Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations, 1986-1999

Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations, 1986-1999

Editor:         Carmen Amado Mendes

ISBN:            9888139002

Publisher: Hong Kong University Press

Year:          2013



Reviewed by Dr. Moritz Pöllath, History Department, Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany

China has established itself as a global power to be reckoned with in the 21st century. The roots of its current political and economical influence can be found in the 20th century. For China the last century was marked by partial foreign dominance, communist revolution and the gradual emergence of the PRC as a diplomatic force in the Global South in the 1960s and global player in the following decades. Carmen Amado Mendes’ study, based on her dissertation, contributes overlooked and under-researched aspects to the understanding of China’s transformation into a global player by focusing on the settlement of the Macau negotiations from Portugal’s perspective.

Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations 1986-1999 might be considered as a narrow case study of an exotic topic of special interest, but to the reader it opens a window into the historical framework of the negotiations and strategies between Portuguese and Chinese governments throughout the end of the 20th century. In general, the book enriches the research of two important and theoretical themes: In the field of political science the negotiation options between a big power and a small power are thoroughly addressed. Questions of decolonization are elaborated by contributing much needed research on Macau and Portugal’s retreat from empire.

In the case of Portugal’s position via China, a theoretical question thrust itself into the foreground: Can small powers exercise influence in asymmetrical negotiations? The author addresses this question competently throughout the book and uses the British negotiation tactics as a contrast when necessary without leaving her study’s focus on Portugal. The Portuguese imperial possession of Macau had been a curious judicial case from the onset, when Portuguese sailors arrived at the Zhu (Pearl) River estuary in 1513.  From the beginning of the Portuguese trade station in the territory of Macau the European residents paid tribute (foro do chão = ground-rent) to the local Chinese authorities and not the Portuguese king (p.10). This historical background is concisely connected by the author to the negotiations in the 20th century and sets the premises for the ensuing negotiations: By paying tribute Portugal had always been in a subsidiary position towards the Ming dynasty, even though Governor Ferreira do Amaral exploited Peking’s weakness after the Opium War (1839-1842) to expand Portuguese sovereignty over Macau.  The impact of the Cultural Revolution lead to a clarification of this age-old and complex judicial relationship – fittingly described by the author as a “haze of ambiguity” (p. 38). In 1963 Maoists demanded to build a Communist school and after initial refusal by the Portuguese authorities, violent confrontations during the so-called “1, 2, 3” (in Chinese December 3) episode erupted. The Portuguese administration quickly accepted the mainland Chinese demands and the incident showed Portugal’s weakness and consequently its acceptance of Macau as a Chinese territory.

The discussion of the distant and near history of Portuguese-Chinese relations by the author underlines her argument in chapter 2, that Portugal started from a very weak position during the formal negotiations from 1986 to 1987. Mendes argues that Lisbon achieved two concessions from Peking during the negotiations: it set the date of the handover later than the PRC wished for and preserved the respect of Portuguese passports of residents of Macau. In the course of the study both concessions are reduced to a compromise adequate to the power disparity of both actors. On the one hand, Portugal strove to keep Macau until 2007, the 450th anniversary of its presence, but had to settle for 1999, shortly after the retrocession of Hong Kong. This extension had no discernible advantages for Portugal and the citizens of Macau and thereby was overall symbolic. On the other hand, the issue of dual nationality was contested by the Chinese side, which adheres to an ethnic-centric nationality concept. The tension between jus sanguinis (China) and jus solis (Portugal) for ethnic Chinese of Macau with Portuguese passports were resolved by calling the passports “Portuguese travel documents”. This “ambiguous solution” (p.57) allowed Portuguese passports holders to travel outside China, while inside Chinese territory these documents became irrelevant. In contrast to the symbolic two and a half year extension to 1999, this final compromise can be considered as a success for the weaker bargaining power.

The author strengthens her judgment of Portugal’s weak bargaining when she addresses the post-negotiation transition phase from 1987 to 1999. In this phase she picks up her forceful critique of Lisbon’s “poorly prepared diplomats” and “lack of consensual strategy” (p.103). After the joint communiqué in 1985 “there was not a single diplomat fluent in Chinese” or who had a profound knowledge of “Macau’s political background” (p. 104). She rightfully asserts that China controlled the pace and outcome of the negotiations and that another issue important to Lisbon – the protection and use of the Portuguese language in Macau – was lost due to Portuguese neglect in the preparation of these negotiations. Throughout the book Mendes should be applauded for her clear description which issues were influenced largely by the power disparity between Portugal and China and which were lost due to weak diplomacy.

In chapter four the case of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is well made to illustrate how both treaties were left out during the formal negotiations and pushed into the transition phase – consequently the application of these rights depended on the goodwill of the Chinese government and were not assured by a core part of the negotiations. More benign is the author’s judgment on Portugal’s colonial – especially administrative – heritage: Lisbon left Macau with consolidated institutions, a modern administration, a legal framework as well as with enlightened rights and liberties for the Macau people.

In the book the argument is repeatedly picked up, that Macau was not a colony de jure but under de facto foreign occupation. The historical argumentation is sound, yet one would wish for a problematization of the concepts ‘retrocession’ and ‘decolonization’ in the case of Macau. Legally, Macau was considered a retrocession. From the Chinese government view, decolonization would have meant a referendum on self-determination. Neither Hong Kong nor Macau was deemed eligible for self-determination, but the “1,2,3” affair happened during the high tide of decolonization in 1963 and as the author acknowledges with a good comparison to British and French colonialism, Macau was part of Portugal’s retreat from empire. A deeper discussion of this issue would have done merit to the book, which could have provided ample space for such broader theoretical questions than the format of her original dissertation. The discussion of Portugal’s decolonization experience in chapter one is strong and could have served as a fundament to tackle the terminological issues of retrocession. Tellingly, the Macanese had no voice in the negotiations between the two powers: both empires of different kinds. Dominic Alessio makes the case, that the selling, exchanging or leasing of land is one of the most telling signs of imperialism. In his work on Macau he speaks of the “practise of imperial rental” (Alessio 2010) and his insight and research on Monopoly imperialism (Alessio 2013) challenges the simple legal terms and can lead to a broader and deeper discussion of the Macau negotiations between China and Portugal from an imperial perspective.

Macau was a place of “shared sovereignty” (p.7) and of Chinese-Portuguese cultural crossings, yet the voice of the affected is pushed into the background. While the focus on the negotiations on an international level is appreciated and well researched, the inclusion of local Macanese voices could have elucidated whether or not local residents saw clear benefits in exchanging their hybrid juridical situation for economic opportunities under Chinese rule? How strong was the push for reunification on the side of the ethnic Chinese in Macau? With historical distance, the study could have given precious insights into the discussion whether or not retrocession or decolonization is the fitting concept for this unique historical event.

Mendes has delivered a well written international history on the grounds of a case study of asymmetrical bargaining between Portugal and China. The study can be read as a manual for small powers in their dealings with China and indirectly supports the approach of the EU to negotiate as a trade block with global players and trade or custom blocks in order to be in a stronger bargaining position. Portugal’s weakness was obvious from the start and the author convincingly argues that a singular policy decisions (Acta Secreta 1978) before the start of the formal negotiations forfeited leeway later on. The study furthermore delivers insights into Chinese negotiating habits and depicts Chinese diplomacy as very astute and with a very long perspective. Current policy scholars, diplomats and politician might use the book as a guideline to understand how Peking acts in less contested issues and to extrapolate possible behavior in more tense issues (Taiwan/North Korea/South China Sea).

At the end of the study, Mendes addresses the importance of dignity in international negotiations. Peking’s diplomacy was molded by the impact of the Hong Kong and Macau negotiations on possible future talks over Taiwan: China wanted to be seen as a peaceful actor who acquires ‘lost’ territory without force.  As a consequence, respecting Portugal’s dignity excluded humiliation or the forceful takeover by the stronger side (p. 108). Mendes’ research thereby adds to a more constructivist view of international relations without neglecting the realistic determiners of power and geography and China scholars, decolonization historians and international relations theorist are well advised to consult Mendes’ book. Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations 1986-1999 delivers a concise international history with a sound and deep discussion of negotiation tactics which have not only shaped Portugal’s history but also the developing foreign policy of China in the late 20th century.

Works consulted:

Alessio, Dominic, “‘Monopoly Imperialism’: How Empires Can be Bought and Leased”, Social Europe Journal, http://www.social-europe.eu/2010/05/monopoly-imperialism-how-empires-can-be-bought-and-leased, May 21, 2010.

Alessio, Dominc, “‘…territorial acquisitions are among the landmarks of our history’: the buying and leasing of imperial territory”, Global Discourse, 3, I (2013), pp 74-96.


Suggested Citation:

Dr. Moritz Pöllath (2017), Review of “Portugal, China and the Macau Negotiations, 1986-1999”, Carmen Amado Mendes (ed.), East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 10, no. 1.