THERE may still be six years to go before Macau officially returns to Chinese rule but already the tiny enclave is more under the mainland thumb than Hongkong is ever likely to be. While all eyes in Macau are keenly watching the battle being fought over the Patten package 65 kilometres away, Macau liberals admit nothing similar could happen in the enclave. ''There will never be strong democracy in Macau . . . we will just become flowerpots,'' said legislator Mr Alexandre Ho Si-him, the man once known as ''Macau's Martin Lee''. ''Macau is already 80 per cent under Chinese rule and every day it is getting stronger . . . I fear for the future.'' Some even express shame. ''What I feel sad about is that we look like a puppet in China's hands,'' said maverick newspaper publisher Mr Miera Burguete, who still has a four-month jail term hanging over his head, following a celebrated legal battle with the local administration. ''These days Macau politics is exactly the opposite of Hongkong. Mr Patten wants to develop democracy and bring freedom, while the Macau Government wants to turn back the clock in the name of conciliation.'' But such voices are a minority, in a conservative community that last year elected enough pro-China candidates to control its legislature, and where local figureheads derive their influence from Beijing. ''Macau is pretty much a local community and people are simpler,'' said Mr Ma Man-kei, 73, the ''godfather'' of the Chinese community, and who ranks alongside Hongkong tycoon Mr Henry Fok Ying-tung, with a ceremonial post in the Beijing leadership. China, which has 1,700 officials in the enclave, exercises a strong influence over the government, last year forcing the removal of a landmark statue which Beijing saw as too colonial, while Governor General Rocha Vieira and his administration pursue a policy of convergence, more reminiscent of Lord Wilson than Governor Mr Chris Patten. The 23-member Legislative Assembly is dominated by pro-China figures, many of who swept to victory in last September's direct elections, under a proportional representation voting system Beijing likes so much that Hongkong leftists have proposed a variantfor the territory's 1995 polls. Beijing also exercises control through a network of neighbourhood groups, that run essential services such as schools and old-age centres, and has much more influence over the media than in Hongkong. The pro-Beijing Macau Daily News, the enclave's equivalent of Wen Wei Po, is the biggest-selling paper, and since April 1 has lined its pages with reports of supposed celebrations to mark the promulgation of the Basic Law. In reality locals appear more interested in Mr Patten than their mini-constitution, with a poll of students revealing more knew the name of the Hongkong Governor than his Macau counterpart. And, amid all this attention being paid to the struggle over Hongkong's future, the settling of the enclave's own fate has passed almost unnoticed. Last month's promulgation of its Basic Law by the National People's Congress was totally overshadowed by moves towards a second stove for Hongkong, and Chinese Premier Mr Li Peng mentioned Macau only as an example of how Mr Patten should be behaving during his fiery opening address. But observers say such intense interest in the dispute over Hongkong is hardly surprising, since the enclave is already being caught up in its tail-spin. ''The most direct impact on Macau is that China is easing up on the Portuguese,'' said pro-democracy legislator Mr Antonio Ng Kuok-cheong, Mr Ho's successor as leader of the liberal movement, who believes Beijing has scaled down its attacks against the enclave's administration. ''China is using Macau as bait to show the British what they can get if they are willing to co-operate . . . when Hongkong was still caught in the wrangle over Container Terminal No 9, the much-heated debate between China and Portugal over the Nam Van [Praia Grande] reclamation project was suddenly resolved,'' he said, in reference to a controversial waterfront land contract. Leftist groups have also quietened their objections to the extravagant plan to build seven multi-million-dollar monuments in the enclave celebrating Sino-Portuguese friendship. Others fear the long-term consequences will be more severe, with Beijing tightening its grip on the enclave. ''It's very difficult for someone like Lu Ping to spend all day attacking Hongkong and half an hour loosening up towards Macau,'' said one senior government official. But for leftists the Sino-British row is proof they were right to keep up their guard, and far-sighted in the steps they took to ensure a Patten-like situation could never occur in Macau. Former Basic Law core drafter Mr Liu Chak-wan said he foresaw today's dispute over the size of functional constituencies, which is at the heart of the controversy over the Patten package, three years ago. ''When we started drafting the Macau Basic Law we began to realise there was such a problem for Hongkong. I noticed trouble might come up in that area and someone might manipulate it,'' he said. ''Unfortunately Patten has made use of exactly that gap. So when we designed our political blueprint we wanted to keep everything basically unchanged so there would be no grey areas and no personal interpretations.'' That is why Macau's Basic Law stipulates indirect elections, rather than the functional constituencies Mr Patten is seeking to expand. It also retains the appointed seats, that will disappear from Hongkong's Legislative Council in 1995, at least until 2009. ''Patten is trying to overturn the status quo but in Macau we have always stressed the preservation of the existing system so we decided to retain the appointed seats,'' said Mr Liu, convenor of the Basic Law Drafting Committee's crucial political structure sub-group. They are among the few big differences in a Basic Law that is such a carbon copy of the Hongkong blueprint that critics claim it ignores essential legal differences between the two places, insisting on the establishment of an Audit Commission, although the Macau system performs the same functions through a public appeals court. It also imposes restrictions on the enclave, simply by translating current practice in Hongkong, with Macau legislators losing their right to move bills in the assembly without government consent after 1999, as China brings the situation into line with that in Hongkong, where Legislative Councillors have never enjoyed such right. And the Macau blueprint mirrors its Hongkong counterpart by restricting top civil service posts to Chinese nationals, in a move that presents a potential timebomb since the enclave's administration - conducted in Portuguese - has been so sluggish in its localisation policy there are still no Chinese in senior positions. ''It's not so easy to localise as in Hongkong,'' said civil service union legislator Dr Alberto Madeira Noronha. ''In Hongkong people are educated in English, but here there are only a few dozen Chinese who know Portuguese.'' With expatriates controlling the upper echelons of the civil service, and those below them mixed-blood Macanese - who also have Portuguese passports and are unhappy with the Basic Law's references to Macau's colonial past - there is a real danger of a mass exodus paralysing government work. The severe shortage of bilingual officials will also pose severe problems for the transition to a Chinese-run administration. Jobs are available for those who want to join the Portuguese civil service, and unions have already started surveying their members to see how many will take up the offer. Some estimates suggest up to two-thirds of all Macanese - who live apart from, and are disliked by, the Chinese community - will leave before 1999, although Dr Noronha said his union's survey showed more civil servants planned to stay than leave. Macau's Basic Law Drafters did fight with some success against being forced into the Hongkong straitjacket, resulting in a blueprint many believe is better than its Hongkong counterpart. The controversial restriction on the number of legislators who hold foreign passports, imposed on Hongkong in retaliation for the British nationality scheme, was dropped from the Macau version after protests from drafters. Some human rights safeguards were also improved, with an agreement late last year to extend two key international covenants into Macau's Basic Law. But on the crucial question of the death penalty, which the Portuguese constitution now prohibits from being applied in Macau, the drafters failed to get their way. Despite a last-ditch effort by a group led by legislator Miss Susana Chou Kei-chun, during a January visit to Beijing to finalise the Basic Law, the final draft of the mini-constitution has no safeguards against executions after 1999. Some feel a Patten-like figure might have helped secure a better deal for Macau. ''At least then there would have been a fight and with a fight you gain something,'' said Mr Ho, who led local liberals to their first success at the polls in 1988, only to be eclipsed by more radical rivals in recent years. And his successor believes Hongkong would benefit as a result. ''If Macau has a pro-democracy governor, China will find it increasingly difficult to fend off calls for more democracy . . . more liberal political reform would be possible for Hongkong,'' said Mr Ng, who rose to fame on the back of demonstrations against early drafts of the Basic Law and the June 4 crackdown. But Mr Ng sees the Patten package as nothing special, having proposed something similar during the initial drafting stage in 1989, and all agree there is no question of it being copied in Macau. ''If you look at the elections in Hongkong then you see the liberals winning but here in Macau it's the conservatives who win at the ballot box,'' said one government official, noting the enclave lacked the sort of international appeal and active middle-class so supportive of any campaign for more democracy. ''Anyone can have their private sympathies but we can hardly change the situation against the will of the population,'' he added. Instead the fear is whether the enclave will survive at all, despite a Basic Law that supposedly guarantees it a ''one country two systems'' future for the next half century. Widespread corruption is one threat, with former governor Carlos Melancia last week going on trial in Lisbon, over the alleged ''fatal fax'' scandal. And the neighbouring Special Economic Zone of Zhuhai poses another. It tried to block the building of Macau's new airport by stopping sand deliveries and complaining about noise pollution, and then, when that failed, going ahead with its own airport. Many say the enclave will simply fade away after 1999, becoming a slightly strange suburb of Zhuhai. ''Macau will become just another Chinese city with some differences because of the monuments and the [Portuguese] language,'' said Dr Noronha. ''And if we demolish the monuments then Macau will become 100 per cent Chinese, just like Shanghai or Tianjin.'' Others are more pessimistic. ''I'm not optimistic about the future,'' said Mr Ho. ''The economic situation is not very good. Macau is losing its industry and Zhuhai is catching up . . . even if we remain a good place for tourism that would be very good . . . we have very little to compete with Zhuhai.'' In Macau, the Basic Law's supposed reassurances have left doubts in many people's minds.