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The 10-year anniversary of Macau’s handover and the politics of history


If the British takeover of Hong Kong was the moral equivalent of three guys kicking in the back door and at gunpoint turning your suburban home into a crack house, then the Portuguese in Macau were more like a couple of shady dudes who wanted to rent out your old tool shed, hoped you’d forget they were there, and when you reminded them that it was time to pay up and that you’d strongly prefer they NOT set up a craps game on your property or pimp out your children they decided to stiff you on the rent and declare squatters’ rights in your backyard.

On the evening of December 19, 1999, the flag of Portugal was lowered for the final time in Macau and at midnight on December 20, the tiny former colony officially became a part of the People’s Republic of China…more or less.

I say more or less because, unlike its glitzy neighbor Hong Kong, the nature of Macau’s sovereignty and even its status as a “colony” has frequently been open to debate and interpretation.

The Portuguese first showed up in the early 16th century, using the waters around the peninsula and islands as an anchorage and a temporary refuge for traders.  In 1552, the Portuguese built storage sheds to dry out trade goods, following that up a few years later by erecting a couple of stone huts and then…you know, since they “improved” the property and all…they asked if they could rent the place for awhile.  The Ming government — never having heard of Steve Wynn — approved the deal and for the next three centuries the Portuguese had de facto control over Macau, paying rent to the Ming (later Qing) court in Beijing.  The decision in 1583 to create a local assembly of Macanese settlers and the appointment by Lisbon of a series of governors strengthened the hand of the Portuguese in managing the affairs of the settlement, but the exercise of power was not uncontested and had to be carried out by negotiating competing interests among Portugal, the Macanese settlers, and local Chinese officials.

For centuries after, Macau played an important historical role as a transit point in the long journey between East and West.  In addition to its role, gradually eclipsed by Hong Kong, as an important port in the growing European trade along the Pacific rim, it was also an entry point into China for missionaries, most notably the Jesuits who played such an important role in the 17th and 18th centuries as a conduit of ideas between Europe and Asia.  In the mid-19th century, following the abolition of outright slavery in many parts of the world, Macau became a key port for the shipment overseas of “coolie” laborers.  For many Chinese — some escaping poverty and war, others simply kidnapped from villages and towns in South China — Macau would be the last they would ever see of their homeland as they boarded ships bound for hard labor in far flung lands.

While Portugal’s reach as a global power had significantly declined by the 19th century, the Portuguese were more than happy to piggy-back on British attempts to hijack Qing sovereignty during the Opium War of 1840-1842.  In 1849, Portuguese authorities kicked out the Qing officials and decided to simply stop paying rent, figuring if the Qing government really wanted Macau back they could come and get it. This arrangement was formalized under the 1887 Sino-Portuguese Treaty which recognized Portugal’s continued administration of Macau in perpetuity.

(If the whole thing were a bar fight, Britain would be the guy punching some poor sap in the mouth for “looking at him funny” while Portugal would be Britain’s friend, staring down at the guy lying on the floor surrounded by the bloody chiclets of his former teeth and asking him if he’s not going to finish his beer can Portugal have it?)

Not that the 1887 treaty settled a whole lot.  Macau’s territory is a fraction the size of Hong Kong and has always been dependent on outside sources for critical resources like, say, food and water.  Moreover, unlike in the case of Hong Kong, the Sino-Portuguese Treaty only transferred administrative control – not full sovereignty – of Macau to Portugal, leaving the exact status of the settlement a matter of interpretation.  As a result, maintaining the legitimacy and position of Portuguese rule over Macau always required a delicate balancing act on the part of Lisbon and her representatives in the territory.

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, this “matter of interpretation” began to get a bit sticky, and a series of anti-government riots in the 1960s served notice to the Portuguese administrators that they may have started to overstay their welcome by a few centuries.  Portuguese politics back home further muddied the Macanese waters, when following a coup in 1974 Lisbon began to reassess the status of its overseas holdings.  Finally, in 1987, the joint Sino-Portuguese commission worked out the framework by which control of Macau was handed over to the PRC in 1999.

Naturally, state media in the PRC (and on Macau) are making a bit of hay over the 10-year anniversary of the handover, though how you can have a news story about Macau in the 21st century that doesn’t include the words “casino” or “gambling” repeated as many times as possible in the first two paragraphs is beyond me.  Nevertheless, adding this final (or penultimate, depending on your view of Taiwan) part of the Chinese territorial puzzle was an important moment for the PRC and the CCP.  For the latter, it serves to reaffirm their self-professed credentials as the only government in the past 200 years capable of protecting Chinese sovereignty against the forces of imperialism, so long as your definition of “imperialist forces” excludes gaudy, over-the-top casinos sucking money from the pockets of the Cantonese nouveau-riche.

This narrative – that the CCP was the sole force capable of ‘liberating’ China and, by implication, remains the only thing standing in the way of chaos and the resumption of unchecked foreign aggression leading to a loss of Chinese sovereignty – is an important part of the PRC origin story. Because of this, the tendency of the information and education authorities in the PRC is to turn history into a simplistic morality play of heroes and villains bleached of nuance, or else to pump up old stories with righteous indignation drenched in the nauseating syrup of victimhood.

But the thing is, this history doesn’t necessarily need any kind of embellishment or blanching.  It’s hard to make imperialism look good so I can’t for the life of me understand why the CCP feels the need to try so hard making it look bad.  That is, until I remember that when a teleological narrative of nationalist liberation is one of only two tricks in your bag (the other being “promise of economic development and increased standards of living”) you gotta go with what you’ve got.


Sources and further reading:

Edmonds, Robert Louis. “Macau and Greater China,” The China Quarterly, No. 136 (Dec, 1993)

Gunn, Geoffrey. Encountering Macau: A Portuguese City State on the Periphery of China, 1996.

Porter, Jonathan. Macau: The Imaginary City, 1996.

Yee, Herbert S. and Lo, Sonny S.H. “Macau in Transition: The Politics of Decolonization,” Asian Survey, Vol 31, No. 10 (Oct, 1991)

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