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China took back possession of Macau from Portugal on Sunday, vowing that Taiwan will be next in line for reunification with the mainland.

Reclaiming Macau after 442 years of Portuguese rule, President Jiang Zemin explicitly linked the turnover to Chinese expectations that Taiwan soon would agree to be ruled by China under the same "one country, two systems" formula applied to Hong Kong and Macau.

The successful return of Macau and Hong Kong has given China "the confidence and ability to solve the Taiwan issue by an early date and realize China's complete reunification," Jiang told 2,500 dignitaries gathered in a giant tent on reclaimed land jutting into the South China Sea.

The ceremony, modeled on the 1997 hand-over of Hong Kong, marked the end of European colonialism in Asia and Portugal's departure from its first and last colony. On the stroke of midnight, the Portuguese flag was lowered for the last time and the red flag of China was raised over the tiny sliver of territory upon which Portuguese traders established their first formal settlement in 1557.

In Beijing, China greeted Macau's return with a massive display of dragon dancing and fireworks in Tiananmen Square, where a giant electronic clock had ticked down the minutes to Macau's return throughout the year. Though ordinary Chinese have displayed little interest in the return of tiny Macau, China's government has used the occasion to trumpet nationalistic sentiments around the emergence of a newly powerful China capable of reclaiming its destiny.

It was a moment of personal triumph for Jiang, who presided over the return of Hong Kong two years earlier and who has pinned his political ambitions to the goal of the "reunification of the motherland."

Macau's return will heighten the pressure on Taiwan, which has been resisting Beijing's attempts at reunification since 1949, when China's civil war ended with the flight of the defeated Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-chek to the island.

Taiwan today lashed out at Jiang for saying the formula governing the hand-overs of Macau and Hong Kong would aid Taiwan's reunification with the mainland.

Vice President Lien Chan called Jiang's statements "laughable" and said the sovereign Republic of China on Taiwan was not a colony, like Macau and Hong Kong had been, and the "one country, two systems" formula used for their return to Chinese sovereignty was invalid.

China wasted no time absorbing Macau after the hand-over. Trucks carrying white-gloved Chinese soldiers gripping rifles rumbled across Macau's border at noon today.

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