Bickering as the sun sets on Portugal's 450 years of rule in Macao

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE the picturesque Leal Senado (loyal senate) building in Macao is a shop selling bottles of port. "You better buy now," advises the shopkeeper, "we may have no stock soon." Why not? "Don't you know?" she says. "The Portuguese are leaving." Why would that mean no more port? "I don't know," she reluctantly concedes. "This is Macao, we don't know where we are."

Her uncertainty may be explained by the uncharacteristic rows that are beginning to erupt as Portugal prepares to leave just before Christmas, ending 447 years of rule in this tiny southern Chinese enclave. During the acrimonious negotiations leading up to the handover of Hong Kong nearly two years ago, Chinese diplomats liked to contrast Portugal's "co-operative" attitude with the "obstructive" behaviour of the British. But many of the same issues are coming up again, no doubt to the amusement of old Hong Kong hands in the Foreign Office.

The stationing of Chinese troops in the territory is one dispute that has a familiar flavour. Unlike the British, who maintained a garrison in Hong Kong until the very last minute, the Portuguese withdrew their forces in 1975. It was assumed that China would desist from bringing in the People's Liberation Army, but when Qian Qichen, the vice-premier supervising the handover, was asked whether China would bring in the army, he said: "Of course."

Worse, Mr Qian indicated that they might well arrive before the handover. Worse still, he made his remarks while the Portuguese president, Jorge Sampaio, was in Macao. Mr Sampaio was so annoyed that he hinted that he might even not attend the handover celebrations, saying: "We are a country with our pride."

Less publicly, but equally predictably, there is Chinese concern that Portugal will make off with Macao's family silver. Their fears have some basis, thanks to a sleazy deal signed with the casino boss, Stanley Ho, for 1.5 per cent of casino revenues to be siphoned off into a body called the Oriental Foundation, which was little better than a Portuguese political slush fund. As the gambling industry accounts for about a third of economy activity in Macao, the amount involved was substantial.

The deal, struck in 1986, was exposed and negated 10 years later, but the stench of corruption lingered. Matters were quietly settled between Lisbon and Peking but it remains in the background. The issue has surfaced again in a row over who is responsible for paying the pensions of Macao civil servants holding Portuguese passports.

The Chinese are used to getting their way in Macao, ever since the Cultural Revolution spilled over into the enclave in 1967 and the Portuguese ceded much political control to Peking. Whereas the British made last- minute attempts to bring greater democracy to Hong Kong, the Portuguese have done nothing since 1976, when almost a third of the seats in the legislature were thrown open for election. Since then the number of seats has increased, but the proportion of elected members slightly reduced.

Ng Kuok-cheong is the only elected pro-democracy legislator. He was sacked from his job as a Bank of China manager and now occupies a shabby side street office. He says that while the British tried to create a "liberal economic city" in Hong Kong, the Portuguese have "a completely different intention. I don't think they care about creating a liberal economic system. All they want to do is maintain Portuguese culture and preserve the position of the Macanese" - people of mixed Chinese-Portuguese ancestry who form the backbone of the civil service.

Mr Ng and his colleagues in the Macao Association are lone voices. Most people are keen not to rock the boat. Yet the spirit of conciliation has not prevented some hard talking.

"The Chinese are artists of diplomacy," said one official. "They take their time negotiating but beaver away until they get exactly what they want. As for Portugal, despite the best will in the world, it finds it hard to kowtow quite as low as some Chinese officials would like."

At the end of the day, however, China will attend Portugal's farewell ceremony and Portuguese officials will be there for the swearing-in of the new government. When the Union flag was lowered in Hong Kong, China kept away from the British ceremony, and most of the British did not stay to see the new administration sworn in.