After 442 years, Macau returns to Chinese rule

A JUBILANT China raised its red flag over Macau early this morning, ending close on 450 years of Portuguese rule here and erasing the last of the foreign enclaves that once littered its coastline.

On the stroke of midnight, Chinese President Jiang Zemin welcomed Macau's 430,000 people back to the "embrace of the motherland", while 1,500 miles to the north, the night sky over Peking filled with fireworks as the Chinese capital celebrated.

In Macau's city streets, crowds watching banks of televisions broadcasting the handover ceremony roared with approval when they saw the flag of the People's Republic of China replace that of Portugal.

The city's 24-hour casinos were also packed as locals looked forward to a lucky night and the start of a two-day holiday to celebrate the handover.

"That's the end of rule by foreigners, of course we are glad," said Pang Wai-cho, who had turned out with his two small daughters to witness events.

Almost everyone agreed that China's resumption of sovereignty would help wipe out a turf war that has gripped Macau's gambling industry and sparked 39 triad gangster killings this year alone.

Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio said he felt pride over the territory, and hoped it would continue to bridge Europe and Asia. Chinese and Portuguese officials have been working for months to ensure a trouble-free handover, and have contrasted their cooperation with the hostilities displayed between China and Britain prior to Hong Kong's handover in 1997.

Heavy winds that picked up through yesterday afternoon forced the cancellation of a grand fireworks display and the frantic re-scheduling of the official banquet for 2,500 guests.

And saturation security was unable to stop around 40 members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement from holding a prominent display of their breathing exercises outside Macau's biggest casino in the Hotel Lisboa.

The movement, outlawed in China, is still legal in Macau, which will have 50 years of autonomy from Peking. But the enclave's police seized American passport-holder Sun Jie and Australian Helen Tao as they unfurled banners, and ordered the others to disperse.

Peking has pledged not to interfere in Macau's lucrative gambling sector - which employs one in four of the workforce - even though gambling is outlawed in mainland China.

Macau started as a trading centre back in the 16th century and became a beachhead of foreign influence in China, introducing chillies to Chinese cuisine and rhubarb to the outside world.

China handed Macau to the Portuguese in 1557, by some accounts as a reward for fighting pirates. When Portugal tried to give it back in 1974, Beijing refused, although it is now proclaiming the territory's "bright future" under Chinese rule.

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