As the swinging ’70s gave way to the more anxious ’80s, people in Hong Kong became increasingly apprehensive about a fast-approaching, though once comfortably distant, date—1997, the expiry date for the vast (by Hong Kong definition) hinterland acquired in 1898 on a 99-year lease and still known as the “New Territories.”

Many businessmen were worried about the uncertain impact this change would have on business basics: would land leases be extended beyond that date? (Virtually all land in Hong Kong, then as now, is “crown” land and parceled out on long-term leases.) Would contracts be honored? More to the point: what did China intend to do with Hong Kong?

It was against this background that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made her famous first visit to Beijing in Sept. 1982, to begin negotiating the future of the British colony with the Chinese Communist government of Deng Xiaoping. The meeting did not go well.

Thatcher went to Beijing hoping to persuade China’s leaders that continuing British administration of the territory was necessary for the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution, which essentially ended only with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, was still a vivid memory, China’s reforms only just beginning.

She knew relatively little about China or Hong Kong, although she was undoubtedly briefed that China did not recognize as valid the 19th-century treaties that had ceded Hong Kong island and the tip of Kowloon peninsula to Britain “in perpetuity” after the Opium Wars. She must also have known that Hong Kong could not continue as a viable entity without the New Territories.

The prime minister, however, seemed to think she had a duty at least to try to uphold the treaties, which she claimed were still valid under any consideration of international law. The issue came down to sovereignty. Would the British keep it beyond 1997, or would they have to surrender the entire territory?

For his part, Deng Xiaoping was unmovable: China would resume full sovereignty. Anything less would make him complicit in the treasonous territorial giveaways of the late Qing Dynasty. Yet otherwise, he was willing to grant generous concessions guaranteeing Hong Kong’s way of life and liberties post-1997, under his famous but never-before-tried one-nation, two-systems formulation.

Much has been made in retrospectives following Mrs. Thatcher’s recent death of how the “Iron Lady” had met her match in Deng. This is unfortunate. To be sure Deng, a former revolutionary war commander, was a tough hombre. But in truth Thatcher had a weak hand, which she was smart enough to understand. As the British would say, continued colonial administration of Hong Kong was just not on.

It took two more years for the British finally to come around to this position. They were trying times. In Oct. 1983, when it appeared that negotiations might collapse, the Hong Kong dollar began to plunge in value. That led to the pegging of the currency at HK $7.8 to the U.S. dollar, a peg that continues to this day.

In 1984 London formally agreed to surrender sovereignty over the entire territory, as Thatcher confirmed in a letter to Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang. Later she made her second trip to Beijing to sign the Joint Declaration at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People.

Thatcher had been out of office for seven years when the actual transition took place at midnight on June 30, 1997, so she didn’t have to sit on the dais and watch the Union flag lowered for the last time. That role fell to newly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair. She was probably happy to be out of it.

In a 2007 interview Thatcher expressed “regret” that she could not persuade China to accept continued British rule. But there is no shame in playing a leading part in what was one of the most enlightened yet practical acts of diplomacy in modern times. It gave Hong Kong far more autonomy than any of the so-called “autonomous regions” in China proper.

Most commentary on Thatcher’s death in Hong Kong and China was laudatory. “We have no reason not to show our respect to this woman who signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” wrote the Global Times, an affiliate of the official government organ China Daily.

The British political figure that Beijing truly hated was the last governor, Christopher Patten (appointed by Thatcher’s successor, John Major). He took a confrontational tone with Beijing, which hit back with such endearing terms as “sinner of a thousand years.” It will be interesting to see how the Chinese press handles his death.

May/June 2013 issueAs Hong Kong and China look back on the nearly 16 years since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, both find their worst fears unrealized but so too their best hopes. Many Hong Kongers, though recognizing that their basic liberties are intact, are still disappointed that the territory is only partially democratic, with only vague promises of more to come later.

Beijing is happy that the territory has not become, as it had feared, a base for subverting Communist rule on the mainland. But it is a source of disappointment that their punctilious observation of the terms of the Joint Declaration has not earned China’s leadership much love. Hong Kong people still think of themselves as Hong Kongers first and Chinese—as in citizens of the People’s Republic of China—second.

Indeed, tensions between Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese visitors have been rising in recent years, as newly rich Chinese jack up property prices and hog space in maternity wards to give birth to “anchor babies.” Of late, protestors have taken to displaying the old British colonial flag. It is meant mostly to irritate Beijing, not as nostalgia for colonial days. But one imagines that Thatcher would take a quiet satisfaction from the sight.

Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell, My Colony: Last Days in the life of British Hong Kong.