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Sunday, 19 December, 1999, 21:49 GMT
Analysis: Macau looks forward with optimism

Child watching handover ceremony Macau's future: Handover holds few fears


By Jill McGivering in Macau

This was always the "other" handover, the one which never quite existed in its own right but was constantly defined by its similarities to, and differences from, the larger and higher profile return of Hong Kong to China by Britain on 1 July 1997.

Politically, Macau's return was supposed to show the world an alternative way of dealing with China.

Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, chose the path of defiance and confrontation. He pursued with determination his goal of increasing the level of democracy in the territory in the final years of British rule.

Macau different

China's anger and the resulting stalemate damaged the negotiations, caused the collapse of the dream of a smooth transition and did little to help confidence in Hong Kong - although Mr Patten still has enormous personal support amongst the people he once governed.

Macau was always a different story.

Portugal tried to negotiate the return of Macau in the late 1970s, following the change of political climate in Lisbon itself.

That was too soon for Beijing - but the two sides did agree that, from then on, Portugal was only administering the enclave, whilst China had sovereignty over it.

Mixed feelings

It was a technical point in some ways but set a gentle and far more conciliatory tone in the negotiations when began in earnest in the following decade.

The Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio had breakfast with a group of international reporters on the morning of the handover.

He told us he expected to have mixed feelings as he saw the Portuguese flag being lowered for the very last time.

History rushing

On the one hand, he explained, there would be a sense of 500 years of history rushing before his eyes, passing by like a speeded up film.

But on the other hand, he would feel very proud, he said.

He had fought against Portuguese colonialism in his youth and clashed with police in demonstrations. Now he felt he had seen the cycle being completed. The days of overseas Portuguese territories had finally ended.

Apprehension in Hong Kong

Two-and-a-half years ago, British officials, including the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, stood in pouring rain as the final handover ceremonies were performed in Hong Kong.

The weather seemed to mirror the sense of gloom and apprehension which many Hong Kong people felt.

When we journalists asked people what they expected after British rule, many shrugged their shoulders unenthusiastically. The most common response was a rather dismissive: "Wait and see".

Clear skies for Macau

Macau's handover weekend also started with pouring rain - but this time it cleared.

By Sunday evening, crowds of local people could and did gather in the Mediterranean style plazas to watch the handover events relayed on giant screens - and to cheer.

It was far easier to get positive opinions from people about the change of flag.

One young woman I met seemed quite typical. She told me her parents had come from the mainland just before she was born and were great supporters of the Chinese Communist Party.

Excited and happy

The Communists had really improved their lives and the lives of other ordinary working people, she said.

She was less sure about mainland politics herself, having lived all her life in Macau. But she still admitted, a little shyly, that she had woken up on the morning of the handover feeling excited and very happy - a rush of emotion she had not expected.

When I went to visit her, she was mesmerised by the live television coverage of the arrival of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Her parents had just called her, she said - she could tell by their voices they were both tearful with joy.

Optimism

That spirit of optimism and patriotism is far more common in Macau than in Hong Kong.

Half Macau's population only settled here in the last twenty years. Social, business and family ties are so close that at times the distance between Macau and the thriving economic zone which sits just across the border in mainland China seems very theoretical.

So it's perhaps not surprising that so many local people cheerfully took to the streets or waved Chinese flags as the handover clock struck midnight.

For Hong Kong, the sense of separateness from China and the focus on democracy and civil liberties dampened down the sense of celebration.

Not so in Macau.

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See also:
19 Dec 99 |  Asia-Pacific
China takes over in Macau
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