Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's long-term blueprint for reuniting Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan with the Chinese mainland made significant advances during the past few days. An unexpected announcement Thursday that China and Portugual will soon begin negotiations over the future of Macao was followed today in Peking by the smooth exchange with British officials of ratified documents detailing the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
With each step, Deng's government comes closer to focusing directly on its ultimate goal: persuading Taiwan's rulers to open talks on the possibility of joining with the mainland under Deng's "one country-two systems" concept already applied to Hong Kong.
The ratification ceremony in Peking, brief and low-key, came six months after the visit by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to Peking to sign an agreement under which China will resume sovereignty over the 400-square-mile British territory in 1997, and will preserve its civil and commercial freedoms for 50 years from that date.
Last week's joint communique on Macao, issued during Portuguese President Antonio Ramalho Eanes' first visit to Peking, surprised many. Before leaving Lisbon, Eanes had said he expected that the Macao issue might be raised in general terms, but it was not officially on the agenda. Portugal made clear that it would leave the Macao issue to the Chinese to raise.
Eanes' visit -- followed by a 21-hour stop in Macao -- was the first to China by a Portuguese president since the two countries sealed diplomatic relations in 1979, at which time both countries reaffirmed that Macao was a "Chinese territory under Portuguese administration."
The contents of the communique, saying that Portugual and China have "agreed to hold talks in the near future on resolving the question of Macao through diplomatic channels," appeared to reflect high confidence in Peking over the acceptance in Hong Kong of the Sino-British agreement, and an assessment that it was not too soon to move to the issue of Macao.
Chinese officials had repeatedly said that there was no rush on talks over Macao. Last October, Deng told a top pro-Peking delegate from Macao, Ma Man-kei, of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, that "there is no hurry to resolve the Macao issue." Deng said it might not need to be addressed for "another seven or eight years."
Peking officials have long maintained that the Macao issue will not be difficult to resolve compared to the two years of arduous and often acrimonious talks over Hong Kong.
While Hong Kong has more than 5.5 million people, Macao has about 400,000 and an area of only six square miles. Macao's economy, dominated by light industry and tourism linked to its four 24-hour casinos, is almost totally dependent on nearby Hong Kong. Macao uses Hong Kong's airport and seaport, and Hong Kong supplies almost 90 percent of its 3.5 million visitors, who annually provide nearly $50 million in gambling taxes -- a third of Macao's state revenues.
Macao is also considered already solidly pro-Peking, although it has been governed by Portugual since 1557. Once considered the pearl of western imperialism in Asia, it had fallen into disrepair by the late 1960s when communists rioted under the political influence of China's Cultural Revolution.
Then, and again in the mid-1970s when Portugual underwent its own socialist revolution, Lisbon tried to give Macao back to Peking. Both times Peking refused, not wanting to prematurely alarm Hong Kong. For more than a decade, however, Peking interests have delicately influenced the several hundred Portuguese officials administering Macao.
With Hong Kong talks concluded and Macao talks soon to get under way, the unwelcome spotlight from Peking now falls on Taipei. Taiwan's official response to the Hong Kong agreement was to reject any comparison between the situation of the British colony and that of Taiwan and to refuse any negotiations with Peking.
Last week, Taiwan described any negotiations between Portugual and China over Macao, which Taiwan claims as its own, as invalid. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Chao Yuan said Taiwan was "deeply concerned about the freedom, safety and well-being of Macao people."
Nevertheless, pressure on Taiwan is intensifying. Earlier this month, Deng Yingchao, the widow of former Chinese prime minister Chou En-lai, lambasted Taiwan for "slamming the door and refusing to talk," in a discussion with Hong Kong publisher Lu Keng.
Meanwhile, the level of Taiwan-China trade indirectly channeled through Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo is rising to record levels. Last year, Taiwanese merchandise reexported through Hong Kong doubled to $655 million, with most of it headed for China.
Recently, Taiwan has shown signs of flexibility. In April, it said it would not interfere with the growing indirect trade. Then it dropped its attempt to keep China out of a seat at the Asian Development Bank and said it would participate jointly with the mainland. This spring, Prime Minister Sun Yun-suan said Taiwan was ready to develop cultural and sports contacts with the mainland.