China lauds Thatcher but H.K. activists cry betrayal

Margaret Thatcher was an "outstanding" leader who wisely compromised over Hong Kong's future, China said Tuesday, although democracy activists in the former British colony itself accused her of betrayal.

The news of the ex-prime minister's death at the age of 87 featured on the front pages of most major Chinese newspapers -- relegating a deadly outbreak of H7N9 bird flu to the inside pages.

During the Conservative leader's time in power, the overriding issue between London and Beijing was the future of Hong Kong, as the clock ticked down to the expiry of Britain's lease on the New Territories region in 1997.

Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 to begin the handover process, giving up on Britain's hopes of retaining Hong Kong in the face of unbending resistance from China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei praised Thatcher as an "outstanding statesman".

"She made important contributions to the development of Chinese-British relations, and in particular to the peaceful solution of the issue of Hong Kong," he told reporters.

The joint declaration followed a brief but bloody war with Argentina in 1982 in which Thatcher "impressed the world with her hardline stance", China's state-run Global Times said in an editorial.

"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."

A decade after the 1997 handover, Thatcher said she regretted her inability to persuade Deng to let Britain extend its control of the prosperous entrepot in southern China, which stretched back to 1842.

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.

Xing Hua, a retired academic from the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said Thatcher arrived for talks in China ahead of the declaration aiming to "maintain the privileges of the British" in the colony.

"But she took a pragmatic approach to the negotiations to obtain the correct results, which should be commended," he told AFP.

In the years leading up to 1997, Britain's last colonial governor Chris Patten promoted limited democratic reforms in Hong Kong -- provoking vicious diatribes from Beijing, and criticism from his own bosses in London.

But while the territory enjoys a large measure of autonomy under the Sino-British handover agreement, it still lacks universal suffrage -- and pro-democracy campaigners accused Thatcher of abandoning them.

"We were definitely betrayed by the British," pro-democracy lawmaker Cyd Ho from Hong Kong's Labour Party told AFP, arguing that Thatcher left the territory's people "at the mercy of the authoritarian regime" in Beijing.

Fellow pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said Thatcher fared "miserably" in terms of her legacy for the territory and accused her of "selling out Hong Kong's democracy".

But others said Thatcher had done the best she could for Hong Kong.

Democratic Party founder and veteran activist Martin Lee said Thatcher's options were "heavily limited".

"I suppose her option would be whether she would start a war with China over Hong Kong, like the war with Argentina over the Falkland islands. But of course nobody would see that it's a possibility starting a war with China."

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia's first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, led tributes for a "woman who changed history for women".

South Korea's first female president, Park Geun-hye -- an avowed admirer of Thatcher -- also paid tribute to a leader she said revived the British economy and led her nation to "an era of hope in the 1980s".