China's soldiers in suits march back to Macau

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The Independent Online

Almost five centuries of European colonial rule in Asia ends tomorrow with the handover of Macau to China.

Almost five centuries of European colonial rule in Asia ends tomorrow with the handover of Macau to China.

President Jiang Zemin of China and President Jorge Sampaio of Portugal will herald the end of an era in the company of 2,500 invited guests at a series of gala performances, including a final celebration of European culture.

It is a transition that has been modelled closely on the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese control. Once again, the departing masters will attempt to bid farewell with as much dignity as they can muster in the run-up to midnight, and then at the appointed hour a new government approved by Peking will take an oath of office.

Macau, like Hong Kong, has been promised that it can keep its way of life free from Chinese encroachment in a separate political system for 50 years. But it is hard to imagine that the new leadership will not usher in a government distinct in style and attitude from the Portuguese administrators who oversaw the final months of Lisbon's 442 years there.

Among the 430,000 residents of Asia's last European settlement there is little nostalgia for a halcyon period of colonial control. The majority are looking forward to an incoming regime that has promised to crack down heavily on the triad gangs that have plagued Macau in recent years.

The violent internecine struggle waged between gangland factions has undermined the tourist industry that dictates the fortune of the local economy.

The deep-red velvet, smoke-filled ante-chambers of Macau's 10 casinos form a seedy backdrop to a battle for control of the fortunes to be earned on the fringes of the licensed industry.

Gambling is said to account for one third of the enclave's annual Gross Domestic Product, and the 10 casinos run by the colony's monopoly, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau, or STDM, paid US$630m in taxes last year - more than half of all government revenues.

The Portuguese administration's policy of benign neglect, a less reasoned version of the "masterly inactivity" practised by the colonial rulers of Hong Kong, has allowed organised crime to flourish around the casinos. Spiralling crime - 37 people have been shot or stabbed in Macau this year in what police believe to be triad-related killings - has sharply reduced tourist numbers. Government figures show that Macau had 6.9 million visitors last year, down from a record 8.1 million in 1996.

Latterly, the Portuguese have waged a rearguard crackdown on the triad gangs, but because of rising crime they are leaving Macau under a cloud. A court in the colony last month sentenced the territory's leading gangster, Wan Kuok-koi, otherwise known as Broken Tooth, the self-proclaimed leader of the 14K triad gang, to 15 years in prison for running a criminal organisation and related crimes such as money laundering.

An attempt in the early Nineties to break the hold that the triads exert on the local economy by transforming the sleepy backwater into a thriving Asia metropolis resulted in swathes of the heavily-silted harbour being reclaimed by developers, who built scores of apartment and office blocks that now stand mostly empty on the foreshore.

Lisbon is naturally keen to emphasise its lasting legacy to Macau by promoting the enclave as a bridge between China and Europe. However, the enclave's population at the handover is 97 per cent Chinese, and most have remained impervious to the ways of their Portuguese rulers.

The divide between the teeming green concrete tower blocks bunched inside the Macau Gate and the pink colonnaded villas of Portuguese officialdom is ten minutes by foot, but a continent in mindset.

The post-colonial government's first task is to restore confidence in Macau as a safe destination for travellers. Incoming Chief Executive Edmund Ho has promised to cooperate closely with the Chinese authorities to bring this about, although he has pledged that Peking will not directly interfere in the internal security of Macau. Mr Ho warned this week that he would launch an all-out effort to break the Triads: "They will have to behave. I won't allow anybody to make me look bad."

The Chinese government's determination to back this effort has already been made clear. As the verdict in the "Broken Tooth" trial was made public last month, the authorities in Zhuhai, the neighbouring Chinese province, executed five people for triad-related offences committed in Macau.