Mar 24 · 10 min read

There has been a lot of great stuff about Hong Kong and its 1997 handover from the United Kingdom — where it had been a colony for over 150 years — to China. But Hong Kong was not the only European colony handed back to China at the end of the 20th century — everyone seems to forget about Macau.

In this video we are going to talk about the Portuguese colonization and handover of Macau to the Chinese in December 1999. The reality of the Macau handover is that the Portuguese had long ceded the city to China, having lost effective control and their leverage decades before. So unlike with the dramatic tensions of the Sino-British talks and handover, the Sino-Portuguese negotiations were almost an afterthought — with one interesting twist.

Portugal in Macau (1500 to 1900)

Sino-British history has been, to say the least, tense. Up until the Japanese came onto the scene, the Chinese saw the British as the face of colonialism and epitome of the 100 years of humiliation that encompasses the Opium Wars and the unequal treaties that resulted in cessation of Hong Kong. This shameful history as well as Hong Kong’s size and wealth added a great deal of tension to the negotiations between the two countries regarding the colony’s return to China.

Portugal’s history in China however is much different, stretching over a much longer period of time. No major war was fought to control and expand Macau. Rather, Portugal came to occupy Macau through a long process of incremental steps.

The Portuguese first came to the Pearl River estuary in 1513, 130 years before the Qing Dynasty. China at the time was ruled by the Ming Dynasty. They began trading with the mainlanders.

Macau was established as a simple trading post in 1535 — a small foreign settlement on the southern fringe of the Chinese mainland. To justify their presence, the Portuguese signed a lease agreement with the local Chinese authorities in 1573. The annual rent (well, we can probably call this more a bribe than rent) was about 500 silver taels with custom duties of 20,000 taels more. No gunboats. No armies. Just a nice rental agreement along with some fat bribes. During this period, the Chinese — represented by the Ming and then Qing dynasties — not only retained sovereignty over Macau but also had effective jurisdiction. For example, early Qing officials established a maritime customs station in 1688 there, proving that they were the one calling the shots. Portuguese settlers were not legal permanent residents but were informally tolerated.

With that being said, the Portuguese slowly pushed the limits of their administration over Macau. In 1586, the crown official bestowed “city” status over the settlement — establishing a municipal council and installing a Catholic bishop there. Then in 1605, they built a wall around Macau — ostensibly to defend the city from attacks from the Dutch but also drawing city borders. The Chinese did not give permission to do this but did nothing about it. 18 years later, Lisbon appointed their first full-time governor of Macau. Back home, the Portugese government felt increasing impatience about Macau’s ambiguity. They wanted permanent recognition of the colony’s status.

In the 19thcentury, China entered its “century of humiliation” as it is called. And misery loves company. After the United Kingdom defeated China in the First Opium War and took over Hong Kong island, the Portuguese under Governor Joao Ferreira do Amaral stopped paying rent and taxes to the Qing. They simultaneously began taxing the local Macanese residents. They also demolished the Qing customs office in their area and later took over little Taipa island to the south of Macau.

In 1862 they attempted to negotiate another unequal treaty with China — the Treaty of Tianjin — which would get Macau formally recognized as a Portuguese colony like with Hong Kong. But Beijing saw through the scheme, refused to ratify it, and the treaty expired 2 years later. The situation remained in flux for the next twenty plus years.

Finally in 1887, the Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Friendship and Trade would confirm Macau’s legal status as a place under Portugese “perpetual occupation”. It acknowledged that Portugal would continue to administer Macau but, in the interpretation of the Chinese, did not cede China’s sovereignty over Macau. Coming in the aftermath of the unequal treaties, it was unpopular with the Chinese people. Yet neither the Portugese Revolution in 1910 nor the Chinese 1911 Xinhai Revolution changed Macau’s status.

So overall, the history of the Portuguese in Macau was marked with small expansions and boundary pushing over the centuries. This low profile approach had the benefit of reducing newspapers headlines but at the same time left things unsettled. The Chinese never formally ceded sovereignty over Macau over the centuries but acknowledged the reality of having the Portuguese there doing their stuff. This would leave a great deal of ambiguity that both Portugal and China would tussle over as they both entered the impactful 20th century.

The Actual Handover

The Republic of China was established in 1911 and from the 1920s onwards, the ruling Kuomintang party embarked upon recovering the territories that the Qing had lost over the years. The full detail of this recovery movement is pretty interesting and I shall withhold it for later exploration. In 1928, the Kuomintang would renew the 1887 acknowledgement of perpetual Portugese administration but its end seemed nearer than ever. After World War II, Chiang Kai-shek requested full territorial rights over Macau. A tense meeting was held in 1947 that acknowledged the “give and take” nature of the negotiations. Portugal again evaded resolution of the sovereignty question — in part because Chiang and the ROC had bigger fish to fry. A fish named the Communist Party — except in this case the fish fried them.

In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established and immediately relations between itself and Portugal went ice-cold. Portugal at the time had been under the rule of the authoritarian “New State”, and its prime minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was a fervent anti-communist. Communist China in turn decided to put the Macau and Hong Kong question aside as it dealt with domestic issues and receiving international recognition.

The truth was that China knew it held all the cards and could manipulate Macau and its veneer of foreign control for its own needs. For example during the Korean War, the United Kingdom placed a blockade on Hong Kong — a highly risky but necessary tactic — to punish it for its participation against the allies. Macau played a crucial role in breaking this blockade so that China could get western military weapons to use against the West itself.

Then the Cultural Revolution started and things really got going. Nationwide social unrest spilled out across the borders into both Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong’s 1967 riots presented one of the greatest challenges to the British colonial rule, but they responded with a crackdown that would eventually contain the damage. Across the bay in Macau however, things were different.

In December 1966, public demonstrations broke out over the construction ban of a pro-Beijing school. The administration tried to get things under control but in the ensuing riots and violence, eight Chinese were killed and 212 were injured. Beijing and local leftist officials demanded compensation and the punishment of the officials responsible. It was a bad situation.

The 1–2–3 incident as it was called (named because it started on December 3rd) ended in a humiliating public apology from Portugal and an influential secret agreement. In it, Portugal set strict limits on its governorship and increased the powers of the local officials. This was the moment of the actual handover. Here, Portugal recognized for real that China had sovereignty over Macau — no ambiguity. Macau had been handed over. The only question was when the flags would switch.

The curious thing though is that the handover would happen some thirty years later. Why?

Why China Waited

Salazar, the anti-communist Portuguese prime minster, did not see surrendering Macau in 1966 as an option. But he died a few years later and with him so did the right-wing “New State” regime that ruled Portugal.

So in 1974, Portugal saw its own revolution — the Carnation Revolution, named after the carnation flowers people pinned on the soldiers in the streets. Lisbon embarked on a new decolonization policy that would see it give up all of its African colonies, like right then. This would have devastating side effects for the Portugese economy as hundreds of thousands of Portuguese would have to return to the motherland, flooding the economy with excess labor and overcrowding the nation. Meanwhile, the abrupt withdrawal would trigger regional conflicts in the colonies themselves. Good times, the 70s.

The Portuguese had bigger fish to fry and Macau was a bother. Britain fought for Hong Kong not only for its wealth and economic value but also because it remained a vestige of the glory of the British Empire. Portugal long ago let go of these sentimentalities. The new left-wing government was more in alignment ideologically to the Chinese, which made China more willing to talk to them. So in 1974 a high-level Portuguese minister visited Macau and met with Chinese officials. During these meetings, Portugal offered to withdraw.

The twist is that the Chinese responded that they did not wish to alter Macau’s status as a foreign-administered territory.

The papers went nuts with Hong Kong tabloids pronouncing “China Does Not Want Macau” — telling people that the colonies were more valuable as sources of information, trade and hard currency. Portuguese government officials would deny that this exchange took place. However, researchers and historians largely conclude that it did and yes indeed the Chinese did turn down their offer.

Why? There are three big reasons.

The first was domestic. China was dealing with stuff. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, founders and key statesmen of the PRC, were dying. China was gearing up for a power struggle and dealing with Macau and Hong Kong would be a distraction.

Second, Macau and Hong Kong represented ways for China to get around its closed door policy towards the rest of the world. Indeed at the time, Hong Kong was China’s top source of hard western currency — with some $500 million flowing across China’s borders each year from Hong Kong alone. In this case, the sensationalist newspapers were correct.

The third was most interesting. Chinese officials judged the timing as inappropriate. Recovering Macau right then would marginalize the British and jeopardize Hong Kong’s economic future. It would also greatly unsettle Taiwan. The Party’s number one priority at the time was to recover (or take over, depending on your perspective) Taiwan island. In China’s eyes, Macau and Hong Kong would be recovered only after the Taiwanese reunification.

Two years later, China softened a bit and the first negotiations on the handover began in January 1978 in Paris. The Portugese came into the negotiations with no overarching strategy other than to return Macau to the Chinese. In light of the unique circumstances (the three I mentioned above), China did not want Portugal to simply up and leave right then and there. So the Portugese actually had quite a bit of leverage — a savvy politician could have wrung great concessions from China like partial democratization or continued administration in Macau. They could have at least tried to get the Macanese people a seat at the table so that they determine their own future.

But instead a secret agreement was signed — the Acta Secreta or the Secret Memo. Portugal opened the barn door and gave away the horse and the barn too. Portugal promised to return Macau to China full stop. Nothing else needed to be decided other than when to do the ceremony. China had what it wanted.

In 1986–87, another round of talks were held. Reeling from the trauma of the unpopular 1974 African decolonization, Portugal wanted a more honorable withdrawal but that window had already closed. All they could do was to formalize the terms of the 1978 secret agreement. By now the inevitable was clear.

China’s Concessions to Portugal

In light of Portugal’s agreeableness though, China would grant the Macanese two unique concessions that it did not grant to the Hong Kongers.

First, the Chinese wanted the Macau handover to happen simultaneously with the Hong Kong handover. But Portugal wanted to keep Macau into the 21stcentury. Preferably to 2007, the 450thanniversary of the Portuguese presence in Macau. 2007 was out of the question because the Chinese committed themselves to get their colonies back before 2000, but they did delay the Macanese handover until December 1999 — two and a half years after the 1997 Hong Kong handover. That was nice of them.

The second concession is more major. During the Hong Kong Handover, the United Kingdom issued National Passports which are called passports but really are not passports because they do not grant the right to work or abode in the UK. A lot of Hong Kongers did not take kindly to this.

Portugal on the other hand granted — against London’s urgings, by the way — full Portuguese passports to the Macanese with full rights of abode and residency in Portugal. And since Portugal was in the European Community (EC) at the time, this would also grant the Macanese abode rights in the rest of the EC.

The problem though is that China does not allow for dual citizenship. So what would happen to the Macanese with Portuguese citizenship? Invalidate them? Take away those passports? In the end, China did not do that. They simply let people hold onto both passports and citizenships — this was a significant concession.

These concessions happened because 1) Macau was so small in both population and economy and 2) Because relations between the Chinese and the Portuguese were free and clear of tension. The Chinese knew that they were negotiating from a position of strength and felt comfortable enough to grant concessions to help everyone save face.


China recovered Macau long before 1999 — it was only a matter of when the flags would switch over. The Portuguese were nowhere near as powerful as the British nor did Macau matter as much as Hong Kong did to both parties. So the handover went over smoothly and both Portugal and China got what it wanted: Portugal got to depart Macau without a loss of face. China got back one more colony.

The ultimate prize though remained out of reach. Taiwan continues to govern itself and as long as that remains the case, China’s policy of national reunification goes on.

Originally published at on March 24, 2019.


Following the greater Sinosphere diaspora


Written by


An American in Taipei


Following the greater Sinosphere diaspora

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