It was with a neat turn of history's wheel that a descendant of Lin Zexu, the Qing dynasty Imperial Commissioner who destroyed the opium in Canton, should deposit the Joint Declaration to the United Nations on June 12, 1985. Ling Qing was then China's permanent representative to the United Nations as part of an impressive career that began as a student activist in Yenching University while Beijing was occupied by the Japanese. Now a thin, dapper man of 75, he lives with his wife, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka, in a modern apartment a stone's throw from the old British Legation in the centre of Beijing. From there, he is directing what he calls a nationwide movement to honour the memory of the man whose acts set in motion the Opium War and the transformation of Hong Kong island into a British colony. 'He had many achievements to celebrate but this campaign is all to do with the return of Hong Kong,' Mr Ling said. The little house in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, where Lin Zexu was born is being restored and turned into a museum and a public park. Fujian television is showing an 18-part series on his life from July and bookshops nationwide are offering new editions of Lin Zexu's collected works. Lin's original house was sold two years ago to a Taiwanese investor who knocked it down when the provincial government bought the site back with a cheque for 12 million yuan. The house, with just two rooms, is being rebuilt with the help of a two million yuan donation from a Hong Kong businessman. 'We are very grateful to his generosity. We hope other entrepreneurs will help us, including Western companies,' said Mr Ling who is president of the Lin Zexu Foundation. 'We are very famous as the only non-governmental organisation in China taking part in the anti-drug campaign.' Apart from setting an example in China and the rest of the world, Mr Ling claims his forefather as the first advocate of an open door policy for China. 'He was also the first to introduce the concepts of international law to China,' Mr Ling said, sitting on his leather sofa and sipping coffee. The former commissioner also set about gathering materials about life in Western countries, and had a small staff translating articles from English publications collected in Macau. These provide an encyclopedia of the outside world and form the core of his works. For his pains, Lin was exiled by Emperor Daoguang to Yining in Xinjiang, and now his descendant is at pains to stress that Lin was well loved by the Uighurs and a model throughout his career for fostering inter-racial harmony within the empire. He died on his way to try to suppress the first flames of the Taiping rebellion in Guangzi province which were to spread and almost destroy China, so weakening it that it was powerless to resist further incursions by Western imperialists. For the next century, his sons and grandsons continued to hold high posts as scholars and administrators in the service of the empire. Ling Qing would not care to admit it but his career is eloquent testimony to the continuity of Chinese history despite the changing fashions of dress and ideology. His father was a prominent scholar-official and member of the select Hanlin Academy. Radically for a Qing official, he went to the United States where he stayed for six years supervising the first Chinese students who were sent there. In the warlord period, he served as minister in the government. When the Kuomintang won power, he turned his talents towards setting up businesses - including a company which was the first to supply Beijing with electricity. With the Japanese invasion, however, he lost his fortune and when Mr Ling was attending school, the family was reduced to poverty. The children were scattered in all directions. Mr Ling's elder brother was killed in the Cultural Revolution after a career which included working for the US government's information office in Beijing and as a professor of English at Nankai University in Tianjin. Another sister married a foreigner and moved to Germany. Mr Ling, himself, joined the Communist Party in 1941 at the age of 18. 'I didn't know much about Marx or Lenin,' he said. 'It was out of patriotism. Most students believed the communists were the best fighters against the Japanese after the KMT withdrawal into the interior.' He helped run a reading club to spread anti-Japanese propaganda, but when the Japanese police cracked down after the attack on Pearl Harbour, he had to flee to communist resistance groups in the mountains. There he changed his name from Lin to protect his family in Beijing. Over the next 10 years, he carried out propaganda work but for a time also served as Mao's interpreter in Yenan. A faded black and white picture of Mao and Mr Ling - dressed in tightly buttoned-up Sun Yat Sen jacket and glasses outside a cave - stands on his television. In peacetime, he became an official in the Foreign Ministry running the US desk, took part in the Korean armistice negotiations and served in embassies in Romania and Indonesia. Despite his class background, he escaped serious persecution in the Cultural Revolution and was brought back to work after the Nixon visit and China's entry into the United Nations. 'They had to find experienced staff,' he explained. He even helped write Deng Xiaoping's speech at the UN General Assembly and served in China's delegation to the body. It was perhaps a deliberate gesture on the part of premier Zhou Enlai that he was part of the team which on March 8, 1972 wrote a letter to the UN Special Committee on Declaration of Decolonisation asking for Hong Kong to be removed from the list of 24 territories waiting to become independent. 'We wrote that we don't agree with this. Hong Kong was part of Chinese territory and not in the general sense a colonised nation as China still had sovereign rights. We opposed its independence,' he recalled. Mr Ling denied that his ancestry explains why he became involved in these events and why he was appointed in 1980 to a five-year stint as head of the delegation in New York. 'Zhou may have had an idea who I was, but it was not generally known until 1985 when I retired apart from an honorary position in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and we held a meeting to commemorate Lin,' he said. Still a loyal and discrete cadre, Mr Ling refused to be drawn on his personal insights on many matters of state. However, he did talk about one question which has often puzzled the territory: why China did not take back Hong Kong in 1949? 'Western countries had imposed an embargo so Hong Kong was the only outlet to the outside world so it was in the interests of China to maintain Hong Kong as a free port, otherwise it too would have been blockaded,' he said. 'Mao took a long view, he was a farsighted statesman,' Mr Ling said. However he subscribes to the official line that the return of Hong Kong ends '100 years of national shame'. 'Every patriotic Chinese takes pride in the return of Hong Kong,' he said. He doubts whether he would be invited to Hong Kong to take part in the handover celebrations. 'We still do not know who will be in the delegation,' he said. But, he added, 'I would like to go.'