For pro-democracy activists in this former Portuguese colony turned Asia’s gambling mecca, 2014 – the 15th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese rule – has been both the best and worst of times.
Over the summer, activists beat back a proposal for prosecutorial immunity and a rich pension plan for local leaders by mobilizing the territory’s largest mass movement in a quarter-century. But around the same time, several academics who had criticized the government were demoted or fired from local colleges.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping and other VIPs came to town Friday and Saturday to mark the anniversary of the handover, Macao authorities restricted a protest march to one mile and refused entry to scores of Hong Kong democracy supporters who had arrived by ferry for the demonstration. The event ended up drawing just under 200 participants, one of the lowest turnouts in seven years.
“Authorities are doing their best to block any glimpse by Xi of social actions in Macao. But people here don't appreciate the significance of their political rights,” said Jason Chao, 25, a software developer and one of the leaders of the New Macau Assn., an activist group. “Unlike in Hong Kong, we don’t have a history of fighting for democracy.”
In many ways, Hong Kong and Macao are fraternal twins born of colonialism’s legacy in China. British-ruled Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, followed by Macao two years later. Both operate under a “one country, two systems” paradigm, have their own mini-constitutions, and enjoy freedoms and rights largely absent in mainland China.
But for reasons both historical and economic, the Macanese have been much less inclined to mobilize and push for democratic reforms. Many here seem to have drawn a cautionary message, rather than inspiration, from Hong Kong’s recent 10-week-long demonstrations that saw tens of thousands pour into the streets in a mass civil disobedience movement.
“Macao is destined to forge its own path of democratization,” said Sonny Lo, a professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education who has researched the city’s political development for the last two decades. “The people in Macao see Hong Kong-ization as politically dangerous and socially disruptive.”
With 580,000 people, Macao is a speck on China’s map and is tiny even compared to Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.3 million. Its narrow, twisty streets, ornate tiled sidewalks and pastel-painted row-houses make some neighborhoods seem like sleepy European towns. In other districts, Las Vegas-style casinos fill the skyline.
While British-ruled Hong Kong was long a haven for dissidents fleeing the Chinese Communist Party, many residents of colonial Macao in the 1960s looked to the mainland for support in their struggles to gain more rights from Portuguese administrators. And pro-Beijing forces were able to score concessions from the colonial government.
When Beijing moved to station troops in Macao upon the 1999 handover, many saw it as a welcome move that could help restore law and order in a city infested with Triad gang activity.
After the twin handovers, Beijing showered both former colonies with favorable economic development policies. In Macao, the major policy largess was to keep gambling legal – making the city the only place on Chinese soil where casinos are allowed. The gambling franchise was also opened to foreign investors, and the windfall has been astounding: Macao has become the richest Chinese city, and it boasts the world’s fourth highest per-capita GDP.
Median income has more than tripled in the last 15 years, and all permanent residents receive an annual cash handout of about $1,126, as well as a raft of subsidies covering books, births and burials.
But a recent corruption crackdown by Chinese authorities has caused gaming revenue to plummet as mainland high rollers stay home. If that continues, it could lead to job losses and other economic strains. Other social problems – including a lack of affordable housing – have been generating discontent.
Chinese authorities seem to recognize the need to diversify Macao’s economy, and announced Saturday that they would demarcate the territory’s maritime zones. That move could help Macao develop more water-based leisure activities, such as cruise tours.
“The situation is very good and is particularly beautiful in some areas,” Xi, the Chinese president, said during a ceremony in Macao. “But some deep-seated problems need to be resolved to push forward Macao's development.”
Economic miracle aside, Macao continues to be dominated by a few prominent families. Corruption and cronyism are serious problems, and vested interests are well entrenched. The gambling industry employs as much as a quarter of the working population.
When it comes to politics, dissenting voices are quickly muffled by family pressure, or retributive firings.
So last spring, when a bill offering immunity from prosecution and the pension package for the city’s chief executive and high-level government officials came up for a vote, it was expected to have smooth sailing through Macao’s Legislative Assembly. But 20,000 Macanese took to the streets to protest, and the bill was shelved.
The organizing was done by Chao’s New Macau Assn., the longest-established pro-democracy civic group. Despite the success, he acknowledges that mass mobilization is the exception, rather than the rule.
The challenge, Chao said, lies in educating the public about the importance of electoral reforms. More than 80% of Macanese under age 30 have some higher education, so the demographics might seem ripe for a Hong Kong-style movement, which was fueled in large part by university students. The reality, however, is far different, experts say.
“Young graduates who work in casinos and civil service are largely co-opted,” said Lo, the professor. “They develop an innate conservatism and don’t tend to challenge status-quo.”
Another hurdle is that unlike Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Macao’s constitution doesn’t put forth the eventual goal of a one-person, one-vote electoral system. On Saturday, Macao’s chief executive, Fernando Chui, was sworn in for a second term, after being selected by a pro-Beijing committee of 400 in a reelection in which he was the only candidate.
So activists are pursuing diverse strategies, even politely appealing to the Communist Chinese Party to deliver democracy top-down.
Pro-democracy legislator and New Macau Assn. founding member Sunny Au said he was awed both by this summer’s Macao protests and Hong Kong’s Occupy movement. In the late 1980s, a decade before the handover, Au lost his teaching job thanks to his support for the Tiananmen Square student movement.
Au nonetheless believes that a strategy of deference, not defiance, might convince Beijing to make political concessions. So in the style of traditional Chinese mandarins, he and another democratic lawmaker recently penned an open letter to Xi -- making the case that a more representative local government is crucial to maintaining Macao’s long-term stability.
Mass movements advocated by Chao and his young allies can be an effective means to hold the local government in check, Au cautiously agreed. “But I always say to them: ‘We’re doing democracy, not revolution.’”
Special correspondent Law reported from Macaois and staff writer Makinen from Beijing.