In Macau, China Sees a Model for a Rebellious Hong Kong

In Macau, China Sees a Model for a Rebellious Hong Kong

MACAU — When Macau, the Portuguese colony turned Chinese gambling hub, got a new chief executive in October, the vote by an electoral committee was unanimous. He ran unopposed. No one took to the streets in protest.

When young activists applied for permission to demonstrate in support of the protest movement in nearby Hong Kong, the authorities said no — four times. When a few dozen showed up anyway in Macau’s historic center in August, the police arrested seven of them.

Macau today, like Hong Kong, is a political experiment that began in the late 1990s, when China reclaimed both territories from Western colonial powers and promised that civil liberties could coexist with its brand of authoritarian rule. Now, as Hong Kong’s political unrest continues, China’s ruling Communist Party has become increasingly explicit about how much it will tolerate under that formula — and holds Macau up as a shining example of obedience.

“The most important thing is to implement and safeguard the central government’s full control,” Li Zhanshu, the third highest-ranking official in China, who presides over policy for both territories, said in a speech about Macau in Beijing this month.

Compared to Hong Kong, Macau has more readily accepted Beijing’s ultimate authority on matters of national policy under the “one country, two systems” formula applied to both of them. And for the most part, the city’s 670,000 residents have gone along with it, either co-opted or coerced by the mainland.

“After 20 years in Macau, it is difficult to find the clear lines between the two systems,” said Sou Ka Hou, one of 33 deputies in Macau’s Legislative Assembly and, at 28, a leader of a new generation of democratic opposition.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, arrived in Macau on Wednesday for a three-day visit to mark the 20th anniversary of the territory’s “return to the motherland” in 1999, after more than four centuries of Portuguese rule. His visit, touted in China’s state media, carries the implicit message that satrapy has its rewards.

“As we used to say, good boys get candy,” said Larry So Man-yum, a retired professor of social work at Macau Polytechnic Institute who is now a gambling addiction counselor. “Macau is a good boy.”

Mr. Sou himself was convicted of participating in a protest last year against the Macau Foundation, a government organization, over a $14 million donation it made to a Chinese university. He was stripped of his legislative duties — a first since the handover — and only later reinstated to his seat.

Mr. Sou, who rose to prominence as a leader of a civic group, is one of the few lawmakers in the city who still presses for universal suffrage, one of the key demands of Hong Kong’s protesters. He argues that Beijing has slowly chipped away at the “high degree of autonomy” it promised Macau.

In September, Macau’s highest court rejected an appeal to allow a number of protests to take place, including one against the Hong Kong police. The court ruled that such a demonstration was unwarranted because none of the actions taken by Hong Kong’s police amounted to torture or brutality — an echo of the Chinese government’s argument.

One of the people who tried to organize that rally, Jason Chao, said the ruling effectively meant that any “demonstration or an assembly about an opinion not officially recognized by the government” could be banned.

As Hong Kong has seethed, the authorities in Macau have stepped up efforts to quash any hint of dissent, fearing that their neighbor’s upheaval could spread.

As the Friday anniversary of the handover has approached, officials have denied entry to a number of Hong Kong residents, journalists and foreigners. Two leaders of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong were turned away as they tried to enter for an annual ball put on by the chamber’s Macau branch.

When reunification approached, Portugal granted citizenship to anyone born in Macau before 1982 and their relatives. Those who balked at Chinese rule could leave for Portugal, or another European Union country. But in Hong Kong, residents received a special British passport that stopped short of citizenship, which has made resistance to Beijing an existential fight.

Macau is also different because it is the only place in China where gambling is legal — and that delivers economic benefits.

An elevated light rail system that opened last week glides from the airport past the most famous global brands in gambling: the Sands, MGM, Wynn, the Venetian. Macau became the world’s biggest gambling center in 2006, surpassing Las Vegas, several years after the authorities expanded the number of casino licenses.

The industry now provides 87 percent of Macau’s annual budget and jobs for nearly 1 in 12 residents, according to the latest official figures. Still more people work in hotels, restaurants and other businesses that cater to visitors, the vast majority of whom are from the mainland. Since 2008, the government has also wooed the population with yearly cash subsidies, which this year totaled the equivalent of $1,246 per person.

“Macau people are overly reliant on the established economic order,” said Mr. Chao, the rights campaigner, who has moved to London. “Going against China means going against their livelihood.”

He warned, however, that without more democracy, Macau would lose what makes it unique. “We will just become another Chinese city,” he said.

Claire Fu contributed research.

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