The final moments of the last and oldest Western colony in Asia will seem, to any casual observer, utterly dignified. Just before midnight on Dec. 19, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio and 2,500 guests will gather in a translucent steel-and-glass banquet hall in Macau to toast the end of nearly 450 years of Portuguese occupation. When the clock in Macau's cathedral strikes midnight, Portugal will lower its flag on its faded empire--and the red flag of the People's Republic of China will be raised in its place. Champagne will flow, fireworks will explode and Jiang will know that he and his government are one step closer to their ultimate goal: the reunification of China.
Nice pomp and pageantry, but the fact is that the real transition to Chinese rule already took place two weeks ago--and it was hardly so civil. On Nov. 23 the most powerful gangster in Macau's warring underworld, Wan Kuok-koi (a.k.a. Broken Tooth), sauntered into Courtroom No. 1 of Macau's old courthouse to face the verdict in his criminal trial. Dressed in a gray pin-striped suit, the 44-year-old leader of the 14K--a secret society, or triad, that feeds on Macau's gambling industry--looked confident as he smiled, winked and chatted with friends in the packed gallery. He had been there before, and he seemed sure that his power--which had scared off several key witnesses--would work its magic again. Ferdinand Estrela, the Portuguese judge flown in just for this trial, took a deep breath as he read each of the charges--triad leadership, money-laundering, loan-sharking, phone-tapping--and intoned: "Guilty." Sentence: 15 years, the maximum.
After a moment of stunned silence, the courtroom erupted. The gangster's allies in the audience, including at least one of his four wives, cried out in anger. As Estrela rushed out of the room under armed guard, Wan and his cronies, now handcuffed, hurled curses at the judge. Wan leaped onto a bench and turned to the gallery. "The judge was bribed!" he shouted. He looked down at the row of prison guards, all in flak jackets, ready to haul him away. He pulled closer to one of the guards, held two fingers to his skull and said: "I will kill you." Later, sitting in the new maximum-security prison built specifically for him and his cronies, Wan must have puzzled over the sudden turn of bad luck for the brotherhood of Macau's underworld. That same day, just across the border in Zhuhai, Chinese authorities convicted--and executed--another triad leader and four accomplices for crimes committed in Macau.
Say hello to Macau's new boss, and good-bye, for now, to the old ones. Whether the timing is coincidental or not, many of Macau's 430,000 residents see the demise of the triad leaders as a signal: Beijing means business. And after two years of bloody gang warfare and economic decline, few are complaining. Macau, like Hong Kong, will have 50 years of guaranteed self-rule under a "one country, two systems" arrangement with China. But unlike the former British colony, which chafes at every sign of Beijing's encroachment, Macau seems almost relieved by the coming transition--even the arrival of 1,000 troops from the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Macau people, more than half of whom were born in the mainland, have never been much attached to strong democratic institutions; they don't mind the idea that Beijing might come in and crack the whip. "You can expect a very peaceful and sleepy Macau again," billionaire gambling proprietor Stanley Ho told NEWSWEEK airily. "People don't have to be afraid anymore. It's all over."
Everybody seems to be betting that the gangsters will keep a lower profile in the face of Beijing's harsh approach to justice. Local businessmen hope tourists will return to the casinos and resuscitate the economy. (Triad violence, coupled with the Asian economic crisis, sent the enclave's GDP tumbling 6.8 percent last year.) The Portuguese, who have seemed helpless in the face of rampant corruption and gangland turf wars, want to leave the colony with a modicum of dignity. The communist leaders in Beijing are eager to make Macau a success. For them, the handover points to the future: Macau, like Hong Kong, is meant to be a beacon for Taiwan, the last piece in the unification puzzle. As Macanese lawyer Antonio de Almeida Ferreira says: "If Macau fails, you can say goodbye to Taiwan."
It will not fail because of any resistance to the handover. The indolent Portuguese colony has always had more cordial ties to the mainland than Hong Kong. Unlike the British colony, which was wrested from China during the 19th-century Opium Wars, Macau was established three centuries earlier with the mainland's cooperation. (The Chinese who settled in Macau were mostly farmers looking for a better living, while Hong Kong tended to draw Chinese looking for intellectual freedom or hard-charging business.) The British imported the rule of law and democratic institutions, while the Portuguese left a rich lifestyle--good food, splendid architecture, friendly personal relations--but few strong institutions to defend. In the 1970s, in fact, Portugal begged China to take back its last remnant of empire. But Beijing wanted to wait. Now that the moment has arrived, many Macau shopkeepers are greeting it with large red messages that read: welcome the return to the motherland!
Still, some Macau residents--especially younger ones--worry that life may not be quite as free after the handover. De Almeida, the lawyer, fears that Chinese pressure to convict criminals could result in lawyers and judges trampling legal procedure and individual rights. "Macau is an obedient child," he says, "and it knows what Papa wants." On a bright Saturday morning recently, wedding parties lined up in front of the Nossa Senhora Roman Catholic Church. "We're rushing to get married before the handover," says a bride, Anna Lou, 27, holding a mobile phone to her ear under the veil. She and her fiance, Thomas Ng, met five years ago in one of the local casinos, where they both work. "We don't know if the Chinese government will allow us to get married in a church without permission," she says.
But Beijing won't change Macau's special way of life, even if it's built on something the communists plainly abhor: the squalid hedonism-for-profit atmosphere that pervades Macau's casino culture. Gambling is illegal in China. But Macau depends on it for 60 percent of its revenues, and the Chinese leaders are pragmatic. Nobody is suggesting a change. There are no viable options. Gone are the days when Macau was the richest trading post in Asia, monopolizing commerce in silks and spices, gold and silver--and sending missionaries out to save heathen souls. When Britain seized the deep-water port of Hong Kong in 1841, soon eclipsing shallow-water Macau, the place formally called "The City of the Name of God in China" turned to the slave trade and, 20 years later, to legalized gambling. Who could have known that this would become the colony's most enduring legacy? Today Macau is a place of elegant colonial buildings overtaken by gaudy casinos, where prostitutes from Russia and mainland China line the corridors, and where tattooed "chip boys" hover around the cashier's window offering high-interest loans. Criminal triads rule the streets.
What makes Beijing edgy is not the gambling or the gangs, but the destabilizing violence. The battle began in 1997, when triads fleeing crackdowns in Taiwan and Hong Kong, along with mainland triads--some made up of former PLA soldiers--tried to muscle out local gangsters. It got worse last year when casino profits started dwindling. The war was essentially a battle for control of the so-called VIP rooms, whose high rollers account for nearly half of the industry's $2 billion annual profit. The fallout has been fatal: more than 80 people have been murdered in three years--including 37 so far this year--and hundreds kidnapped.
No triad leader has been more daring than Broken Tooth. As the local boss of the feared 14K, a triad with more than 20 factions worldwide involved in trafficking everything from arms to illegal immigrants, Wan flaunted his power, even making a movie, "Casino," based on his experience in Macau's triad wars. In a 1998 interview with NEWSWEEK, Wan boasted about his 10,000-man private army and declared: "There's no one left in Macau worth being afraid of." A month later, on the day a bomb exploded in the police chief's car, Wan was arrested. For more than a year, sources say, he was still able to run his empire from his jail cell, where he enjoyed phones, televisions and the company of women. Now he is locked up in a maximum-security fortress in the hills of Coloane Island, two kilometers offshore.
Even with Broken Tooth behind bars, few Macau people believe that the triads will simply disappear. "You cut off one dragon head over here," says a senior Macau police official, using the name for a gang leader, "and another one naturally springs up over there." Police Chief Antonio Baptista, who arrested Wan in 1998, told NEWSWEEK that he has a price on his head, so he has to "lay low in his bunker." So many local police refused to testify against Wan during his trial that Estrela had to partly base his ruling on media articles, including a piece in NEWSWEEK. As long as Macau has casinos and huge cash flows, triads will follow. "Macau is a cookie jar," says a former Hong Kong police intelligence officer. "And everybody, even the Chinese, wants to get their hands in it."
So how far will Beijing go to keep the peace? Gen. Liu Yuejun--commander of the PLA garrison just across the border in Zhuhai--told China's state-run television last month that his 1,000 troops stood ready "to assist in maintaining social order" in Macau. In Hong Kong such a statement would have sparked an uproar. In Macau, where the government is perceived as incompetent, the comments hardly raised an eyebrow. The police forces are widely seen as too corrupt--or too cowed--to deal with the triads. Edmund Ho, the 44-year-old banker who will be sworn in as Macau's new chief executive on Dec. 20, says there is already cooperation between local cops and Chinese intelligence. And he can envision asking for more direct help. "If the livelihood of the people of Macau is threatened [and] I need the advice or assistance of the central government, I will not hesitate," he told NEWSWEEK.
Ho is not the only one keeping his options open. Stanley Ho (no relation) is lobbying hard to extend his gambling franchise after it expires in 2001; in the meantime, he is investing heavily in the Philippines and elsewhere. The small Macanese community--mixed-blood descendants of Portuguese and Chinese who number fewer than 20,000--is setting up a cultural institute so its unique identity won't be swallowed up. The new triad bosses who come in may not be as brazen as Broken Tooth: they have to tiptoe around a new organized-crime law and Chinese authorities who have few qualms about executing violent criminals. (Macau has no death penalty.) There may, indeed, be less violence under Beijing's firm rule. For a while everyone will hedge his bets. Perhaps Macau can settle back into its sleepy way of life--while the casinos, the gangsters and the new colonial masters get on with the business of making money.