Asia's casino capital: Macau in 5 points

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 17 2019 04:12 PM

The number '20' is projected on ruins of St. Paul's during a light show ahead of the 20th anniversary of the former Portuguese enclave's handover to Chinese rule, in Macau. Reuters stringer

MACAU -- The former Portuguese colony of Macau on Friday marks the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule under the "one country, two systems" principle also in place in Hong Kong.

Here are five things to know about the small semi-autonomous territory, Asia's most famous gambling hub.

1. Long-time Europe trading post

The fishing port became the first European trading post in Asia in 1557 when a Chinese governor agreed to lease it to Portugal in reward for fighting piracy.

For the next three centuries it was the main point of passage for goods between China and the West, only surpassed in 1841 when nearby Hong Kong came under British control.

A Roman Catholic diocese was created in 1576 and Macau became a base for Catholic missions in China and beyond. Portuguese Jesuits set up Asia's first European university there in 1594.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the colony was an exit point for communist China's exports, notably of gold.

2. 'One country, two systems'

After leftist riots in 1966, Portugal offered to hand Macau back to communist China but was rebuffed.

Nonetheless, in negotiations that started in 1986, Portugal agreed in 1987 to hand Macau back to China on December 20, 1999.

In terms of the deal, Macau would have the status of a "Special Administrative Region" and be exempted from China's communist system for at least 50 years.

Macau's 1993 Basic Law, its mini-constitution drawn up by Beijing, allows it to maintain a capitalist Western system until at least 2049 and a high degree of autonomy.

3. 1999 return to China

At midnight on December 20, 1999, the Chinese flag was hoisted in Macau as Portugal ended 442 years of rule. It was the only remaining colony of the Portuguese Empire and Europe's last in Asia.

Roughly 500 troops rolled in, welcomed by Macau's Chinese inhabitants, who make up 98 percent of the population, waving flags and flowers.

Beijing used the handover to reiterate calls to Taiwan to also reunify with the mainland following their 1949 split.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 but also remains semi-autonomous.

4. Bigger than Vegas

While gambling is banned in China, it has been legal in Macau since 1844 and Chinese visitors pour across the border to try their luck in around 40 glitzy casinos.

From January to October 2019, it had more than 33.4 million visitors, the vast majority from mainland China. This compares with its resident population of 631,000 people, living on 29 square kilometres.

The city depends almost entirely on gaming revenue, raking in more in a single week than Las Vegas makes in a month.

After an anti-corruption campaign launched in 2014 by Beijing, authorities are trying to wean the city off the gambling industry and are pushing family-oriented tourism.

But the sector still accounts for 80 percent of government revenue. 

5. Unique heritage

Despite its plethora of modern hotels and casinos, glimpses of Macau's roots remain in its UNESCO-listed historic center of baroque facades, ancient Chinese temples and the ruins of St Paul's cathedral -- and also in its famous Portuguese egg tarts. Portuguese is its second official language.

The territory has the highest population density in the world. It is also amongst the richest places, although eight to 10 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, according to the Caritas relief group.

Situated on the Pearl River Estuary, it has since 2018 been linked to Hong Kong and Zhuhai by a 55-kilometer bridge. 

© Agence France-Presse