cup final.
Cuban leader Raul Castro, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Britain's David Cameron will also join what is set to be one of the biggest meetings of global dignitaries in recent history.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono, as well as British billionaire Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel are also expected to attend.
The service is seen as a final chance for grieving South Africans to unite in a mass celebration of Mandela's life. Mandela's body will then lie in state from tomorrow until Friday.
Each morning, his coffin will be carried through the streets of the capital in a funeral cortege, to give as many people as possible the chance to pay their respects.
He will be buried on Sunday in Qunu, his ancestral home in the Eastern Cape province.
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang sent messages of condolence to South African President Jacob Zuma expressing their heartfelt sympathies.
"Mr Mandela was a world renowned statesman. With arduous and extraordinary efforts, he led the South African people to win the battle against apartheid, making a historic contribution to the birth and development of a new South Africa," Xi said in his message to Zuma.
Xinhua said that Xi's message was both representing China and expressing his personal condolences.
Earlier China's foreign ministry called Mandela an "old friend of the Chinese people". In Hong Kong, people signed messages of condolence at the South African consulate.
Xinhua, Reuters, Agence France-Presse. Additional reporting by Zhang Hong