BEIJING (AFP) - President Xi Jinping led China's tributes to Nelson Mandela on Friday, praising his "historic contribution" to South Africa and the world following the death of the anti-apartheid leader.
"Mr Mandela was a world renowned statesman," Mr Xi said in a message of condolence to South African President Jacob Zuma, according to a report posted on the central government's website.
"With arduous and extraordinary efforts, he led the people of South Africa to success in the struggle against apartheid, making a historic contribution to the birth and development of a new South Africa," it said.
Mandela, who visited China twice, "actively promoted friendly cooperation between China and South Africa in various areas", it added.
"The Chinese people will forever keep in memory the outstanding contributions he made to... the development of humankind."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Chinese leaders will attend "relevant activities" concerning Mandela's funeral.
"He is not only admired by South African people but also respected by people from China and all the other countries around the world," the spokesman said.
In an earlier statement he described him as an "old friend of the Chinese people".
Vice-President Li Yuanchao visited the South African Embassy in Beijing on Friday, the spokesman added.
Outside the embassy, flowers were laid before an image of Mandela labelled with one of his quotes: "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
"He is an incredible person," said 31-year-old passer-by Yang Yang. "After all that happened to him, all he spoke of was peace."
A steady stream of Chinese journalists arrived at the premises.
"I think most Chinese people will be saddened by the news that he has died," said law student Ji Xutao, 23, watching the media pack.
"Many people do not know the details of what he achieved, but we know he was a good man."
During the struggle against apartheid, the Chinese Communist Party supported the Pan Africanist Congress, a rival to Mandela's Moscow-backed ANC, and it was not until 1998, four years into his presidential term, that diplomatic ties between the two were established.
News of the death led major Chinese web portals and was a top topic on the country's weibo microblog networks.
"A great man passed away," wrote one poster. "Mandela is great because he persisted with fighting in a non-violent way despite facing an unfair world, promoted reconciliation, not revenge, between different ethnic groups after gaining power, and gave up power... He was a man with real sense of mission - the kind of person China is currently lacking."