China leases port to Macau, a new form of statecraft

Will the future of nation-states entail strategic border changes between semi-autonomous “countries” within larger countries?

Christian Patterson
2019-10-28
Underground Mall

7-Eleven in Macau Airport
7-Eleven in Macau Airport

China is famously a complicated nation-state. On one level, both the Taiwanese and Chinese government claim to represent all of China. On another level, both Hong Kong and Macau are Special Autonomous Regions, which have a lot of autonomy. But even on other levels, there’s autonomous regions like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mognolia, and there’s provinces (Guangdong, Shandong) and municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai). There are also 20 Special Economic Zones, where market systems are more liberalized.

This type of state management can be seen as an outgrowth of capitalist interest – although it doesn’t have to be capitalist, because feudal economies had similarly complex political economic splintering. But in the case of China, it is a result of a centralized government, with a planned economy, that includes states that are varying degrees of autonomous, for multiple different reasons. Since the economy has liberalized, it’s easier to manage these subdivisions with economic reasons, rather than historical, cultural, social etc reasons. They are all just subdivisions of the same country after all.

Having said all that, China has recently leased the Hengqin Port and adjacent areas, a port across a canal, to Macau.

Xinhua writes:

“China’s top legislature on Saturday voted to adopt a decision on authorizing the jurisdiction of Macao’s port zone at Hengqin port and extended areas in Guangdong Province to the Macao Special Administrative Region (SAR).”

This decision was made to increase the ease of managing distribution from the port.

“In order to enhance the connection of infrastructure between Macao SAR and the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong and make the transportation, exchanges and trade between the places more convenient, it is necessary to set up Macao’s port zone at Hengqin port, said the lawmakers.”

Macau represents a strange, semi-corporate, semi-state entity. This is expressed in its strange boundaries, which include a small, densely populated peninsula, and several islands that are now connected through land reclamation, and bits of leased land on the nearby Hengqin New Area (which in itself is a series of islands connected by reclaimed land). This strangeness is expressed just by looking at a map:

map of Macau

When you look closer, on Google Maps for example, the street level layout of Macau is an even stranger expression of itself. There are small areas of international hotels and casinos, patched with neighborhoods of Portuguese architecture, neighborhoods with more conventional Chinese architecture, patched with parks, patched with industrial areas. It seems like a fun place to explore, but it also seems impossible to get a sense of “being there” from its eclectic urban geography.

Xinhua continues:

“The decision expounds on the range of the aforementioned extended areas and notes that the Macao SAR will possess the right to utilize Macao’s port zone at Hengqin port and extended areas on lease until Dec. 19, 2049. The lease can be extended with the decision of the NPC Standing Committee.”

The interesting thing about this is that Dec. 19, 2049 is when “one country, two systems” with China formally ends, and Macau would return to fully being China. Why would China extend the lease if Macau integrates into China that day?

I have two guesses. The first is that extending the lease was included simply for China to hedge their bets in case something goes wrong. The second guess is that China likes Macau being a separate country within the country, because Macau has legal gambling. There have been efforts to legalize gambling in China, but none have gone anywhere. I think China likes benefiting from their gambling industry, but also wants to keep it distant from its mainland core. Also, as opposed to Hong Kong, Macanese people are generally more friendly to and accepting of Mainland China, so there may be less of a reason to fold Macau into China. If there’s much less risk of Macau to protest and resist the Mainland, there’s less of a risk in keeping it separate from Mainland China.

interior of Macau casino

But what does this type of state management mean for the future?

For one, it shows that, while the modern nation-state is a co-development with capitalism, and a political structure that strongly aids capitalism, that globalized capital might be outgrowing nation-state borders.

The idea of borderless states is not new, neither in political theory nor fiction, as it’s a common trope in cyberpunk and related fiction. But if it’s to actually become a reality, it won’t be all at once. This type of statecraft from China signals a loosening of the traditional understanding of a nation-state, which could lead the way for other countries to do other types of maneuvering. I could imagine a future, more centralized EU doing tweaks between borders, and leasing pieces of land between countries. I could also imagine a United States, in decline, manipulating state boundaries to hastily fix economic issues.

This type of loosening of national state borders is a necessary step for a future, borderless world. We’ll see if we get there.

Grand Lisboa in Macau cityscape

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