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The Die is Cast…
On December 20th 1999, Macau returns to China. Portugal would have wished the handover be postponed to 2007 in order to coincide with the 450th anniversary of its settlement on Chinese territory in 1557, but the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) insisted on recovering the exercise of its sovereignty over this tiny territory before the end of the twentieth century.
This belated eagerness highlights the ambiguity of Macaus present situation. Lying at the western end of the Pearl River Delta whose eastern bank ends in Hong Kong, Macau has long tied its fate and its future to that of the former British colony, which returned to the bosom of the motherland on July 1st 1997.
After the fall of the Manchu Empire in 1911, all the Chinese revolutionary forcesin particular the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Partymade known their desire to regain control of these two territories. Although the establishment of the Nationalist regime in Nanking in 1927 made some progress in this direction possible, in particular by making the closure of the foreign concessions one of its prioritiesthe concessions, after a period of reform begun in 1928 were finally dismantled in 1943the Sino-Japanese war and then the communist rebellion prevented it from carrying out this project.
In fact, the victory of Maos troops over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 probably contributedin what is one of the great ironies of historyto postponing for half a century the return to China of Hong Kong and Macau. Even though the KMT also in its time used the argument of timeliness, according to which the two colonies were to be taken back when the situation was ripe, the politically isolated and economically self-reliant communist regime had a far greater need to keep on its doorstep these two symbols of capitalism, which was nevertheless held in contempt. In keeping with his fondness for the peasant coarseness of his native Hunan, Mao once compared Hong Kong to a boil on Chinas ass. But it was a way of concealing his countrys situation of extreme economic vulnerability. In other words, any calling into question of the status of Macau would have had repercussions on Hong Kong and, therefore, on the development of the PRC.
Thus, in order not to destabilise the financial and commercial marketplace of Hong Kong, on two occasionsin 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, and then after the 1974 Portuguese Carnations Revolutionthe Maoist regime entreated the Portuguese authorities not to abandon Macau. And it was not until the launching of reforms and the opening up of the country, in 1979, that the now reforming leadership of the PRC and, especially Deng Xiaoping, began to preoccupy themselves with ending the unbearable humiliation constituted by the European presence in the two territories. The contrast with India that got back the French possessions (1954) and Portuguese Goa in 1961, using strong pressure and even armed force, is obvious.
While such an attitude speaks volumes on the ambiguities of Chinese nationalism, it also highlights the decreasing role which Hong Kong, and certainly even more so Macau, are called upon to play in Pekings view. What indeed will be left of Macaus specific character in ten or twenty years time? Already excessively dependent on the service sector and especially on gambling, is not the economy of the former Portuguese colony in danger of continuing to decline, indeed of being gradually engulfed in the Greater Zhuhai development zone?
Will its political institutions, designed along the lines of Hong Kongs, not be even more powerless than those of the first Special Administrative Region (SAR) to resist a gradual Guangdongisation of their workings (rising corruption, interference from Peking, and domination by the big entrepreneurs who are pledged to it)? Will they be equal to halting the rise in crime and in the triad rivalries without harming the freedoms and fundamental rights bequeathed by democratic Portugal? Will they not be even more incapable of favouring the transition to genuine parliamentary democracy, even though it is featured in the territorys Basic Law? But is this not already the situation which prevails in Macau, where few dissenting voiceswhich is to say independent of Pekingare still to be heard?
There then remain the history and the culture, the education and the language, and all that makes the society of Macau different from the society of the PRC. Since the signing of the 1987 Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration which organised the return of Macau to China, the Lisbon government has banked on this heritage by repainting all the colonial buildings which it had managed to save from destruction, and by multiplying the number of museums, cultural centres and artistic events, as if, despite its politically sterilised presentation, only Macaus historical and cultural pastand so tourismcould save this city which has slumbered too long in the economic lethargy in which it found itself.
But nowadays, Macaus small Sino-Portuguese community (numbering 10,000) is marginalised, while more than half of the territorys residents were born in the PRC. Much more so than in Hong Kong, it is this part of Macaus society which will forge the future of the second SAR. Will it see any advantage in preserving the identity of Macau which it is already contributing to a large extent to forming? This is far from certain. But is this change to be deplored?
For does not the ultimate paradox lie in the PRC being constrained to establish SARs, alone apparently capable of soothing the anxieties of Chinese populations that had been sheltered there from the communist revolution? If one remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall ten years ago, the Chinese reunification and the German reunification seem totally different. Indeed, the unification promoted by the PRC has hardly contributed to the dismantling of the Bamboo Curtain which separates Hong Kong and Macau from the rest of the country. Everyone is pleased, and none more so than the inhabitants of the two territories. Despite the prudence and the self-censorship already shown by the political and intellectual élites of Macau, does not the frontier which separates them from the rest of the country constitute their one and only assetat least until 2049?
And what of Taiwan? Now that Macau has returned back to China, will the one country - two systems formula not extend in the next century to Taiwan? Will the authorities in Peking not be tempted to convince with a bit more insistence (and more missiles) their compatriots in Formosa of the unavoidable nature of this extension? How many divisions has the Pope? Stalin once asked about the Vatican. A similar expression was probably in the minds of Deng Xiaoping and his comrades when they set about negotiating with London and Lisbon the restitution of Hong Kong and Macau. But can they really apply the same formula to the Republic of China, the other Chinese state entity which is the heir to the Middle Empires struggle against foreign domination, and is now democratic and prosperous? As long as Taiwan possesses a credible defence and a protectorthe United Stateswhich, whatever people may say, continues to guarantee the de facto independence of the country, is the formula, applied in Hong Kong two years ago and now in Macau, really appropriate for what Peking used to call the rebel island?
All in all, even though the great majority of Chinese seem to be delighted by the return of Macau to China, they remain divided about the political regime that would best be able to accomplish the reunification of their nation.
Translated from French original by Michael Black