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China Regains Macau After 442 Years
Enclave Was First, Last European Colony in Asia

By Clay Chandler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 20, 1999; Page A01

MACAU, Dec. 20 (Monday)—The Portuguese government lowered its flag over this seaside gambling enclave for the last time Sunday and, as the clock struck midnight, returned to China Europe's first and last colonial outpost in Asia.

Moments after the change of power, Chinese President Jiang Zemin stood proudly before an assembly of dignitaries from both countries and exhorted Macau's 430,000 residents, most of them Chinese, to "return to the embrace of the motherland."

The handover ceremony--celebrated by dancing and singing on Macau's waterfront and fireworks above Beijing's Tiananmen Square--marked the end of 442 years of Portuguese rule in this hilly promontory on China's southern coast. It leaves Beijing's Communist leaders in control of a free-wheeling port once famed as a hub of the world's most lucrative trading route but now better known for gaudy casinos, abundant prostitutes and bloody gang wars.

Macau's casinos will remain open for business under Chinese rule. Gambling is illegal on the mainland, but it accounts for more than 50 percent of public revenue here, and even the local Catholic clergy acknowledge that the economy would collapse without it.

Macau's residents, though, are hoping that their new rulers will crack down on warring Chinese gangs, or triads, who are believed to be responsible for 37 killings this year alone. That may be the main reason that people in Macau--unlike the inhabitants of Hong Kong, a territory 40 miles east that Britain handed over to China two years ago--say they look forward to rejoining the mainland.

To Veng Lam, a restaurateur, the matter is simple: China has the muscle to end the car bombings and the shootings.

"Gangs scare the tourists," he said. "No tourists means no customers. No customers means no money."

Lam, like many others here, said Beijing's desire to make good its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan ensures that Macau's new rulers will govern with benevolence.

Jiang reminded listeners at the handover ceremony of that ambition by calling for an "early settlement" of the Taiwan question. Beijing has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province since Communist forces won a civil war in 1949 and Nationalist forces retreated to the island and set up a rival government. While Beijing has repeatedly called for unification, Taiwan has refused.

Under its agreement with Portugal, Beijing has promised to grant Macau 50 years of semiautonomy within China under the "one country, two systems" policy also in effect in Hong Kong. China's leaders have promised to uphold basic democratic principles in Macau such as freedom of speech, assembly and religion.

Those assurances were shaken Sunday, however, by treatment of a group of about 40 members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Members of the group--which is legal in Macau but outlawed in China--were carted off by police when they attempted to do breathing exercises outside the Lisboa Hotel, home of Macau's largest casino. Immigration authorities also turned away or detained about a dozen Falun Gong members who attempted to enter Macau by ferry from Hong Kong.

Falun Gong representatives in Hong Kong charged that Portuguese officials violated democratic principles at Beijing's behest. But at a breakfast meeting with reporters Sunday, Macau's outgoing Portuguese governor, Vasco Rocha Vieira, dismissed that notion.

Anthony Ng, a legislator often described as Macau's most outspoken advocate of democracy, said concerns about law and order trump concerns about individual liberties or legal due process.

"Most Chinese people in Macau will welcome the arrival of Chinese troops to our streets," said Ng. "They believe that they will bring security. . . . It is only the marginal people who won't be happy."

At midday today, 1,000 People's Liberation Army troops are scheduled to march into Macau. For a time, Chinese insistence that troops enter before the handover threatened to scuttle talks between Beijing and Lisbon.

For the most part, though, negotiations over Macau were free of the bickering that characterized Britain's return of Hong Kong two years ago. Whereas the British took Hong Kong from China at gunpoint in the 19th century, Portugal has had a more amicable relationship with the mainland.

Indeed, Lisbon tried to give Macau back to China twice before--once in 1967 after China's Cultural Revolution sparked riots here, then again in 1974 after a revolution in Portugal replaced a decades-old dictatorship with left-leaning leaders determined to cut free the colonies. Beijing rejected both offers.

Portugal's presence in Macau dates to the 1500s, when China allowed shipwrecked Portuguese sailors to take shelter here and repair their vessels. Over the next two centuries, Macau evolved into a spectacularly wealthy port as Portuguese navigators plied trade routes among China, Japan and southeast Asia.

But the enclave was hard hit when Japan's shogun, fearing the growing influence of Christianity, closed Nagasaki to foreign traders and shut down a key trading route. The death blow came in the 1840s, when the British opium traders established a rival harbor on Hong Kong.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to take over parts of Asia and they are the last to leave. Macau was Portugal's last colony.

At the midnight ceremony, Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio spoke of Macau's return to China as a "sensible, peaceful way" of "changing what had to be changed," while preserving "all the things that made Macau unique."

The new leader of Macau will be Edmund Ho, a banker selected by a Beijing-appointed panel earlier this year. But, a major power in the enclave will remain Stanley Ho, no relation, who has held the casino franchise here for decades.

As officials formalized the transfer of power from Lisbon to Beijing, there was no sign of interest at the Lisboa, Ho's flagship casino, where gamblers crowded the tables and placed their bets.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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