In this video, Are Hong Kong and Macau Countries?, educational YouTuber CGP Grey mentions (at 3m16s) that Portugal said they had a right to Macau forever, but the UN stepped in and said no to them.

Portugal claimed the treaty gave her control of Macau forever but China disagreed and the UN was in a no-empires-no-longer mood, and frankly had Portugal complained too much, China could have used her own bigger-army diplomacy at this point to resolve the situation.

I cannot find any source that confirms that the UN stepped in. Is this true?

  • 3
    There is some evidence that Portugal would have liked to have held on to Macau longer then it did, but the central claim here is very vague. What exactly is the UN alleged to have done at what point in time?
    – Brian Z
    May 14 at 18:46

2 Answers 2


Just gathering some information from wikipedia on Macau:

The Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking in 1877 gave Portugal perpetual rights to Macau.

In the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974 'Portugal formally relinquished Macau as an overseas province' although it remained under Portugese administration. Note that in this revolution the old Portugese government was overthrown in large part because it was fighting colonial wars in Africa. The new government did not want to own colonies, especially not against the wishes of the residents.

Next: 'After China first concluded arrangements on Hong Kong's future with the United Kingdom, it entered negotiations with Portugal over Macau in 1986. They were concluded with the signing of the 1987 Joint Declaration on the Question of Macau, in which Portugal agreed to transfer the colony in 1999 ..'.

Maybe the UN had some advisory role in the negotiation but from the historical context it doesn't look like Portugal needed a lot of pressure to return Macau.


Did Portugal attempt to maintain control over Macau?

A. Under the pre-1974 dictatorship, Portugal did vigorously resist decolonization and "attempt to maintain control" over its colonies. In contrast, the post-1974 Carnation Revolution governments favored rapid decolonization.

B. However, in the special case of Macau, not much of an "attempt to maintain control" was necessary because the PRC and Mao themselves were happy to maintain the status quo.

(See below for more details.)

I cannot find any source that confirms that the UN stepped in. Is this true?

No, the UN did not "step in". (But CGPGrey doesn't make any such claim. Instead, he merely claims very vaguely that "the UN was in a no-empires-no-longer mood". But this is no different from making the vague claim that today, "the UN is in a Russia-get-out-of-Ukraine mood".)

I'm not sure what you'd count as "stepping in", but the UN is usually mostly toothless and rarely ever "steps in".

I can think of only one occasion of a significant "stepping in" under official UN auspices: the Korean War in 1950. But that was only because the USSR was boycotting the UN--a mistake it and its successor Russia would not make again.

A. Pre-1974 Portugal vigorously resisted decolonization

  • Goa: India had been asking for Goa's return, but Portugal refused. In 1961, India took Goa by force.
  • Angola, Mozambique, and other African colonies wanted their independence, but Portugal refused. They fought anti-colonial wars from 1961 until 1974.
  • Timor-Leste: Effectively abandoned by Portugal in 1974. (In 1975, Indonesia would invade.)

B. The PRC and Mao were happy to maintain the status quo

From Silva Fernandes (2008):

Even before they took power in mainland China, the Chinese leadership outlined a policy towards Macau and Hong Kong and decided that the status quo should be kept in place. This foreign policy goal was adopted in order to avoid a confrontation with the West, especially with the USA, and to maximize Chinese political, economic, financial, trade and intelligence interests in the two Western-administered city-states and abroad.

In 1949,

the Chinese leadership argued with Stalin’s envoy that it was "necessary to adopt more flexible solutions or a peaceful transition policy, which shall require more time. According to this opinion, an ill-judged solution to the questions of Hong Kong and Macau would not make any sense. On the contrary, maybe it will be more advantageous to exploit these territories’ status quo, above all Hong Kong, to develop our relations abroad and to foster our imports, through them" ...

The pro-status quo policy of the new Chinese regime towards Macau and Hong Kong was reinforced by three underlying policy reasons. First, the urgent need to consolidate in power the new political regime. Second, to proceed as soon as possible with China’s economic recovery program. Third, to shatter the Western-led embargo in “strategic materials” against China, put in place after Beijing’s intervention in the Korean War.

From Mendes (2004):

Both Portugal and China saw advantages in the maintenance of the status quo in Macau. For the Portuguese authoritarian regime, Macau had a symbolic relevance: to maintain the myth of the empire. Portuguese colonialism, based in a politico-administrative imperialism deprived of economic interests, used Macau to remind the Portuguese people of Portugal’s past world-leading role. China was interested in the maintenance of Macau’s dubious status as Portugal was a small country and showed some subservience for administering the territory. Macau was de jure administered by Portugal but was de facto controlled by China, which used the territory for its own purposes. For many years Macau was a communication door with the West: an important commercial outpost, Macau not only allowed the entrance of goods to China but also purchased almost everything from China, being a valuable source of foreign exchange. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the People’s Republic of China used Macau to break the blockade imposed by the West.

From Chou (2020):

In contrast with its anti-colonial rhetoric, CCP did not cross the borders to take over Macau and Hong Kong after 1949 Revolution although it was impossible for the colonial administration to defend the two colonies against Communist invasion. Under Mao Zedong’s policy of ‘long-term planning and fully utilizing’ (zhangqi dasuan chongfen liyong), Macau and Hong Kong were more useful to China if they were left in the hands of Western forces. China wanted to maintain Portuguese and British rule over the two colonies. The spokesmen of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) repeatedly assured Macau residents that they would not enter Macau, and would respect Macau’s status quo. Furthermore, China excluded Macau and Hong Kong from its list of 23 “colonial targets for revolution across the world”. This signified the importance of two colonies’ stability to China. For extracting political, commercial and strategic interests from the two colonies as far as possible, China had to reduce confrontation with the West to the minimal ...

One of the very important strategic interests that China pursued via Macau and Hong Kong during the Cold War was to circumvent Western isolation and sanction. In 1951, United Nations imposed embargo on China for its support of North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. The weakest link of the embargo was Macau. Macau was so dependent on China trade that strict implementation of the embargo could not but ruin the enclave’s economy and destabilize Portuguese rule of it. Furthermore, the Portuguese administration claimed that Macau’s neighbouring county of Zhongshan pressured Macau to continue exports to China in exchange for the rights of importing rice from Zhongshan. Macau practiced a diluted version of embargo for breathing space. Meanwhile, Nam Kwong Company, a trading company-cum-underground CCP’s Macau branch, was set up in Macau by CCP soon after the establishment of People’s Republic of China to conduct external trade for earning foreign currencies and procuring imported products. Through the network of Nam Kwong, its supporters and various traders, China was able to obtain strategic products such as rubber, steel, car parts, lubricants, petroleum, transport and electronic equipment and other commodities essential for war effort but difficult to produce in China. Due to the contraband business, Macau and Hong Kong became China’s second largest trading partner after the Soviet Union from 1950 to 1952.

Indeed, even after 1974, the PRC preferred a very slow return of Macau to China (Macau returned to the PRC only in 1999). This is in sharp contrast to the rapid decolonization in Timor-Leste (invasion and massacres by Indonesia), Angola (long and bloody civil war), and Mozambique (ditto).

Other of CGPGrey's claims:

  • "Portugal claimed the treaty gave her control of Macau forever but China disagreed"

Yes, the 1887 Treaty ceded Macau to Portugal in perpetuity. (Though of course, the legitimacy of such unequal treaties and colonization in the post-1945 world was dubious.)

Yes, China "disagreed" and claimed Macau.

  • "China could have used her own bigger-army diplomacy at this point to resolve the situation"

Yes, China could have done so (just as the US today could invade Jamaica). But as explained above, China was happy to maintain the status quo (just as the US is today with Jamaica).

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