MACAO — Ending 442 years under Portuguese rule, this pocket-size territory reverted to Chinese sovereignty today, the last European holding to return to local control after half a millennium of Western colonization in Asia.
Just before midnight Sunday, the Portuguese flag was lowered for a final time here, and at the stroke of 12, China formally took the reins in Macao, an 8 1/2-square-mile enclave comprising a peninsula, two tiny islands and a population of 430,000.
For Beijing, the penultimate piece had fallen into place in the jigsaw puzzle it considers China's rightful territory--a process that began with the return of Hong Kong 2 1/2 years ago--leaving only Taiwan to complete the picture.
"This marks a significant progress made by the Chinese people in accomplishing the great task of national reunification," declared Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the hand-over ceremony, moments after the five-starred Communist Chinese flag and Macao's new colors were hoisted up the flagpole. " . . . The Chinese government and people are confident and capable of an early settlement of the Taiwan question and complete national reunification."
Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, who came here for the festivities, pledged that his country will remain committed to Macao's future and "the conviction that here too, democracy and freedom are an irreplaceable reality."
The two leaders cordially shook hands several times before an audience that included snappy military honor guards and top officials from both nations, assembled inside a cavernous waterfront auditorium built for the ceremony. Spectators included Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and the elderly widow of China's late "paramount leader," Deng Xiaoping.
Meanwhile, the rain clouds that had threatened to mar the day's events did not burst--to the relief of the Macao government, which had spent $38 million rolling out 25,000 square yards of red carpet, hosting an estimated 3,000 journalists and throwing a lavish banquet for 2,500 dignitaries.
In contrast to the acrimony that attended the hand-over of Hong Kong, the events here were marked mostly by a smooth and congratulatory tone out of Lisbon and Beijing, which have been preparing for the transfer for more than a decade.
The only major disagreement centered on China's decision to station People's Liberation Army soldiers here immediately after the hand-over, breaking an original accord. In the end, Beijing said the troops would roll in later today, after the departure of the Portuguese governor and president in the wee hours of the morning.
But if it was without the rancor, Macao's hand-over also did not carry as much weight and significance as Hong Kong's return in July 1997. Macao's importance as a financial and commercial hub has been eclipsed in modern times by its more prosperous neighbor.
Indeed, in the mid-1970s, Lisbon tried to give Macao back to Beijing as Portugal divested itself of all its colonies. But China, caught up in the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, deferred the idea.
This densely packed city is now seen mostly as a somewhat sleazy gambling mecca, where elegant Mediterranean buildings sit next to 10 neon-lighted, prostitute-ridden casinos, which rake in half the government's tax revenue.
On the Chinese mainland, festivities in the days preceding the hand-over were low-key compared with those welcoming Hong Kong back to the fold. Then, flags and banners festooned nearly every building for weeks, proclaiming the end of the national "shame" China suffered when Britain took Hong Kong as booty from the first Opium War in the 19th century.
This time, the political triumphalism was more muted. State media focused on celebration preparations, such as a commemorative picture made out of 14,000 fish bones by a Chinese retiree.
In Beijing, about 30,000 handpicked revelers and performers packed Tiananmen Square for the countdown to midnight, braving below-freezing temperatures to watch the seconds tick away on a huge digital clock.
"When we were younger, we just looked at Macao as a colonial outpost of foreigners. We weren't happy about it, but at that time China was poor and backward and incapable of taking it back," said He Zilian, 52, a bureaucrat. "Today, after 20 years of reform, the nation's spine is stiffer."
Security in the square was tight, just as it was in Macao, where police worked overtime to make sure nothing or no one disrupted the hand-over, from adherents of the mystical Falun Gong sect, who threatened to protest the ban on their group on the mainland, to the "triad" gangs that plague Macao and its casinos. Several dozen Falun Gong followers were detained here Sunday afternoon.
More than 90% of Macao's residents are ethnic Chinese, up to half of them immigrants who arrived from the mainland within the past 20 years. Accordingly, many here welcome the return to Chinese sovereignty. The Portuguese, they say, did too little too late to help the native population.