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22 Sep 2019 0:59
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why Macau hasn't been swept up by Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests

    How has China's other special administrative region, Macau, kept clashes and pro-democracy movements at arm's length?


    Most people know Macau as the casino capital of the world and the only place in China where casino gambling is legal — but what is lesser known is the special arrangement that makes this freedom possible.

    When Hong Kong, a former British colony, and Macau, a former Portuguese colony, were handed back to China in 1997 and 1999 respectively, the territories were promised a high level of autonomy for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" constitutional principle.

    But increasingly, observers are pointing to the mass protests in Hong Kong over the now-shelved extradition deal with China as proof that the "one country, two systems" formula has failed in the city, dashing Beijing's hopes of unifying Taiwan with mainland China with the same offer.

    While the protests have created divisions both in Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities, Macau has remained largely unscathed by the political turmoil that has rocked the Asian financial hub just an hour's ferry ride away.

    Ho Iat Seng, the sole candidate running in today's Macau chief executive election, has also reportedly vowed to turn the former Portuguese colony into the poster child of the "one country, two systems" policy and set an example for Taiwan.

    As Hong Kong grapples with its 12th consecutive week of protests, we take a look at why Macau has often been seen as a success story for the "one country, two systems" framework and what it means for the future of the world's largest gambling hub.

    How has Macau reacted to the Hong Kong protests?

    Macau has generally been seen as the better-behaved special administrative region (SAR) under Chinese rule because of its largely conservative society, and as such, has remained at an arm's length from the protests in Hong Kong.

    But while the pro-democracy protests have so far not reached Macau's shores, some young people in Macau have reportedly travelled to Hong Kong to join the demonstrations there.

    Eilo Wing-yat Yu, an associate professor of government and public administration at the University of Macau, told the ABC a silent protest was proposed for August 19 at Macau's Senado Square but police disallowed it, and some pro-Beijing groups also came out and criticised the organisers for destabilising the society.

    The Macau Daily Times cited the police as saying they refused authorisation "in view of the recent clashes in Hong Kong, [where] some of the radical demonstrators have violated Hong Kong laws and seriously affected social order and the rule of law".

    Political analyst Larry So Man-yum told the ABC that compared with the younger generation in Macau — who have more of "an international perspective" — many older and middle-aged Macanese people condemned the young protesters in Hong Kong.

    "The older generation or the middle-aged generation appreciate the Government very much in the sense that the economy has been doing good," Mr So explained.

    He added that young people in Macau generally didn't have unemployment problems, although they still faced housing affordability issues like youth in Hong Kong.

    According to World Bank data, Macau has the fourth highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the world — at $US86,400 ($127,800) in 2018 — even higher than Switzerland ($US82,800), Qatar ($US69,000) and Hong Kong ($US49,000).

    However, Macau's population of just 623,000 is also just a fraction of Hong Kong's 7.4 million.

    Why is Macau more pro-China?

    While both Macau and Hong Kong are governed under the "one country, two systems" formula, national security and Indo-Pacific expert at RAND corporation, Derek Grossman, said Macau was fundamentally different to Hong Kong because the nature of economic development was "much more geared toward the gaming industry and less about interconnectivity with the Western economy".

    He said the Portuguese were also more "forward-leaning" in integrating Communist Party of China elements into Macau's governance ahead of the handover in 1999.

    According to political scientist Bill Chou Kwok-ping, Beijing's successful penetration into Macau dated back to the "12-3 riots" in Macau on December 3, 1966, after which the Portuguese colonial administration had to yield to the pressure of the pro-Beijing activists who were inspired by the Cultural Revolution.

    "On the contrary, [Hong Kong's] pro-Beijing activists were defeated in 1967 and marginalised soon afterwards," said Dr Chou, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

    "Without strong presence in [Hong Kong] … the pro-Beijing social forces still have to fight headwind in order to win the hearts and votes of [Hong Kong] people."

    In another win over hearts and minds, Chinese intervention is also believed to be behind the end to the triad wars ahead of Macau's handover to China.

    Dr Yu said Chinese authorities intervened during the transitional period, when Macau was in chaos and suffered economic recession because of the fight between gangsters over their interests in casinos.

    "Month[s] before the handover, the Chinese authorities intervened, stopped gangster fight[ing], and restored social stability," he said.

    "Therefore, Macau society has a relatively strong pro-Beijing sentiment that is conducive to Beijing-Macau harmony."

    Dr Chou added that ideology and identity also mattered — nearly half of the population in Macau were born in mainland China compared to just over 20 per cent in Hong Kong.

    "Macau people are far less proud of their identity than their HK counterparts," he said.

    "Therefore, Macau people often turn to mainland China for identification, inspirations, and solutions to their own problems."

    And while Hong Kong in 2003 expressed strong opposition to a national security law known as Article 23 — which prohibited "treason, secession, sedition" against the Central Government — the same law was passed in Macau.

    Is Macau really a 'one country, two systems' success story?

    Despite Ho Iat Seng's promise to turn Macau into a poster child for Beijing's "one country, two systems" model, observers are divided over whether Macau is really a success story for the policy.

    Mr Grossman said Macau is the "lone success story" for the "one country, two systems" framework, as for the most part there has been little tangible resistance to the framework.

    However there has been some evidence of dissent to the formula, he said, especially prevalent during Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement protests in 2014.

    "For example, academics then warned of rising censorship resulting from Macau's incorporation into the framework," Mr Grossman said.

    "And police in 2014 shut down an attempt by pro-democracy activists to push forward a national referendum on the re-election of Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on, who was running unopposed for his second term."

    Mr Grossman said one reason why Macau accepted the framework more than Hong Kong could be that people prioritised the economic development China could bring to Macau rather than the maintenance of their civil liberties.

    Dr Chou, on the other hand, didn't believe Macau was a successful case study for the "one country, two systems" principle because the apparent stability was in fact due to Beijing's tighter control on various aspects of Macau.

    He said nearly half of students up to high school attended pro-Beijing schools, therefore "the pro-China ideology has more opportunities to be spread to young people".

    "Outspoken intellectuals and journalists are sacked, bullied, or sidelined; the mass media are far from independent from the establishment," he added.

    Dr Chou, a former associate professor at the University of Macau, was himself denied a renewal of his contract in 2014, allegedly in retaliation for his political activism — he was a vocal proponent of increased democratisation in Macau.

    The New York Times reported at the time that Dr Chou was not told why his contract was not renewed, but in the previous month he was elected vice-president of the New Macau Association, one of the territory's pro-democracy organisations.

    In a written statement to the Times, the university denied Mr Chou's dismissal was connected to his activism, saying "these actions and decisions were in line with the relevant regulations and procedures and had nothing to do with Prof. Chou's political activities, speeches, or views in the community".

    What does Ho's election mean for the future of Macau?

    Ho Iat Seng, who resigned from China's top legislative body — the National People's Congress Standing Committee — earlier this year, received a total of 378 nominations from the 400-member electoral committee to support his bid for Macau's top job.

    As candidates need at least 66 nominations — and electoral committee members are not allowed to nominate more than one candidate — Mr Ho became the sole candidate for the election on August 25.

    Mr Ho, 62, will need a simple majority — or at least 200 votes — to lead Macau for at least the next five years.

    Observers largely agree Macau would become more aligned with mainland China under Mr Ho's incoming administration — some of his priorities include integrating Macau with the rest of the Greater Bay Area and bolstering patriotism among local youth.

    At a press conference following a meeting with members of the city's electoral committee, Mr Ho was also quoted by South China Morning Post as saying: "[Macau] should show to Taiwan the success of one country, two systems … and show its advantages."

    Amid fears over Beijing's creeping encroachment on freedoms of the SARs, Mr Ho pledged to "legally safeguard press freedom" as well as to protect freedoms in "publishing and expression".

    London-based Jason Chao, who used to lead the pro-democracy group New Macau Association, told the ABC Mr Ho was "extremely familiar with the political line of the Chinese Government".

    "I believe that he will keep Macau firmly in line with the Chinese Government's political agenda after he takes office," he said.

    "Under the Chinese policy, Ho definitely has a role to play in promoting the 'one country, two systems' idea to Taiwan.

    "Ho will play along of course. But we all know that the Macau example is not convincing in the eyes of Taiwanese people."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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