Book review: Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations 1986-1999, by Carmen Amada Mendes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 5:32pm

Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations 1986-1999

by Carmen Amado Mendes

HKU Press

In 1985, as Portugal prepared to negotiate the handover of Macau, its foreign ministry did not have a single diplomat who spoke Putonghua nor a department dedicated to its last colony. In addition, the country had two, often conflicting, centres of power: its president and prime minister.

Yet this weak, declining country was still able to strike a good deal with Beijing and achieve many of its objectives: a new airport, retention of Portuguese nationality for 80,000 Macau residents, a handover date later than Hong Kong's, and to maintain the status of Portuguese, the Catholic church and BNU, the locally incorporated Portuguese-owned lender.

That is the main story of Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations 1986-1999, the first book in English to provide a detailed account of this historic event from the Portuguese perspective. Author Carmen Amado Mendes, professor of international relations at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra, in Portugal, has used a wealth of sources and interviews, mainly on the Portuguese side.

Lisbon had a weaker card than London when the British worked on the handover of Hong Kong. But it had one ace up its sleeve: the threat to abandon Macau and refuse to negotiate. Lisbon had given up de facto sovereignty in 1966-67, its last troops had left in 1976, and its economic interests in Macau were limited. The threat to walk away was therefore credible. But, for Beijing, this was unthinkable: Hong Kong and Macau were dry runs for Taiwan; the negotiations had to be concluded successfully and both sides satisfied.

One of the sharpest differences was over the nationality of the 80,000 Macau people who held full Portuguese passports, a document more valuable than a BNO passport.

The Chinese constitution does not recognise dual citizenship, but Lisbon insisted it could not strip them of their nationality. Even London raised the issue in Brussels, complaining that Portugal was raising the number of citizens with right of entry and free transit within the EU.

The two sides reached a compromise: the 80,000 kept their passports which they could use around the world, but which would be invalid in Chinese territory.

On the handover date, Beijing wanted Hong Kong and Macau returned on the same day. But Lisbon wanted a date in the 21st century, such as 2007, the 450th anniversary of its arrival in China, or even 2057; it did not want to be an annex to Hong Kong. The compromise was close to end of the 20th century: December 20, 1999.

Another issue of importance to Lisbon was construction of an international airport, which required the authorisation of Beijing for use of its air space as well as the land needed for construction.

Neighbouring Zhuhai had already built an airport, at substantially lower cost, and wanted international status for it. It raised many objections to Macau's proposal, saying it would not supply the sand needed to build it.

Then the military crackdown on the student protests took place in Beijing on June 4, 1989 - and China became a pariah in the western world. Lisbon seized the moment when Beijing badly needed friends to obtain the concessions it sought. The airport opened for commercial operations in November 1995.

Weeks before the handover, another hiccup occurred. When Beijing announced it would send the PLA into Macau a few days before the handover, Lisbon reacted strongly, saying it would an insult to its dignity. President Jorge Sampaio threatened to boycott the event.

With just weeks to go, a compromise was reached - Sampaio left the enclave just before the troops entered the city.