December 20, 1999 – Macau is handed over to China by Portugal

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The transfer of sovereignty of Macau from Portugal to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) occurred on 20 December 1999.

Macau was settled by Portuguese merchants in 1535, during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE) and was subsequently under various degrees of Portuguese rule until 1999.

Portugal’s involvement in the region was formally recognised by the Qing in 1749.

The Portuguese governor João Maria Ferreira do Amaral, emboldened by the First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking, attempted to annex the territory, expelling Qing authorities in 1846, but was assassinated.

After the Second Opium War, the Portuguese government, along with a British representative, signed the 1887 Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking that gave Portugal perpetual colonial rights to Macau on the condition that Portugal would cooperate in efforts to end the smuggling of opium.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the transfer of China’s seat to the PRC at the United Nations in 1971, foreign minister Huang Hua appealed to the UN Special Committee on Decolonization to remove Macau (and Hong Kong) from its list of colonies, preferring bilateral negotiations ending in a return of the territory, rather than the independence of the territory as was implied by its inclusion on the list.

On 25 April 1974, a group of left-wing Portuguese officers organized a coup d’état, overthrowing the right-wing dictatorship that had been in power for 48 years. The new government began to transition Portugal to a democratic system and was committed to decolonization.

The new Portuguese government carried out de-colonization policies, and proposed Macau’s handover to China in 1978. The Chinese government rejected this proposal, believing that an early transfer of Macau would impact relations with Hong Kong.

On 31 December 1975, the Portuguese government withdrew its remaining troops from Macau. On 8 February 1979, the Portuguese government decided to break off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China the next day.

Both Portugal and the People’s Republic of China recognized Macau as Chinese territory. The colony remained under Portuguese rule until 20 December 1999, when it was transferred to China.


On 20 May 1986, the People’s Republic of China, along with Portugal, officially announced that talks on Macanese affairs would take place in Beijing on 30 June 1986. The Portuguese delegation arrived in Beijing in June, and was welcomed by the Chinese delegation led by Zhou Nan.

The talks consisted of four sessions, all held in Beijing:

  • The first conference: 30 June – 1 July 1986
  • The second conference: 9 – 10 September 1986
  • The third conference: 21 – 22 October 1986
  • The fourth conference: 18 – 23 March 1987

During the negotiations, Portuguese representatives offered to return Macau in 1985, but Chinese representatives rejected that year (as well rejecting previous requests for 1967, 1975, and 1977).

China requested 1997, the same year as Hong Kong, but Portugal refused. 2004 was suggested by Portugal, as well as 2007 as that year would mark the 450th anniversary of Portugal renting Macau.

However, China insisted for a year before 2000 as the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group in Hong Kong would be dissolved in 2000 as envisioned in 1986 (the Joint Liaison Group would be dissolved in 1999). Eventually the year 1999 was agreed upon.

On 13 April 1987, the Joint Declaration on the Question of Macau by the governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Portuguese Republic was formally signed by the Prime Ministers of both governments in Beijing.

Transition Period (1987-1999)

The twelve years between the signing of the “Sino-Portuguese Declaration” on 13 April 1987 and the transfer of sovereignty on 20 December 1999 were known as “the transition”.

On 15 January 1988, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Department announced the Chinese members of the groups that would begin the talk on the issues of Macau during the transition.

On 13 April, the “Draft of the Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region Committee” was established during the seventh National People’s Congress, and on 25 October, the committee convened the first conference, in which they passed the general outline of the draft and the steps, and decided to organise the “Draft of the Basic Law of Macau Special Administrative Region Information Committee”.

On 31 March 1993, the National People’s Congress passed the resolution on the Basic Law of Macau, which marked the beginning of the latter part of the transition.


In the afternoon of 19 December 1999, the 127th Portuguese Governor of Macau Vasco Joaquim Rocha Vieira lowered the flags in Macau, which was the prelude of the ceremony for the establishment of the Macau Special Administrative Region.

The official transfer of sovereignty was held at midnight on that day at the Cultural Centre of Macau Garden. The ceremony began in the evening and ended at dawn of 20 December.

The evening of 19 December began with dragon and lion dances. These were followed by a slideshow of historical events and features of Macau, which included a mixture of the religions and races of the East and the West, and the unique society of native Portuguese born in Macau. In the final performance, 422 children who represented the 422 years of Portuguese history in Macau were presented along with several international stars to perform the song “Praise for Peace”.


After the transfer of the sovereignty of Macau to China, the Macau Special Administrative Region, the Legislative Assembly and the Judiciary were all put into practice accordingly under the regulation of the Basic Law.

The introduction of the Individual Visit Scheme policy made it easier for Chinese mainland residents to travel back and forth. In 2005 alone, there were more than 10 million tourists from mainland China, which made up 60% of the total number of tourists in Macau. The income from the gambling houses in Macau reached almost US$5.6 billion. On 15 July 2005, the Historic Centre of Macau was listed as a World Cultural Heritage site. The increasing development of tourism became a major factor in the rapid development of the economy of Macau.

For Portugal, the transfer of the sovereignty of Macau to China marked the end of the Portuguese Empire and its decolonisation process and also the end of European imperialism in China & Asia.

Tony Simon

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