Transition trouble

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 1998, 12:00am

In Taiwan they are starting to worry. If Hong Kong's smooth transition to Chinese sovereignty is followed by a similarly successful handover in Macau next year, it will be difficult for Taipei to resist pressure to complete the process of national reunification.

For Beijing, the significance of Macau's reversion to Chinese rule stretches far beyond the tiny enclave's own importance. That is evident from the high profile being accorded to the handover: with the erection of a countdown clock in Tiananmen Square and the establishment of a 100-member Preparatory Committee chaired by Vice-Premier Qian Qichen.

Macau's transition, on December 20, 1999, will be eased by the smooth relations between its two sovereign powers. But it also faces many obstacles.

The continuing violence in the enclave is the most immediately apparent difficulty. Unless this is brought under control, it could seriously disrupt next year's handover.

There are also other less-publicised problems. Localisation is far less advanced than it was in Hong Kong at this stage of the transition. It was only in 1985 that local Chinese were allowed to join the civil service and, for a long time, occupied almost no senior positions.

Efforts are now being made to accelerate localisation. But the situation remains particularly serious in several areas, including the judiciary. Macau only began training local lawyers fairly recently and its Supreme Court is still staffed only by Portuguese. Under the Basic Law the posts of chief justice and attorney-general must be filled by local Chinese after the handover, even though there is little sign of anyone remotely qualified to do so.

The problem is compounded by the slowness in localising the language of government. This means fluency in Portuguese is likely to remain necessary beyond the handover. But since the language never really took root in Macau - it ranks a distant third to Cantonese and English - this further reduces the pool of locals able to join the civil service.

Beijing is well aware of the obstacles these problems present to a smooth transition. Even its cordial relations with Lisbon did not prevent Mr Qian from expressing concern about them during this week's inaugural meeting of the Preparatory Committee. If Portugal wants to leave the enclave in a position to exercise its promised high degree of autonomy then it will have to put more effort into localisation over the next 592 days than it has during the almost 400 years in which it has ruled Macau.