On this day in 1999, Portugal returned Macau back to the People’s Republic of China, ending 442 years of formal Portuguese rule over that colony (1557 – 1999). Macau was the last and last European colony on the Asian continent.
In the mid-16th century, during Portugal’s golden age of empire and commerce, Portugal sought a port to conduct trade in Asia and China. With the permission of the Ming Dynasty government officials, Portugal established a trading base on the southeastern coast of China in 1557 on Macau, near the city of Canton (known today as Guangzhou), paying an annual rental fee of 20 kilograms of silver. Though the Portuguese were paying rent on Macau, at this point in time Portugal did not hold sovereignty over Macau, as the territory had not been officially handed over to Portugal, but rather, rented. It was not until 1887 that the Chinese and Portuguese governments signed the “Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Amity and Commerce”, which gave Portugal the right to occupy Portugal in perpetuity.
After the downfall of the Estado Novo and Antonio Salazar’s fascist government in 1974, Portugal proceeded to relinquish its overseas possessions, including Macau. In 1987, an agreement was signed between the Chinese and Portuguese governments to return Macau back to China. Similar to the agreement in 1984 concerning the British handover of Hong Kong back to China, Macau was to be handed over to China on December 20th, 1999 as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR for short).
As an SAR, Macau is permitted to retain its institutions and system of governance that it had under Portuguese rule for fifty years after the handover (from 1999 to 2049). As a consequence, tremendous differences exist between Macau and China today. Portuguese remains an official language of Macau, has its own parliamentary system (democracy exists in Macau), a legal system based upon Portuguese law, and its own currency (the Macanese pataca). China retains sovereignty over Macau however, as China is in charge of Macau’s foreign affairs and its defense. Today, Macau is often known as the “Las Vegas of the Far East”, with its many casinos attracting visitors from nearby Hong Kong, Mainland China, and other parts of Asia.