Macau returns to the motherland with relief

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The Independent Online

By Lorien Holland in Macau

By Lorien Holland in Macau

19 December 1999

Peking was taking no chances yesterday as it prepared to assume control of the Portuguese enclave of Macau, throwing a blanket of security around the territory before the last vestige of colonialism in China is extinguished at midnight local time tonight (4pm British time) after close on 450 years.

By late yesterday, some 10,000 security officers and soldiers were waiting on the Chinese side of the border to back up Macau's 4,000-strong police force. With fears of possible disruptions from triad gangsters, pro-democracy advocates and members of the outlawed Falun Gong movement, Peking had even persuaded immigration officials in nearby Hong Kong to prevent potential troublemakers from boarding ferries for Macau.

But, just like Hong Kong's handover in mid-1997, the main dampener looks like being the weather. Unusually heavy rain for this time of year fell relentlessly, hampering efforts to get the last of Macau's flags and decorations in place. At the colourful temple of A-Ma, the patroness of seafarers after whom Macau is named, Macanese flocked to pray for good fortune in the future, starting with less rain. "It's the least we can do for such an important event," said Betty Guan, a housewife.

Crowds were so heavy that many were forced to queue outside the ancient temple in the pouring rain with their offerings of food, drink and incense. Their enthusiasm for a return to Chinese sovereignty appeared the rule rather than the exception, with most in the territory expressing genuine relief at the handover, even though Peking has promised Macau a degree of autonomy for the next 50 years.

The return of Macau, with its population of less than half a million, has been far less fraught than that of Hong Kong, a territory of six million people, a major port and a significant player in the international financial markets. In contrast to Britain, which resisted Chinese interference up to the last minute, Portugal long ago yielded a significant measure of day-to-day control over the enclave.

The main problem Macau faces is crime connected to its principal industry, gambling. After growing during the 1980s and early 1990s, the economy has contracted in the run-up to the handover, because of a bloody Chinese triad turf war that has claimed 39 lives this year alone.

With one in four of the Macanese workforce relying on the territory's neon-clad casinos to make a living, most of the population is only too glad to welcome in a sovereign power that promises tough action against organised crime - and has already made 3,000 gang-related arrests on the mainland to hammer home the point. Macau's incoming Chief Executive, Edmund Ho Hau Wah, has repeatedly promised strong action to stop the triads' turf war once he takes control. "The terror of the triads has really become too much," said Vincent Chen, a road engineer.

Huge red banners hanging from many of Macau's commercial buildings in anticipation of the handover declared: "Tomorrow will be better", and "We long to return to the motherland". The overwhelmingly positive sentiment is in marked contrast to China's wrangling with the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, whom Peking once called "triple violator" and a "prostitute for a thousand generations".

To China's probable irritation, Mr Patten is now the European Union's external affairs commissioner, and will attend Macau's handover ceremony in his new capacity. He will also be travelling to Peking this week for the annual EU-China summit.

Apart from Macau's preoccupation with the triads, there are other historical reasons for a smoother handover than in 1997. While Britain took Hong Kong as a trophy after the Sino-British Opium War, China handed Macau to the Portuguese in 1557, by some accounts as a reward for fighting pirates.

The first time Portugal tried to give Macau back, in 1974, China declined. But this time around it hopes to use the handover to push ahead with its "sacred mission" to reunite the nation by luring Taiwan back to the fold. President Jiang Zemin told his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, last week that with Macau in hand, getting Taiwan back will become "still more pressing".