Term Paper: Historiography of East Asia

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Historiography of East Asia: The Transfer of Sovereignty of Macau from the Portuguese Republic to the People's Republic of China on December 20, 1999

There is no question that it harbors in its hidden places all the riffraff of the world, the drunken shipmasters; the flotsam of the sea, the derelicts, and more shameless, beautiful women than any port in the world. It is hell. But to those who whirl in its unending play, it is one haven where there is never a hand raised or a word said against the play of the beastliest emotions that ever blacken the human heart. -- Hendrik de Leeuw who visited Macau in the 1930s and wrote Cities of Sin

The epigraph above is reflective of the dichotomous views that have persisted in the West concerning the tiny enclave of Macau over the years. Worldwide attention was focused on the United Kingdom when its lease on Hong Kong expired in 1997 and the territory's ownership reverted to the People's Republic of China (PRC), but far less attention was given to the transfer of Macau's Portuguese sovereignty to the PRC two years later. Therefore, to help determine what transpired during this transition and its implications for the people of Macau and the PRC, this paper provides a narrative account drawing on primary resources, followed by an analysis and interpolation of the transfer to Chinese control drawing on relevant secondary resources. Finally, a summary of the research and significant findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Events, Trends and Perceptions Prior to the Transition to Chinese Control

Many people in the West had never even heard of Macau prior to its transition to the People's Republic of China in 1999, but a report from Milton filed two years prior to the event suggests that this paucity of awareness and lack of financial success was the fault of the British themselves. For example, Milton observes that, "Ever since Portuguese mariners landed on this tropical peninsula in the South China Sea some 400 years ago, Macau has struggled -- and failed -- to make its fortune. And whose fault is that? Yours and mine, I'm afraid. No sooner had the place begun to make money than the Brits pitched up (along with several dozen gunboats) in Hong Kong" (74).

Even the reversion to Chinese control received far less international attention than the transfer of Hong Kong to the Chinese two years earlier. For example, Borton noted that, "In the world's eyes, the turnover ceremony will be low key compared with the festive 1997 gala in which Macao's frenetic neighbor, Hong Kong, reverted from British to Chinese rule. Yet the coming change for Macao will mark a milestone. Once it is complete, no part of Asia will be under European rule for the first time in nearly half a millennium" (15). Likewise, in sharp contrast to enormous success of Hong Kong in becoming a global financial hub, Macau had largely remained mired in the colonial past. In this regard, Milton notes that, "Slowly but surely, Macau sank into the backwater it is today. This is part of its charm, for Macau has been caught in a time warp. As you battle your way through the soup-hot climate, your only problem is to work out which decade you are in" (74). Such comparisons between Macau and Hong Kong were characteristic of the media coverage prior to the transition. For instance, according to Barnett:

The Portuguese established a trading post at Macau as early as the mid-sixteenth century, primarily to facilitate a lucrative trade with Japan. Competition from the Dutch and British in Asia as a whole undermined Portuguese supremacy, and with the establishment of the larger British colony in Hong Kong in 1841, Macau steadily faded far from the trading limelight to become generally acknowledged as a slow-moving place of retreat from the pressures of Hong Kong, and a gambling centre (5).

Notwithstanding these sharp contrasts between Hong Kong and Macau, Chinese officials at the time emphasized that the same "one country, two systems" approach used in the former would be applied to the latter following its reversion to China in 1999. According to Borton, "Like Hong Kong, Macau will become a special administrative region of China, run by locals with a high degree of autonomy for the next 50 years" (15). Despite a number of cautionary warnings that emerged in the Western media prior to the transition, the Chinese government has remained true to its word with respect to the autonomy it promised Macau. For instance, Bridges reports that, "Chinese and Hong Kong leaders argue that it is still 'business as usual' after the handover and, indeed, for most residents of Hong Kong everyday life continues almost exactly as before" (162).

While the official position adopted by the Chinese leadership to the newly returned colony remained firmly in place, Bridges suggests that less discernible processes were at work in reshaping Macau in China's own image but not in a particularly heavy-handed fashion. Apparently recognizing that there was something to be said for the same style of capitalism that had helped fuel Hong Kong's economic success, the Chinese leadership approached the transition carefully, even though they did make some modest efforts to shift the political ideology of the territory. For example, Bridges notes that, "Beneath the surface more subtle changes are at work, not least in the incremental emasculation of the political culture and the growing stress on 'Chineseness.' but, in general, China has taken more of an overtly 'hands-off' approach than some had feared" (163).

This laissez-faire attitude was due in part to the same processes that had kept Macau mired in its colonial past, making the territory less attractive than neighboring Hong Kong for developmental purposes. In this regard, Bridges cites the high crime rate that characterized Macau at the time of transition and adds that, "In general there appears to be little that Macau can do for China's external relations that Hong Kong is not better equipped for. . . . Macau has some potential utility as a link between China and Portuguese-speaking countries or even the broader Latin world but, in reality, for the Chinese it may be little more than a pale replica of Hong Kong" (164). Likewise, Porter suggests that Macau:

. . . was not nurtured, except perhaps in an exclusionary sense, by the economic and political conditions of the region. What set Macau apart from other colonial port cities of Asia, then, was that it belonged neither to the class of numerous small traditional Asian ports that preceded the establishment of Western hegemony nor to the few preeminent Westernized colonial emporia that emerged in the nineteenth century. (4)

On the day prior to the transition to Chinese control, Kurlantzick also cited the high crime rate in Macau as well as its inherent charm as a holdover from the colonial past. In an interview with a local Macanese citizen, "Jorge," this report notes that Macau "is a unique place with the most incredible history in Asia, but it is deteriorating. The economy is bad. We are too dependent on gambling to make money. The streets aren't safe. I hope that China can clean the place up without destroying it" (quoted in Kurlantzick at 1).

Indeed, despite the trepidation that naturally goes hand in hand with such a profound shift in outright ownership, Kurlantzick maintains that many Macanese citizens were not only ready for the transition, they were welcoming it to gain a new lease on their economic lives. In this regard, Kurlantzick reports that, "In the waning years of Portuguese rule, many residents - weary of the colony's dependence on gambling for a living and machine guns to settle disputes - began looking to Beijing for a fresh start" (1). This sentiment was echoed in an interview with Woik Leih, a Macanese shopkeeper, who emphasized, "Portugal cannot help us any longer. They cannot stop the triads [Chinese crime gangs] or do anything about the economy. Only China can change things" (quoted in Kurlantzick at 1).

The need for change, and the Macanese's welcoming attitude toward the reversion to Chinese control, were due in large part to the inordinate reliance on industries that were conducive to criminal activity. For instance, prior to the transition in 1999, Macau's economy was highly reliant on tourism and gambling, with fully 43% of the territory's revenues being generated by these activities (Kurlantzick 1). According to Kurlantzick, "Because Macao's economy is built on betting, an industry that criminal elements can infiltrate easily, many gangs, or triads, have set up operations in the colony. They rob high rollers, provide prostitutes, supply drugs and offer high-interest loans" (1). Similarly, in 1998, Adams described the territory as being "the seedy Portuguese enclave of Macau, a hotbed of intrigue, prostitution, and gambling near Hong Kong" (42).

During the years leading up to the transition in 1999, Chinese gangs had become especially aggressive and prolific and in 1998 alone, there were… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Historiography of East Asia.  (2011, March 28).  Retrieved June 17, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/historiography-east-asia/872957

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