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Messages to keep the message alive

Paulo Rego

About a fortnight ago, the palaces of Beijing and Lisbon surprised the diplomatic world with the public disclosure of an exchange of messages between Presidents Xi Xinping and Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. The context of the 45th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations created the opportunity, seized by both, for an unusual circumstance at the highest political level: passing on the content of the messages to the press, rather than commenting on them in person. The perception that remains is of a mutual desire to re-establish relations that were once closer, more consensual and more comfortable.

The recent history of this Sino-Lusitanian love affair has had its ups and downs. Xi Jinping’s China has adopted a discourse of nationalist affirmation, recovering discourses of revenge for the historical humiliation imposed by Japanese and Western imperialism. At the same time, the focus on the reunification of Taiwan, the territorial tensions in the China Sea, and the proximity to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, caused the West to be seduced by US radicalism. Washington has forced the issue; it has taken advantage of this environment to sell more arms to all its partners around China; it has promoted protectionist policies against Chinese economic interests; and it has pressurised Europe to cut ties with China and block investments in strategic sectors.

At the end of 2020, when Huawei was certain to win the contract for the 5G network in Portugal, Robert Sherman, the US ambassador in Lisbon, shamelessly warned that Portugal would have to “choose” between its “ally” the United States and its “economic partner” China. The Portuguese President reacted by guaranteeing that Lisbon was the master and mistress of its foreign policy and would not hostilise China. However, Huawei was excluded, even more radically than in other European Union countries, which were able to minimise the damage of this US pressure on relations with Beijing.

In the meantime, the Portuguese Foreign Minister has been multiplying unfortunate statements that are frowned upon in China. Seen from Macau, João Cravinho shot himself in the foot several times, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, riding the wave of hostility towards China just as it was trying to break out of its self-inflicted isolation during Covid-zero.

China and Portugal recognise in Macau a history that brings them closer together, and a consensual – successful – transition process that prolongs friendly relations. This is a structural issue, but there are also unfortunate circumstances in Macau. On the one hand, the isolation caused by Covid-zero; on the other, a new generation of leaders who have distanced themselves from the Lusophone project, misunderstanding its meaning and the opportunity it represents. This is especially true when other Chinese bridges to the West are less solid today.

The official position, and the current practice in Macau, devalue the language and the Lusophone communities; and detract from the greater political purpose of Sino-Portuguese relations. Macau can and should do much more for this, with benefits for all sides. Starting with the positive effect of creating intellectual, cultural, political and economic networks in economic diversification, in a different vision of autonomy, and in offering these channels for the development of the Greater Bay Area and China’s role in the world. It’s never too late to correct what has gone wrong. China and Portugal can and must do better. In Macau, we don’t even understand what the doubt is. More than a mission, it’s a unique opportunity that is being squandered.

Tags: Paulo Rego

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