Chinese flag flies over Macau after Portugal cedes last of its empire
December 20, 1999
MACAU (CNN) -- Portugal handed the gambling enclave of Macau back to China at midnight Sunday, bringing an end to 442 years of colonial rule. The handover was marked by gala celebrations featuring parades, speeches and jubilant street celebrations in Macau and Beijing.
The relinquishing of tiny and troubled Macau marks the end of the last lingering remnants of European colonialism in Asia.
At ceremonies celebrating Macau's new status, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said in a prepared text, "Macao has entered on a brand new era in its development." He extended "cordial greetings and good wishes to the Macau compatriots who are returning to the embrace of the motherland."
Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio vowed solidarity with Macau, the first established meeting point for peoples from the Far East and the West.
"It will thus continue in its centuries-old vocation as an intermediary at the crossroads of peoples, civilizations and interests and so strengthen its own identity," Sampaio told dignitaries in a brightly shining building -- dubbed the "Chinese lantern" -- that lit up the night skies. It was constructed just for the handover.
The red and green Portuguese flag came down on a stage in the building and was replaced by a red communist Chinese banner, to the applause of an audience that included Chinese entrepreneurs in Western business suits, Catholic clergy in black vestments and Buddhist monks robed in orange.
Asian nations are now self-ruled. The Portuguese -- the first Europeans to take over parts of Asia and the last to leave -- had retreated from East Timor 25 years ago. The French have pulled out of Indochina, the Dutch are out of Indonesia and the British gave up India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore -- and finally, Hong Kong went to China, just two years ago.
"We're happy that at last we don't have to be ruled by foreigners," said Wong Sio-cho, a taxi driver who turned out with his 3-year-old son for the occasion.
The Chinese say mismanagement let Macau deteriorate into a seedy territory best know for gangland assassinations as mobsters fight over their take of the cash from casinos, which are the biggest industry in Macau.
Macau is in some ways an embarrassment to China, where gambling is illegal. The armed gangs terrorize the local population and run prostitution and protection rackets.
Sampaio said Sunday that he understands the local sentiment, but insisted his generation of Portuguese leaders did a credible job of dismantling the remnants of an empire they inherited but did not want.
Still, Sampaio said he felt a powerful sense of history handing back land that "was part of our discoveries" when 16th-century Portuguese sailors were exploring the world and claiming much of it for their kings and queens.
Jiang calls for quick action on reunification
For Beijing, getting Macau after Britain returned Hong Kong leaves just one big prize - Taiwan.
In his speech, Jiang called for "an early settlement of the Taiwan question and the complete national reunification." But that idea faces fierce opposition from many Taiwanese.
Jubilant Chinese packed the streets in Macau waving red communist Chinese flags and the new green and white Macau flag.
In Beijing, fireworks lit up the skies above Tiananmen Square as about 30,000 hand-picked Beijing citizens gathered in sub- zero temperatures to celebrate.
The crowd of students and workers counted down the final seconds to midnight in front of a giant digital clock, then let out a huge roar as fireworks exploded over their heads.
Lion and dragon dancers weaved through the vast square, and students linked arms to twirl and tango as part of a musical extravaganza.
"We have washed away the history of shame," said 32-year-old office worker Hua Li. "It is a sign of national strength."
Jiang and Sampaio presided over a gala evening that included music and dancers from both cultures and a banquet -- although high winds forced cancellation of a fireworks display over the harbor.
Earlier Sunday as Portugal lowered its flag over Macau's colonial Government Palace for the last time, some 2,000 residents and guests packed the palace courtyard to watch. Many cheered as four officers of the Macau Security Forces folded the flag and presented it to Gov. Vasco Rocha Vieira as a band played Portugal's national anthem.
Most of the 430,000 residents of Macau, which is just 64 kilometers (40 miles) west of Hong Kong, are Chinese and the vast majority thought the departure of the Portuguese was long overdue.
Beijing turned down Portugal the first two times Lisbon tried to hand back Macau, in 1967 when China's Cultural Revolution stirred riots in the territory and in 1974 after Portugal's revolution ended decades of dictatorship and new leaders sought to set free all remaining colonies.
An East-West fusion culture -- known as Macanese -- in which stir-fried meats or Cantonese barbecue can be served with crusty European bread and Portuguese red wine on the side, is expected to stay intact.
Handover welcomed by many in Macau
Macau, which is 64 kilometers (40 miles) west of Hong Kong, has been governed by Portugal for 442 years. But most of its 430,000 residents are Chinese and for the vast majority the departure of the Portuguese was long overdue.
A gambling tours operator, who gave his name as Lei, said he came to "make sure they really took that bloody flag down.
"They came to Macau as pirates and they are leaving as pirates," Lei said.
"I'd feel more happy to see the Chinese flag flying here," said 32-year-old casino worker Benjamin Chan.
His 8-year-old daughter, Mary, added, "We no longer have to be ruled by the Portuguese."
China's Macau handover celebrations will be frugal
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of P.R.China
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