Portugal Offers Citizenship to Many in Last Colonial Outpost : Macao, a ‘Poor Relation,’ Draws Envy of Hong Kong

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Since the Chinese government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing last month, Hong Kong’s nearly 6 million residents have cast a jealous gaze at Macao, long considered the British colony’s poor relation across the Pearl River estuary.

Seated at his desk at the Macao government hotel school, Alexandre Ho pondered the thin green booklet that is the cause for Hong Kong’s envy: a Portuguese passport.

“Macao is more controlled than Hong Kong--we’re still not so outspoken, and we’re not so protected. But we do have these passports,” said Ho, who is also a liberal legislator.


Unlike London, which so far has adamantly refused to confer residency rights on the 3.3 million British passport holders in Hong Kong, Lisbon offered a passport, with full citizenship rights, to anyone born before 1981 in Macao, which is Portugal’s last overseas territory.

Thus, when Macao reverts to Chinese rule in 1999, two years after Hong Kong, 100,000 Portuguese passport holders--about 20% of the population--will be able to emigrate to Portugal.

And in an ironic twist that infuriates Hong Kong residents, Macao Chinese who hold Portuguese passports will have the right to live in Britain after the unification of Europe in 1992, while Hong Kong’s British passport holders will not.

Logic suggests that Macao, with sought-after European passports already in hand, should be contemplating the handover to China with far more assurance than the jittery British colony. But Macao is uncertain too, although most observers agree that its problems are more economic than political.

“People feel there is just no future for their children,” said Domingos Lam, the Roman Catholic bishop of Macao, who noted regretfully that he must now personally care for his ancestors’ cemetery plots because all of his relatives have moved to the United States and Canada.

“Now, everybody wants to run,” Lam said. “They find better opportunities elsewhere.”

Linked to Hong Kong

Another reason for pessimism in Macao is the territory’s almost total dependence on Hong Kong. Macao still has neither a deep-water port nor an airport and must rely on Hong Kong, 40 miles away by hydrofoil launch.


Any serious upheaval in Hong Kong after it reverts in 1997 will be felt immediately in Macao. For example, 50% of Macao’s government revenues come from taxes paid by casinos there, which are patronized almost exclusively by Hong Kong Chinese.

Officials of the Portuguese administration acknowledge that granting passports to 100,000 of the territory’s population of 500,000 was a move not easily matched by the British because of the much larger numbers in Hong Kong.

Indeed, the Portuguese have an insurance policy of their own--less than 1% of the Chinese population in Macao speaks Portuguese, suggesting that very few of the Portuguese passport holders will ever end up in Lisbon, while many Hong Kong Chinese feel comfortable in an English culture.

“The expectation is that the majority wouldn’t go to Portugal,” said Paulo Reis, head of the government information service. “The traditional route of emigration is to Australia, the United States and Canada. There is no clear indication this tradition will change.”

Although Hong Kong and Macao are relatively close geographically and had similar histories founded on trade with China, the two territories could hardly be more dissimilar.

Hong Kong frequently reminds visitors of Manhattan, not only for its mirrored-glass skyscraper canyons but also for the enormous energy and entrepreneurial drive that animates the people.


But Macao, squeezed into a mere six square kilometers, has the sleepy quality of a Mediterranean outpost. While an increasing number of modern office towers fill the horizon, the porticoed buildings and tree-lined avenues still recall the Iberian peninsula more than Asia, and the pace is lethargic compared to Hong Kong everywhere except in the casinos.

A Jewel in the Crown

Founded as a colony more than 400 years ago, Macao soon became a jewel in the crown of Portugal’s overseas territories. It held onto a position of prosperity until after World War II, when it began a steady decline in comparison with Hong Kong.

Since the 1974 revolution in Portugal, Lisbon has tried at least twice to hand Macao back to China, but Beijing refused, apparently to avoid upsetting Hong Kong. But with the handover now fixed in 1999, the Portuguese have introduced more innovations than the passports: Macao now has some elected legislators, while all of Hong Kong’s government is still appointed.

Nonetheless, the Portuguese administration seems far more colonial: All of Macao’s judges are Portuguese who speak no Chinese, for example, and there is not a single Chinese lawyer in the territory. The government is trying to translate Portuguese law into Chinese, but there are only two translators available who are up to the task.

Unlike Hong Kong, which has a substantial number of Chinese civil servants, virtually all senior officials in Macao are Portuguese or mixed-race Macanese, who have Portuguese nationality and are widely expected to leave by 1999. The administration has belatedly established scholarships in Lisbon for Chinese students to study Portuguese and the law, but virtually everyone concedes that the handover of the administration here in 1999 faces far greater hurdles than Hong Kong does in 1997.

Among the casualties of the June 3-4 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square, meanwhile, was a recent surge in contacts between Macao and Taiwan, which had been broken off in the 1960s after street demonstrations nearly toppled Macao’s government.


Because of visa regulations and the high cost of living in Hong Kong, Taiwanese often preferred to travel to China via Macao. But since the crackdown, Taiwanese interest has been largely frozen.

“Before the crisis, Taiwan people were very optimistic,” said Vitor Ng, president of Macao’s Assn. of Exporters. “Now their intentions aren’t clear. Business is off 20-25%.” Nonetheless, one high-profile Taiwanese project that is apparently going forward is a $300-million horse racing facility that could eventually contribute 30% of the country’s GNP.

One major difference with Hong Kong is that the reach of China is far more potent here than in the British colony. Virtually all Macanese trade unions are closely linked with Beijing, and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce functions almost like a government.

In elections last year, Macanese voters elected three anti-Chinese establishment candidates to the legislature out of six seats being contested. Pro-Beijing candidates are still in the majority because of appointments, but the vote was a a strong protest against Beijing’s wide influence here.

After the June massacre in Beijing, four major street demonstrations against the Chinese government took place in Macao, but legislator Ho said most participants appeared to be longtime residents--meaning those with Portuguese passports who could escape if necessary.

“We have nothing, only a few casinos,” Ho said. “Without them, we are very fragile. Right now, we’re better off than in Portugal or Europe. But who knows whether it will stay that way?”