You are here

Mendes, Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations, 1986-1999 (August 27, 2013)

This review of Carmen Amado Mendes's book was written by Zhidong Hao of the University of Macau for H-Diplo.

June 10, 2014

Carmen Amado Mendes.  Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations, 1986-1999.  Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies Series. Hong Kong University Press, 2013.  $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-988-8139-00-2.

Who Won and Who Lost Reconsidered                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Almost fifteen years have passed since the return of Macau to the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the establishment of the Macau Special Administrative Region (MSAR) in 1999. It is indeed a good time to assess who won and who lost in the Portugal-China negotiations on Macau, based on what happened during the negotiations in 1986 and 1987, in the transition period between 1988 and 1999, but especially in the fifteen years after 1999. Carmen Amado Mendes's Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations provides an excellent starting point. In the book, Mendes presents the nuances of the "Macau question," issues on the negotiation table, the strategies of the Portuguese and the Chinese negotiators, and an evaluation of those strategies. Considering the scarcity of literature on the Sino-Portuguese negotiations, this book makes a valuable contribution to the field.

Mendes argues that Portuguese negotiators won some important concessions from China, and that a weaker power, in this case Portugal, can sometimes beat a stronger power, in this case China.This is indeed true. As sociological theories would say, although hard power is always an important factor in determining the outcome of a relationship, social interaction can often change the dynamics of that relationship. The two sides exploited each other's weaknesses for their own benefits, the author notes. Both sides wanted to save face: Portugal did not want to repeat the humiliation it suffered in the decolonization processes in Africa and East Timor, and China wanted desperately to reunite with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau so that it could show the world its revival from 150 years of humiliation in the hands of Western powers. These former colonies were constant reminders of that humiliation. So they treated each other carefully and made necessary compromises, resulting in what seemed to be a largely harmonious negotiation process, Mendes states.

Indeed, both governments seemed to have saved face. They reached a compromise over the date of retrocession. It was going to be neither what Portugal had wanted, 2007, the 450th anniversary of the Portuguese settlement in Macau, nor what China had wanted, 1997, the time Hong Kong was to be returned to China. They settled on 1999.

Portugal wanted dual nationality for the Chinese who held Portuguese passports (eighty thousand altogether, according to Mendes [p. 50]), but China would not recognize dual nationality. They settled on China treating Portuguese passports held by Chinese citizens as travel documents, virtually acknowledging dual nationality, although these Chinese citizens cannot seek consulate protection in China. (Mendes notes that this was a better deal than what the British got for the Chinese in Hong Kong who held British passports: they would not have the right of entry and abode in the United Kingdom.) These are indeed good examples of successful negotiations. The building of an international airport is also an example of success. China lost, however, on the issue of the operation of the Orient Foundation: the MSAR government still could not control what was supposed to be public money.

I am not going to focus on these issues in this review. Rather, I am going to discuss the issues that appeared to have been successfully negotiated but turned out to be poorly implemented, both in the transition period and after 1999, leading to what we observe today as less than satisfactory results. These issues are tied to the localization of civil services in Macau, the use of the Chinese language in government documents, and the localization of the Macau law. In addition, neither side was keen on democratization in Macau.Mendes brings up these issues as they were discussed at the negotiation table, but her focus is on the transition period, as the title of her book indicates, and not on the post-1999 era.

Current problems related to these issues can arguably be viewed as a result of the shortcomings in the negotiations, which Mendes mentions but does not elaborate. Both the Portuguese and Chinese governments need to bear responsibilities. An evaluation of these issues may balance what seem to be successful negotiations between the Portuguese and the Chinese. Who wins and who loses in the long run may be even more important when assessing the success and failure of the Sino-Portuguese negotiations. And it seems that both governments won by large margins but the people in Macau lost to a greater degree. This is what I will discuss as a complement to Mendes's analysis of both the negotiations on the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration and the negotiations in the following twelve-year transition period.

First, the Joint Declaration said that civil service would be localized, but it did not say how. This caused problems for the Joint Liaison Group (JLG), which was entrusted with the task of smoothing the transition from 1987 to 1999. The Chinese part of the JLG thought it meant that the "Chinese should occupy 97 percent of middle and high-ranking positions in the future administration," reflecting the composition of the population, while the Portuguese thought that "local staff promotion should be based upon qualification" (p. 76) To the dissatisfaction of the Chinese, the Portuguese dragged their feet, made few efforts to localize the civil service personnel, and provided few openings to local Chinese or Macanese (the offspring of Portuguese and Chinese/other Asian mixed heritages).

As a result, by March 1999, out of 102 undersecretary level officials, 65 percent had less than two years of leadership experience because they were only recently promoted.[1] This was already close to the date of the handover, December 20, 1999 (see also Mendes, p. 113). In the fifteen years after the handover, the Macau Chinese and Macanese (mostly Chinese) government officials stumbled in their governance of Macau and made one mistake after another. Even today, the citizens in Macau are suffering from the inexperience of the civil service personnel. Edmond Ho, the previous chief executive of Macau, once commented that the Macau Chinese were just like children learning to do what adults do.[2] It seems to still be the case today, fifteen years after the handover.

But this kind of suffering could have been shortened if the Portuguese government had started the localization of civil service earlier and with more serious efforts or if the Chinese government had pushed harder. While the Portuguese and Chinese governments maintained a harmonious relationship and the negotiation was a win-win, in the end, the Macau citizens lost: they have lost many years of possibly good governance. This is, of course, not the only reason for poor governance, as I show below.

Second, the Joint Declaration said that other than Chinese, Portuguese may also be used in the MSAR, as Mendes notes. Although the wording is a bit vague, both languages are recognized as official. Since all official documents were in Portuguese, the transition period witnessed an onerous task of translating them into Chinese so that Chinese officials, most of who could not read, write, or speak Portuguese, could take over government affairs. But to translate all of them was a mission impossible in the ten-year transition period.

And the Portuguese Macau government was not in a hurry to do it, either. As Almeida e Costa, the governor at the time, publicly declared, the government was not in a hurry to localize the Chinese language under emotional influences.[3] What happened later was that the Portuguese Macau government was more keen on promoting the Portuguese language than on the localization of the Chinese language because they knew that once the Chinese took over after 1999, even fewer people would use Portuguese. To preserve Portuguese culture, it was better that they spent more efforts on the latter than the former, although it still turned out to be a failed cause.

At any rate, by 1999, many government documents were still in Portuguese. Even after the handover, many government documents are in Chinese but with Portuguese linguistic characteristics. In many cases, the Chinese in legal documents is beyond understanding, and the practitioners of law have to resort to the original Portuguese documents to understand the law accurately. Neither the Portuguese Macau government before the handover nor the Chinese Macau government after the handover was serious enough in localizing the Chinese language.

The Portuguese and Chinese negotiators and the JLG could have done a better job in this regard. But to maintain a harmonious relationship and to focus on what they believed to be more important issues, like saving each other's face, as Mendes illustrates, were probably their priorities rather than such down-to-earth issues as the use of language and the training of civil servants. The latter would affect only ordinary people's lives, not their lives. Although the Sino-Portuguese negotiations might be viewed as successful, local Chinese people did not win in the end.

Third, the same problem emerged with localization of the law, which is related to localization of the Chinese language. Neither the Portuguese nor the Chinese perceived any urgency in localizing the law. As Mendes points out, the Joint Declaration stipulates that "the laws, decrees, administrative regulations and other normative acts previously in force in Macau shall be maintained save for whatever therein may contravene the Basic Law or subject to any amendment" by the MSAR legislature (p. 81). The Portuguese perceived this as a reason not to localize the law, believing that it would not need to be changed for fifty years after the handover, as mentioned by Mendes. This thinking was inherited by the MSAR government, and the consequence is serious.

In fact, localization of the law involves not only the translation of various legal codes, but also the use of the Chinese language and the Chinese legal personnel to handle legal cases in Chinese (the Portuguese and Macanese usually cannot read Chinese). Since over 90 percent of the population is Chinese, one could probably assume that a similar number of cases would involve Chinese-speaking people. The almost impossible task of translating government documents includes legal documents. The Portuguese Macau government did some work in translation, but it was far from enough.

The new MSAR government did not do any better in this regard. Neither did they do much to localize the legal personnel. According to one account, by 1999, out of 43 judges in Macau, only 22 were local.[4] By 2013, out of 46 judges, 24 percent or 11 of them were Portuguese or Macanese, indicating some improvement. But the percentage of Portuguese and Macanese lawyers was still very high: out of 272 registered lawyers in Macau, 76.4 percent were Portuguese/Macanese.[5] Apparently the Portuguese/Macanese continue to dominate the legal field fifteen years after the handover. It would be very difficult for anyone whose first language is not Portuguese to join the profession since all legal documents are written in Portuguese. Even if there are translations, they are not reliable, as I mention above.

As a result, the judicial process has been painfully slow. As Ho Chio Meng, the prosecutor general, has pointed out, legislative delays, such as the amendments of the penal code, are already hurting Macau's economic and social development.[6] Chan Chak Mo, a legislator, also noted that since most people involved in lawsuits are Chinese, there is no reason why judges have to be fluent in both Chinese and Portuguese. It is especially unnecessary for lawyer candidates to write their exam papers in Chinese and then have somebody translate them into Portuguese so that Portuguese lawyers can read them.[7] Apparently only Portuguese lawyers have the right to read these papers. This is _de facto_ monolingualism rather than bilingualism as stipulated by both the Joint Declaration and the Macau Basic Law.

Apparently neither the Portuguese government nor the Chinese and Chinese Macau government was conscientious about the interests of local people, especially the local Chinese people when they worked on the so-called localization of the legal field. This can partly be seen in Mendes's book. As on the two previous issues, it seems that both governments win by large margins, while people often lose big.
This is apparently determined by the political structure that the Portuguese and Chinese put in place before the handover, our final topic of analysis.

Fourth, neither the Joint Declaration nor the JLG worked on further democratization of the political system, as seen in Mendes's book. In fact, they were resistant to any further progress on the issue. This exacerbates the problems discussed above about the governing ability of the MSAR and the deplorable language and judicial problems.

The Portuguese thought that they had a much more progressive Joint Declaration than what Hong Kong obtained since the political system had been maintained, a system that included partial elections of the legislature, which Hong Kong did not have, as Mendes shows. But the fact is that Hong Kongers were able to make sure that universal suffrage was written in the Hong Kong Basic Law. The same was not true in Macau! Both declarations use the same language about the future of the chief executive and the legislature, i.e., elections, although they do not say what kind elections, direct by the populace or indirect by a group of people. But Hong Kongers were able to make it written in the Basic Law that universal suffrage would be realized in 2017 and onward. This is not the case in the Macau Basic Law.

This is consistent with the Portuguese and Chinese governments'
historical resistance to democratization in Macau. Back in 1980, some Macanese legislators made an effort to amend the Macau Organic Law to allow direct elections of legislators. But any change was resisted by both the Portuguese and Chinese governments, represented by Melo Egidio, the Macau governor at the time, and Portuguese President Ramalo Eanes on the Portuguese part, and Guangdong Governor Xi Zhongxun and the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping on the Chinese part.[8] The same collaboration continued in the 1990s as Mendes points out. When the Macau Basic Law was drafted, liberals like Ng Kuok Cheong and Au Kam Sun were excluded from the drafting committee.
In comparison, the Hong Kong Basic Law drafting committee was much more representative of the spectrum of the political opinions of Hong Kongers, who were, in general, much more active in striving for democratization with the support of the leaving British Hong Kong government.

All in all, rather than arguing that the Portuguese government could get more benefits out of the negotiations if they were more united and experienced, as Mendes does, I would say that they largely got what they wanted. She thinks that the internal politics between the president and the premier and the lack of experienced diplomats on Macau affairs hindered them from obtaining better results. But she is not clear as to what more they could have gotten. In fact, as a colonial power that declined a long time ago and decades after worldwide decolonization movements, there were not many bargaining chips on the Portuguese part, morally or realistically. What they got was already laudable. The Chinese government got what they wanted, too. It was the local people who lost big, as I analyze above, judging from the consequences we have seen in the past fifteen years.

The cover picture of the book shows a scene of the Joint Declaration signing ceremony. The then Premier Zhao Ziyang, who was put into house arrest because of his resistance to crack down on the student democracy movement in 1989, was the signer of the declaration on the Chinese part. But he is not in the picture. This is symbolic of who won and who lost in the Portugal-China negotiations. Without political reform, it is hard to imagine that the government could improve its efficiency while practicing fairness, and that the localization of the Chinese language and legal personnel can be truly realized any time soon. That is, I believe, a result of the shortcomings of the Sino-Portuguese negotiations in spite of the few successes I mention above.


[1]. Jixiu Guo, _Dangdai Aomen Toushi _(A study of contemporary
Macau) (Macau: Jiuding Journal Press, 2009), 135.

[2]. Zhidong Hao, _Liang'an Sidi Zhengzhi yu Shehui Fenxi_ (An analysis of politics and society in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) (Macau: University of Macau, forthcoming 2014).

[3]. Guo, _Dangdai Aomen Toushi_, 146-147.

[4]. _Ibid_., 144.

[5]. Zhidong Hao, "Social Stratification and Ethnic and Class Politics in Macau before and after the Handover in 1999," _China: An International Journal_ (forthcoming 2014).

[6]. _Ibid._

[7]. _Ibid._

[8]. Shiu Hing Lo, _Political Development in Macau (_Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1995), 32-33.