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Friday, 17 December, 1999, 18:39 GMT
Cracking down on the triads
By Jill McGivering in Macau
When Macau wakes up as part of China on Monday December 20th, it starts a new chapter in its history.
In daily life too, the flavour of Portugal will persist - for a while at least. The unique Macanese patois, a hybrid of Portuguese and Cantonese, is already almost extinct - but Macau still has part Portuguese, part Chinese festivals, customs and cuisine.
Where the British most prided themselves on leaving neighbouring Hong Kong two years ago with an efficient bureaucracy and clean judicial system, it's their lifestyle which many departing Portuguese are most proud to pass on.
But although they can now make a good espresso, there is little sense of regret about the handover amongst the majority ethnic Chinese community. Most are delighted about the change.
For many the Portuguese administration was seen as remote and irrelevant. Others complain of a slow and unwieldy bureaucracy that dampened business initiative.
But the biggest complaint concerns crime. A wave of bombings, arson attacks and murders gripped Macau over the last two years, devastating the enclave's image and driving away much-needed tourists.
Macau's economy is heavily dependent on its casinos, the centre of its tourism industry.
But the bright lights and easy profits of the gaming tables have also attracted rival gangs of triad gangsters who control the underworld of prostitution, loan sharking and extortion.
Local people - and the Chinese leadership in Beijing - have blamed the Portuguese-led administration for failing to take a tough line to keep the peace.
The convictions last month of the alleged head of the powerful 14K triad society, Wan Kuok-koi, also known as "Broken Tooth", and some of his associates brought relief but also a sense of too little, too late.
"After the handover, security in Macau will be better," said Jennie Kong, a wealthy Chinese businesswoman in Macau who operates several garment factories. "I'm really happy about the return to China - it's like a child going back to its mother after centuries of foreign rule."
Part of this general confidence that the future will be brighter than the past relates to the controversial decision by the Chinese to station People's Liberation Army troops in the enclave.
The surprise announcement angered the Portuguese who withdrew their own garrison in the 1970s.
No provision for troops has been made in the mutually agreed post-handover constitution, known as the Basic Law.
Dr Jorge Rangel, a mixed race Macanese with part Portuguese, part Chinese ancestry, served as deputy governor in the old administration. He is convinced the crime issue was deliberately blown out of all proportion as a political tactic.
"It was used intentionally," he told me. "Some people were interested in Macau not having the best situation in terms of law and order so conditions could be created for troops to be welcome."
He also points out that Macau's crime rate is comparatively low - about 5 murders per 100,000 people compared with more than 74 in Washington. Even Lisbon, he says, scores worse.
The distortion comes from the dramatic nature of the crimes - point blank assassinations in restaurants and bombings in the street hit the headlines.
Macau's post-handover leader, Chief Executive Edmund Ho, a leading banker from a patriotic Chinese family who was handpicked by Beijing, has responded to the public mood. He promises to make law and order a top priority.
The focus on crime also means more subtle issues - such as the level of democracy in Macau - have been overshadowed.
In neighbouring Hong Kong, Britain and China rowed bitterly about the handover negotiations when Britain's last governor, Chris Patten tried to increase the level of democracy at the eleventh hour.
Many Hong Kongers saw Mr Patten as their champion - and the rainy handover ceremonies were dogged by rowdy demonstrations calling for more democracy.
In Macau, the promise of democracy is even more limited.
At the moment, a third of legislators are appointed by the Chief Executive. Another third are indirectly elected by small interest groups.
Although the Basic Law makes a commitment towards increasing the number of directly elected seats, the progress is at a slower rate than in Hong Kong.
But local Chinese in Macau don't seem motivated to fight for more.
Almost half the population only came to Macau in the last 15 years. They are generally patriotic about China and lack the sense of separateness, even superiority, which many in Hong Kong express towards the mainland.
They also lack an influential middle class and Macau has no vocal political opposition.
Most people, it seems, would be content with improved stability and an environment which will give them the chance to improve their lot - whether the ornate Portuguese buildings are there or not.
Links to other Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.
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