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China ends Triad war in Macau

Stephen Vines on the daylight killings Portugal could not stop
A Truce appears to have descended after a series of gangster-style street executions which have shaken the normally soporific Portuguese enclave of Macau, 40 miles from Hong Kong.

The word on the street is that Chinese security officials brought together the 14K and Soi Fong triads, the two main protagonists, and read them the riot act. "There's no proof about that meeting," says Julie de Senna Fernandes, public relations manager of the territory's casino monopoly, believed to be at the centre of the dispute over protection money. She notes, however, that the killings have stopped, and people are walking less nervously past the casinos.

Official confirmation of such a meeting will probably never materialise, but it is significant that almost everyone in Macau believes China was involved in solving a problem the Portuguese administration could never handle. "The Portuguese government can't control anything in Chinese society, so how do you expect them to control the 14K and the Soi Fong?" asks Ng Kuok-Cheong, the sole member of the enclave's legislature who is openly critical of China. "The basic problem is that the Portuguese government does not really want to run this city."

The Portuguese presence in southern China goes back four centuries, far longer than the 150 years Britain has ruled Hong Kong, and will last two years after the British depart at the end of June. But according to Alexandre Ho, president of the Consumers Council and a former legislator in Macau, the handover in 1999 will be just a formality. "Since 1966 we have been under Chinese control," he said. "Portugal is fully co-operating with the Chinese government."

When the Cultural Revolution spread to both Hong Kong and Macau in the 1960s, the British authorities fought off a potential insurrection, but the Portuguese opted for a more passive approach, effectively ceding control. The government in Peking holds up Lisbon's "co-operative attitude" as a shining contrast to London's "unco-operative attitude".

After the 1974 revolution in Portugal, the new left-wing leadership in Lisbon tried to give Macau back to China, but Peking opted instead for remote control. Business organisations came under Chinese influence, the media followed the party line and local Chinese community leaders started looking to Peking. It is rumoured that Chinese interests even took a stake in the casino monopoly which generates half Macau's income.

"Consensus, that's the only way Macau knows to do things," says Afonso Camoes, the government's spokesman. "If you do something against China's wishes, they will break it the first day after the handover. The only solution is to negotiate and to negotiate permanently. We don't get bad results."

"Portugal," says Mr Ng, reflecting a widely held view, "doesn't care what will happen after 1999. They are just looking after the interests of the Portuguese community."

Indeed, Portugal's priorities in the handover negotiations with China appear to be remarkably limited. Mr Camoes lists them as being: who will pay for the maintenance of a Portuguese-language school, the protection of the rights of Macau's 110,000 Portuguese passport-holders, and the percentage of gambling revenues to be earmarked for Portuguese cultural purposes.

China is expected to appoint the rather uncharismatic banker Edmundo Ho as the first head of government after 1999. Like Tung Chee-hwa, who will lead Hong Kong's first post-colonial government, Mr Ho is a businessman who has little patience with the niceties of democratic government. His family business, like that of Mr Tung, was bailed out by Chinese money when it ran into difficulties.

The only thing that might ruffle Macau's seamless transition is another flare-up of gang warfare and daylight assassinations. The situation is not helped by the government's clumsy attempts at reassurance - Manuel Soares Monge, the head of security, said the public had nothing to fear, because the murders were carried out "by professional killers who never miss their targets".