(CNSNews.com) - Half a millennium of European colonialism ends in the Far East this weekend, as the tiny Portuguese outpost of Macau reverts to China, taking Beijing one step closer to its main territorial objective - Taiwan.
The return of Macau has dominated Chinese media headlines in recent weeks, a source of enormous national pride to President Jiang Zemin, who will oversee the handover at midnight Sunday.
Massive, official celebrations are also planned for Tiananmen Square in Beijing. December 20 has been declared a national holiday across China.
Just six square miles in area, Macau comprises a peninsula and two small islands ruled by the Portuguese for the past 442 years. As with former British colony Hong Kong, China has undertaken to guarantee its capitalist system and Western way of life for 50 years, in line with its "one country, two systems" policy.
But the real prize being spoken about is Taiwan, the remaining part of "greater China" outside Beijing's control.
"Macau's handover is another important step toward the country's reunification," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue on Thursday.
She said the return of Macau, following that of Hong Kong in 1997, would be "a significant step toward solving the Taiwan problem."
Analysts say pressure on Taiwan is likely to increase in 2000, a presidential year both on the island and in the United States, Taipei's informal ally.
China wants Taiwan to return under the "one country, two systems" policy but, unlike Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwan's 22 million people are ruled by democratic Chinese rather than distant European powers under pressure to relinquish the last vestiges of their former empires.
A recent upsurge in tensions and Chinese military threats followed statements by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui that relations with Beijing were on a "special state to state" basis. China insists the island is a "renegade province."
Taiwan maintains a ban on direct communication and trade with mainland China. Polls cited by the government indicate that most Taiwanese voters favor neither reunification nor a formal declaration of independence, which would anger Beijing.
The Texas-based independent intelligence consultancy Stratfor reported Thursday that a senior U.S. official this week gave Taiwanese presidential candidates a friendly warning not to antagonize China, or risk U.S. support for Taiwan.
Stratfor said the statements made it clear the U.S. did not want to see China-Taiwan tensions escalate.
It noted that "2000 is an election year in the United States as well, and China has already become a hot topic because of espionage and campaign finance scandals. If the United States is involved in a military confrontation with China, China will be the determinant issue in the American presidential campaign."
Meanwhile, in Macau, security has been beefed up in advance of the ceremonies. Gambling is the major source of revenue in the enclave, and turf wars have led to a number of gangland-style assassinations in recent years.
The authorities are also concerned about the possibility of disruptions by Falun Gong, the meditation sect banned in mainland China. Some of its members have vowed to attend the festivities, to demonstrate against the Chinese clampdown.
They have been warned to stay away and four members have already been denied entry, according to human rights activists.
Amnesty International said in a statement this week that human rights in Macau could suffer under Chinese rule. It cited a lack of guarantees in the enclave's Basic Law for a number of basic rights; weak legal safeguards; and vague and imprecise emergency powers granted to Beijing.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who will attend Sunday's handover, said Hong Kong's successful experience could be a model for Macau , and developments in both special administrative regions "will certainly help China reunite in the future."
Most of Macau's 430,000 citizens are ethnic Chinese.