BEIJING – Margaret Thatcher was an “outstanding” leader who wisely compromised over Hong Kong’s future, Chinese state media said after her death, although reactions in the territory itself have been mixed.
The news of the former British prime minister’s death at the age of 87 featured on the front pages of most major Chinese newspapers Tuesday, with the English-language China Daily also devoting the whole of its back page to her.
During her time in power the key issue between London and Beijing was the future of the then-British colony in southern China, where Britain’s lease on the New Territories area of Hong Kong was to expire in 1997.
The signing of the Joint Declaration between Britain and China in 1984, which began the handover process, was recognized as a key concession to Beijing, the state-run Global Times said in an editorial.
The agreement followed a brief but bloody war with Argentina in 1982 in which Thatcher “impressed the world with her hardline stance”, the paper added.
“But Thatcher managed to understand that China is not Argentina and Hong Kong is not the Falklands,” it said. “We can say that she made her biggest compromise as prime minister in this issue.”
The editorial, carried in the English and Chinese editions of the paper, added: “The complicated political environment in which she held her role, a golden era for politicians, made her outstanding.”
A decade after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Beijing, Thatcher spoke of her regret, saying that she had been unable to persuade China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, to extend Britain’s lease on most of the colony.
Although Britain held Hong Kong Island and part of Kowloon in perpetuity, the future of the territory as a whole was seen as untenable if shorn of its populous hinterland in the New Territories, bordering the Chinese mainland.
In Hong Kong itself, liberals who led a long fight to entrench a semblance of democracy before the handover expressed ambivalence about Thatcher’s legacy.
“I didn’t think she had done the best to protect Hong Kongers’ interests during Sino-British talks,” Democratic Party Chairwoman Emily Lau said.
“One couldn’t help getting angry. Britain had ruled Hong Kong for more than 100 years, but it did not give democracy to Hong Kong even when it was planning to hand it over to China,” she told the South China Morning Post.
Activists have been pressing for full democracy under Chinese rule.
Others said Thatcher had done the best she could for Hong Kong.
Former lawmaker Selina Chow, who was present at the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, told The Standard newspaper that Thatcher “strived to find a balance for both Britain’s and Hong Kong’s interests”.