As is the tradition for all Macau SAR Chief Executives since the handover, Ho Iat Seng is expected to make his first diplomatic visit to Portugal in April.
Sworn-in in December 2019 – right before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic – Ho was unable to visit the country for the last three years, but he is now expected to be received with state honors by Portugal’s president and prime minister.
Macanese businessman Jorge Valente tells Macau Business that expectations for the local business community involved in Lusophone trade “are very high” as they look “forward to resuming normal post-covid life”.
“After the reopening, we are now in the phase of reconstruction and recovery from lost time, markets, and opportunities,” he expressed.
Kevin Ho King Lun, a local businessman and delegate to the National People’s Congress will also join the CE tour as part of a delegation invited by the Macau Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM).
According to Ho, Portugal is a “very reasonable choice” for the CE’s first-ever trip abroad, and is a strong sign that Portugal and Portuguese-speaking countries remain very strong partners to Macau, under its role as a bridge between China and PSCs.
“This year we will have the 20th anniversary of Forum Macao, so the CE chose this time to go and hopefully do more to promote trade, business, and economic activities between China and the PSCs via Macau,” Ho pointed out.
Established in 2003 by Beijing, the Forum Macao aimed to set the SAR as a platform for economic and trade cooperation with Portuguese-speaking countries Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, Portugal, Sao Tomé and Principe and Timor Leste.
Initially scheduled for 2019, the sixth ministerial conference of Forum Macao will also finally take place in 2023 following multiple delays, first due to the CE election and then due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ho also underlined that apart from IPIM there will also be a strong involvement by the Macao Government Tourism Office (MGTO), with the SAR advancing with efforts to attract more international tourists.
“Promoting ourselves in Portugal is a very strong sign to everybody that Macau is back stronger and better, with a lot more attractions for international vitiators, MICE events, concerts, and sport events,” Ho told Macau Business.
A bag of problems
Meanwhile, some local businessmen involved in the import of food products from the PSCs told Macau Business that they hoped the visit could serve for the CE to address some of the issues still hampering trade between the two sides.
These issues included restrictions on the export of food products to mainland China and for PSC businesses to establish operations in the Hengqin In-depth Cooperation Zone.
“Importers of Portuguese food products, such as sardines, would previously order the container to Macau and then export to mainland China, but this is something they are not allowed to do at the moment. There are too many obstacles,” Eduardo Ambrósio, Chairman of the Executive Council of the International Lusophone Markets Business Association (ACIML), says.
“We also are not able to export cured meats, such as cured ham, to the mainland. Portuguese shoes are some of the best in the world, but you don’t see any shop on the mainland. You see Spanish or Brazilian shops, but no Portuguese shop.”
Humberto Carlos Rodrigues, the head of F. Rodrigues (Sucres) Lda, a local historical company specializing in importing Portuguese products, also addressed the many doubts remaining about the potential of Hengqin.
In September 2021, Chinese central authorities issued a general plan for building the Guangdong-Macao In-depth Cooperation Zone in Hengqin as a major arrangement to “enrich the practice of ‘one country, two systems’ in Macau” and boost the SAR’s appropriate economic diversification.
It is stated in the plan that Hengqin will give full play to Macau’s role as a window to Portuguese-speaking countries and develop a financial services platform linking up China and Portuguese-speaking markets.
In total, trade-in merchandise between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries reached US$214.8 billion in 2022.
Hengqin taking centre stage
“This CE gives a lot of importance to Hengqin. The most important is to end the customs border with the cooperation zone. You still need a visa to cross, even if it’s now easier, a foreign Macau resident still needs to apply for a visa to enter Hengqin,” noted Rodrigues, who is also chairman of ACIML’s General Council.
“The customs border will probably disappear in the future, but we still don’t know when. Opening a company in the cooperation zone is also not as easy as Macau, they still need to improve some aspects.
The businessman also warned that a company established in Hengqin would still have issues transferring money out, even to Macau, since it would still be under the mainland system.
“So I hope the CE can address these issues and find a solution. Hopefully, some answers come out of the visit. Hengqin is very beautiful but you still don’t have people living there, it has all those new buildings but they are all empty,” the businessman stated.
Meanwhile, Kevin Ho underlined that as time progressed the glitches currently existing in the cooperation zone would be addressed and solved.
“The deeper cooperation zone has been awarded in September 2021, so about one year and a half ago. It is a great invention and something that has never been tried before, so it is bound to be some problems in the beginning that need to be tackled and that will be tackled by the government,” he noted.
Ho was present in Beijing to attend this year’s “Two Sessions” meetings – annual sessions of the country’s national legislature and the top advisory body – and explained that on different occasions, the Macau delegation held discussions with different government bodies to discuss the cooperation zone.
“This included customs, which is of great importance for how to develop the Hengqin first and second lines,” he pointed out.
Under the Hengqin development plan, the “first line” refers to Hengqin Island and the Macao Special Administrative Region, while the “second line” refers to the area between Hengqin Island and other Chinese customs territories.
Merchandise that meets official requirements would be able to cross the “first line” duty-free into the Guangdong-Macau In-depth Cooperation Zone in Hengqin under streamlined customs procedures.
Meanwhile, all goods that go beyond the zone of cooperation to the rest of mainland China, via the second line, are subject to existing customs and tax rules.
“This plan is progressing but it has not yet been fully completed, I think after the two lines are clearly defined you will see a bigger relaxation and a lot more initiatives for products to create added value or to be imported by different Macau distributors to the mainland. I agree issues are not yet solved but you need to give it more time.”
Eduardo Ambrósio also considered the visit a positive sign for a restart in trade relations, as Portugal recently renewed three important diplomatic positions in the country, appointing a new China ambassador, Macau and Hong Kong consul, and a new Macau Portuguese Trade and Investment Agency (AICEP) delegate.
“There are many opportunities but we have to push ourselves because the government does not advance with many initiatives,” he noted.
“I hope [with the border reopening] we will witness an economic recovery, it has been almost three years when we could not achieve much.”
For Jorge Valente, the arrival of these new delegates and diplomatic representatives has coincided with Macau’s new pushing drive to diversify the economy.
“Whereas in the pre-Covid past [talk of diversification], it was nothing more than fine words, this is a perfect combination for success,” he tells Macau Business.