Countdown begins to handover of China's next outpost

The three 17-year-old boys had just finished playing squash. An unremarkable way of spending a rainy afternoon, you might think. Except for one unusual circumstance. They had just stepped out of the arrivals hall at the border between the Portuguese colony of Macau and the People's Republic of China. The boys live in Macau. They had popped across into the neighbouring Communist country for their game. It is cheaper and easier for the boys to book their weekly squash game in China than in Macau.

In short: reunification between Macau and mainland China has already begun, even if it is not yet official. Soon it will be. Now the British handover of Hong Kong is complete, attention is already turning to the next change of the guard. The handover date is 20 December 1999. The Chinese government is planning to install a Macau countdown clock in Tiananmen Square, similar to the Hong Kong clock which stopped on Monday night.

Macau is a rundown kind of place. It has some lurking charm in some of its half-Mediterranean corners - balustraded balconies, stuccoed mansions, restaurants serving vinho verde, even an abundance of Mediterranean-style mopeds. But it has less self-confident vibrancy than nearby Hong Kong.

Above all, it is famous for gambling, which is by far the biggest earner - bringing in half the colony's income. Many of the casinos are open 24 hours. Hotel shuttle buses take guests to the casino from early morning to late at night.

The entire territory - the peninsula with the main town, and two islands, joined by bridges to the mainland - is much smaller than Hong Kong, with a population of 400,000 as opposed to Hong Kong's 6 million. But just as great a contrast is the difference in political climate. Hong Kong has become a place of political drama. In Macau, there has been little hint of rebellion. As one government official noted: "In Hong Kong the concept of democracy is so popular. Here, life is so calm."

Macau was always an odd kind of colony. Unlike Hong Kong, it was never seized by force. In the 16th century, the Portuguese simply moved in. Strictly speaking, it is not even a Portuguese colony but "Chinese territory under Portuguese administration". The fine distinction will become even finer after 1999, when Macau, like Hong Kong, will be a "special administrative region" of the People's Republic, with a "high degree of autonomy".

What that means is anybody's guess - just as in Hong Kong, 40 miles across the water. Officially everybody in Macau is keen on the impending changes. There were "our-turn-next" celebrations in Macau this week and a chanted countdown to Monday midnight in the central square. Officials are keen to emphasise the rosy relationship with China - with none of the frictions that have bedevilled the relationship between London and Peking, and especially between Chris Patten in Government House and the Chinese government.

But there is nervousness, too, in this sleepy place. Portugal has always had a much more arm's length relationship with its colony than Britain with Hong Kong. After the revolution of 1974, the new Socialist government in Lisbon even tried to give the territory back. The Chinese answer: "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Unlike Hong Kong, Macau has made little progress towards fully democratic elections - though officials point out it has moved steadily in the right direction. The first limited changes in the election rules were introduced more than 20 years ago, horrifying those who ran Hong Kong at the time, who believed nominations and appointments were the best way to choose a legislative council.

As in Hong Kong, people are proud to feel they will be united with their fellow Chinese. In the words of Edgar Chu, a textile manufacturer: "People are looking forward to it. 1997 [in Hong Kong] is a very good sign for Macau. Everything is running smoothly. The people of Hong Kong and Macau just want a good life, and want to maintain things as they are."

But there is wariness. "In two years we'll be part of China, so we're happy," says Jaffe Lei, a student of marketing. "But I feel worried, because I don't know what will happen. If things go badly in Hong Kong, that's what we must watch.

Already, some in Macau are watching nervously. They already know Peking is capable of changing its mind on crucial issues. Macau government publications boast "No Chinese troops will be stationed here." This week, however, a Chinese spokesman appeared to question that statement, causing a little flurry of concern. "I was scared to see tanks coming into Hong Kong, on the television. If that happened here, it would be terrible," said one woman in Macau this week. "As a Chinese person, I will celebrate [1999]. But I have to struggle with myself, because I'm a little scared."

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