Colonial past provides a valuable legacy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 October, 2003, 12:00am

Portugal's presence in this part of the world dates back more than four centuries, to a time when the small European state was a major sea power competing with the French, English and Dutch to build far-flung empires. Macau, on the southern tip of China, was crucial to Portugal's trade prowess and territorial ambitions. Even now, years after the Portuguese have bowed out, the port city's blend of southern Chinese geography and southern European culture is as persistent as it is unique.

The Portuguese left behind architecture, cuisine and - crucially - the Portuguese language. And it is the language and cultural legacy that still ties Macau to Portugal in Europe, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique in Africa, East Timor in Southeast Asia and Brazil in South America. These ties are part of Macau's rich heritage. With its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1999, they can be a means for China to expand its involvement in international affairs.

Already, China has official ties with most of the Portuguese-speaking countries, which have a combined population of 220 million and gross domestic product of US$1.8 trillion. In the first six months of this year, China's imports from these nations jumped 200 per cent over the same period last year to US$3.53 billion, while its exports to these nations rose 30 per cent to US$1.2 billion.

There are other ties as well. With Brazil, the world's largest Portuguese-speaking country, China has engaged in football diplomacy - sending players over to the South American nation to train. In East Timor, the world's newest nation, China has posted police officers to the United Nations peacekeeping mission and has promised to help the country get back on its feet economically.

The Forum for Economic and Trade Co-operation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries being held in Macau shows that China has every intention of nurturing these ties and that Macau will play a key role in the process. The meeting, to be held every three years and sponsored by the Ministry of Commerce, indicates an encouragingly pragmatic approach by the Chinese leadership.

It would be easy for China - where the carving up over past centuries of the country's most valuable ports between foreign powers has been a major cause of wounded national pride - to bypass Macau in forging relations with the Portuguese-speaking countries so that a 'shameful' chapter of its history would not be recalled. But that is obviously not how China sees things. Rather, the city's unique historical and cultural links are being leveraged to promote the nation's ties with these countries.

If some in Hong Kong are still bent on suppressing this city's colonial heritage as a means of displaying their patriotism, then the Chinese leadership's confidence in facing up to Macau's past and harnessing its past colonial links to serve the future should come as a wake-up call. It shows our leaders appreciate that Macau's long years of accommodating outside cultures within a Chinese context can point the way forward as China comes into greater contact with other nations, and that the results of this accommodation - hybrid identities that can traverse between cultures - are very valuable.

It is apparent that a similar policy has underlined the central government's dealings with Hong Kong, which has long been used as a source of intelligence of the outside world and a testing ground for new ideas that will eventually be applied across the country.

If nothing else, the fact that a principal legacy of Hong Kong's colonial past is English, the world's foremost international language, makes this city that much more valuable to China's modernisation.