Thatcher boosts ties with Peking

FWhere do former Conservative prime ministers go in the springtime? This year, despite the delicate nature of Sino-British relations, Peking is on the itinerary. Baroness Thatcher arrives today for a three-day visit, which will be followed in two weeks' time by Sir Edward Heath.

Lady Thatcher has a distinctive place in the minds of Chinese officials as the British prime minister who signed the 1984 Joint Declaration on the hand-over of Hong Kong in 1997. She is also remembered for stumbling down the front steps of the Great Hall of the People two years earlier, following an acrimonious meeting with Deng Xiaoping.

More recently, Lady Thatcher has lent her support to the political reforms of the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.

The Chinese, whose former leaders often carry more political clout than the new incumbents, are treating her visit cautiously. She is the guest of the People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, an unofficial body which looks after important non-governmental visitors.

Given the lack of high-level official bilateral visits since July 1993, Lady Thatcher's arrival is being welcomed as a sign of the resumption of normal relations between Britain and China.

Her trip, it is stressed, is private. But, meetings have been arranged with the Prime Minister, Li Peng, and with the chairman of the National People's Congress, Qiao Shi.

The question of Hong Kong and Sino-British relations can hardly be ignored. But Lady Thatcher, it is said, is not carrying any message from the British government. Her last visit to China was in 1991.

Relations between the two countries in recent months have been on what one observer described as a "slowly-rising curve", in spite of the stand- off over Hong Kong's future Court of Final Appeal. The arrival next month of Sir Edward is seen as part of the trend, although he is a regular visitor to China.

By far the most significant development is a planned visit by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, in mid-May. This will be the first top-level, government-to-government visit in 20 months, and it could pave the way for a visit to London in the latter half of the year by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen.

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