Macau is China's route to Taiwan

AN ENORMOUS red clock in Peking's Tiananmen Square is counting the seconds to midnight on December 19, when Macau will return to the motherland's embrace. Some 1,500 miles south, in the tiny Portuguese enclave itself, the flags are already up and the cameras are ready to roll over the lavish firework and air displays that will celebrate China's resumption of sovereignty.

There will be a national holiday, and China's top leaders will fly to Macau for the handover - not to party, or even to try their luck in Macau's famous casinos, but to hammer home a clear political message.

The end of Portuguese administration in Macau marks the end of 442 years of "humiliating" European control over parts of China. More significantly, once Macau, like Hong Kong, is in the bag, then only Taiwan is outside Peking's control. And the underlying reason for Peking pulling out all the stops for the three tiny islands of Macau - population, less than half a million - is that it wants to woo renegade Taiwan on to the same path of reunification.

"Taiwan is now the major issue for Peking," commented Jia Qingguo, associate dean of Peking's University of International Studies. Ever since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Peking has been offering a similar "one country, two systems" formula to the island. With Macau soon under the same formula, the pressure on Taiwan is bound to grow.

According to sources in the Chinese capital, President Jiang Zemin will lead the first move, a full-scale propaganda campaign aimed at the three main candidates for Taiwan's presidential elections in March. The message is likely to be a very hard sell to Taiwan, which has been a separate political entity since 1949 when China's defeated nationalist government fled there after civil war with the Communists.

But far from responding positively to Peking's overtures, Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, raised tensions in July by insisting that all contact between Peking and Taipei be on a "state-to-state" basis. That sent alarm- bells ringing on the mainland and throughout the region, as Peking had vowed to take the island by force should it declare official independence.

Macau remains an important bridge between Taiwan and China, with about 850,000 visitors from Taiwan passing through to the mainland each year. They are represented by the Taipei Trade and Tourism Office. But Peking finds even that hard to stomach. Chinese officials want the title toned down, to sound less official. It's not a move likely to endear Peking to Taiwan.

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