Published: 09:50, July 1, 2023 | Updated: 16:45, July 1, 2023
Hong Kong, Macao: A tale of two SARs
By Grenville Cross

Whereas, after the First Opium War, the United Kingdom forced China to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, thereby acquiring Hong Kong Island "in perpetuity", China's dealings with another European power, Portugal, began far earlier, in the 16th century.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) first recognized Macao as a Portuguese trading outpost in 1557 (with some Portuguese having already settled there), and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) formalized Portugal's occupation rights over Macao by the Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking in 1887.

Although China regarded both the Nanking and Peking treaties as "unequal", given they were entered involuntarily, successive governments nonetheless respected them. Even when in a position to do so, China did not rip them up, as was its right, and this reflected not only its pragmatism but also its commitment to the comity of nations.

When China, after negotiations with Portugal, resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Macao in 1999, it had been dealing with Portugal for approximately 450 years, and the two countries continue to work harmoniously together in the best interests of Macao.

The Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration was signed in 1987, and it guaranteed that Macao's capitalist system and way of life would, as in Hong Kong, endure for 50 years. The handover itself was both a civilized and happy occasion, with both sides invested in Macao's future well-being.

Since reunification, Beijing has cherished Macao, and has used it to reach out to the Lusophone world. On June 27, for example, at an event in Macao dedicated to promoting economic and trade cooperation between Macao, Zhejiang province and the Portuguese-speaking countries, an agreement was signed between Macao and Zhejiang to create a space for Lusophone countries within the world's largest wholesale trade center for small products.

The plan includes the creation of the "Pavilion of Portuguese-speaking Countries and Regions and Macao" at the Global Trade Center, in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. Yiwu not only houses almost 2 million different types of products in over 75,000 stores, but is also the starting point for rail connections that transport goods from China to eastern and central Europe.

The Zhejiang Chinese Communist Party secretary, Yi Lianhong, said the province intended to attract companies from Portuguese-speaking markets, and he highlighted as cooperative areas the maritime economy, biomedicine, air transport, scientific research and professional training. This is significant, as Zhejiang has China's fourth-largest economy, and Yi said the province plans to "use Macao's platform to strengthen cooperation with Latin America and Europe".

Initiatives of this type are actively encouraged by Portugal, which bodes well for its future partnering with China. On Feb 17, for example, its new consul general in Macao, Alexandre Leitao, said "China should make better use of Portugal's unique links with other Portuguese-speaking countries, using Macao as a platform, to foster partnerships with those countries."

For its part, Portugal sees Macao as its base for closer involvement in China's development. As Leitao explained, "We want to intensify traditional economic relations", and he highlighted the importance of seizing the opportunities available "in a country with an economy as strong and dynamic as that of China, particularly in the Greater Bay Area". He also emphasized the importance of developing the Guangdong-Macao In-depth Cooperation Zone in Hengqin, including the ease of cross-boundary travel and complementary legal systems.

In front of the ruins of St. Paul's Church in downtown Macao, there is an iconic statue. It depicts a young Chinese girl handing a lotus flower (Macao's symbol) to a young Portuguese boy, framed by a tilted loop with a crane flying overhead. It symbolizes China-Portugal friendship, and is one of several monuments around Macao related to the reunification and which testify to the cordial relations between the two countries.

Such statues, unfortunately, are unimaginable in Hong Kong, whose last governor, Chris Patten, poisoned Sino-British relations with his grandstanding and harebrained schemes for democratic change. He was prepared to imperil the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, no matter the consequences for Hong Kong's people or for harmonious relations between the two countries. Just as Patten's predecessors had shown contempt for China in 1842, when the UK seized Hong Kong from it by force, so was he contemptuous of China's feelings as Britain prepared to return Hong Kong, and the wounds he inflicted upon the relationship have yet to heal fully.

While, however, Patten was upsetting the apple cart in Hong Kong, his counterpart in Macao, General Vasco Rocha Vieira, was ensuring a harmonious transition. He understood China's sensibilities and was committed to honoring the Joint Declaration, and both countries greatly appreciated his steady hand at a crucial juncture. Whenever he has visited China since 1999, he has been welcomed, and, on his latest visit, in March, he was warmly received by the chief executive, Ho Iat-seng.

On March 27, after receiving an honorary degree from the Macao University of Science and Technology, Rocha Vieira said that "historical good relations" with China were an "asset for Portugal". He explained that the history of Macao had given Portugal "a privileged knowledge" of China, and could help Lisbon to "give opinions and advise "the European Union on its relationship with Beijing. He described China as "a superpower in the making", while Portugal, in an unstable world, was able to "contribute to respect, progress and peace".

Hearing this, Patten must have envied Rocha Vieira, a governor who knew exactly how to deal with China and understood the right way of doing things. Whereas Patten was always out of his depth, Rocha Vieira played his role to perfection, and his country has benefited accordingly. This, together with his constructive contributions since 1999, explains why Rocha Vieira is now revered in China, while Patten is reviled.

As Rocha Vieira indicated, if anybody in Europe understands China, it is Portugal, based on six centuries of constructive (albeit sometimes fractious) engagement. Whereas, since the return of Hong Kong and Macao, the UK has chosen to follow the anti-China stances of the US and its Five Eyes partners, Portugal has insisted on maintaining its national dignity. It has neither indulged in mindless provocations of China nor tested its red lines, and while being as supportive of Macao as possible, it has made balanced judgments over China's increasingly important role in world affairs.

In 2019-20, by contrast, the UK, under its then-prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his inept foreign secretaries, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss, failed to support Hong Kong in its hour of need, as the city was beset by black-clad violence. This was unforgivable. When insurrectionists tried to wreck the "one country, two systems" policy and split the country, Johnson was found wanting. Once China acted to save Hong Kong, he chose not only to back the US, as it canceled the city's trade preferences, tried to destroy its financial markets, and sanctioned its officials, but also imposed hostile measures of his own, detrimental to Hong Kong and its people.

Portugal, however, has always remained true to Macao, and would never abandon it like that when it needed its support.

Thus, when, on March 23, the US condemned Macao for what it called "serious restrictions on journalists' freedom to conduct newsgathering; substantial interference with the right of peaceful assembly; the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections", Portugal refused to play along.

The UK, moreover, produces negative six-monthly reports on Hong Kong, invariably lacking objectivity. They contain wild and baseless criticisms designed to further the US policy of trying to embarrass China by diminishing Hong Kong. Such squalid posturing is, fortunately, anathema to Lisbon, which believes that truthful analyses and quiet diplomacy always trump mindless provocations.

Indeed, on June 23, Portugal's prime minister, Antonio Costa, confirmed that, almost 24 years after the reunification, China was respecting the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration of 1987. He told the Lisbon Parliament that "as long as China respects, we will respect China on the same terms that China respects Portugal and the agreement it established with Portugal". Whereas the UK sees an advantage in gratifying the US and maligning Hong Kong, Portugal, to its credit, refuses to have any truck with such antics, preferring honest dealing.

When Costa was asked whether the European Union should classify China as a "strategic rival", he replied "We have a centuries-old relationship with China and we understand we must have the best possible commercial relations with this country." In other words, Portugal has a mind of its own, and will prioritize its national interest. He was also being pragmatic, and China is now one of Portugal's biggest investors, with Chinese investment reaching 6.8 billion euros ($7.4 billion) from 2000 to 2021.

Whereas, therefore, Portugal believes that constructive engagement, based on mutual understanding and respect, is the key to good relations with China, and will also benefit Macao, the UK imagines that inflammatory posturing is somehow the way forward. This, while delighting the US, does nothing for Hong Kong or its people.

Thus, for example, when the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, issued the UK's latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, on May 25, it was another hatchet-job. He claimed that "China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration", and he backed this up with misinformation and half-truths. If nothing else, this episode showed just how tenuous his grip on reality has now become.

Although once anti-China forces challenged Beijing's sovereignty and sought to wreck Hong Kong in 2019, it would have been fully justified in calling a day on the "one country, two systems" policy, it chose instead to keep faith with it. Instead of intervening militarily to suppress the riots and regularize the situation, Beijing refused to be provoked. It remained supportive of the policy even when the mobs attacked its own representative offices and destroyed its national symbols, beat up Chinese mainland visitors, and violently sought to divide Hong Kong from China.

By enacting the National Security Law for Hong Kong in 2020, Beijing enabled the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to get a grip on the situation, restore stability, and save the city. The UK, if it truly cared for Hong Kong, should have been deeply grateful for this. Instead of which, Johnson, Raab, Truss and, now, Cleverly, condemned China, which showed their espousal of the "one country, two systems" policy was only ever skin-deep. If they had had their way, the policy would have long since gone up in smoke, which is exactly what the US wanted.

If Cleverly is as committed to the "one country, two systems" policy as he professes, it is remarkable that he has not thanked China for having agreed to extend it beyond 2047. Although, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984, the UK only envisaged that Hong Kong's way of life and capitalist system would endure for 50 years after 1997, President Xi Jinping, on July 1, 2022, announced they would continue after 2047. This wonderful news should have seen Cleverly and his colleagues dancing in the streets. But all he has been able to come up with is a series of ugly misrepresentations of Hong Kong's situation, something of which Portugal would never be guilty in relation to Macao.

Indeed, if Beijing, as widely expected, also extends Macao's "50-years no change" provision, taking it beyond 2049, Lisbon will be delighted, and Antonio Costa will undoubtedly have no hesitation in expressing his gratitude and that of his country.

Whereas, therefore, Portugal has managed its relations with China and its policy over Macao with wisdom and tact, the UK has failed to follow its example. Its leaders have not only let Hong Kong down by aligning themselves with the anti-China policies of the US, but also let Britain down by failing to make the most of its post-Brexit global opportunities in China. Although the UK always blindly follows the US, even to the extent of canceling Huawei's involvement in its 5G technology, it has got nothing in return, not even a free trade agreement.

It is certainly true that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, now appears to recognize that the UK has shot itself in the foot and that better relations with China are essential. His tentative overtures to Beijing, however, cannot be taken seriously until such time as he fully gets behind Hong Kong and reins in Cleverly's propaganda.

Even Nigel Farage, the British politician who did more than anybody else to bring Brexit about, now says Brexit is failing. This is not because there is anything wrong with Brexit itself, which glorifies "Global Britain", but is down instead to political leaders who are incompetent and visionless. It is a tragedy that, at a time of real challenge, when Britain's foreign policy needs to be directed by visionary statesmen like Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe, all it can come up with are political pygmies like Johnson, Raab, Truss and Cleverly.

In Portugal, there is a proverb that "Experience is the mother of wisdom", and this is reflected in its dealings with China. By drawing on experiences dating back 600 years, Lisbon has wisely forged good relations with Beijing that have benefited itself and Macao. Although, after so many blunders, it is very difficult now for the UK to play "catch-up", it will hopefully try to learn what it can from the successes of Portugal's foreign policy in the Far East.

The author is a senior counsel and professor of law, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.