Since Portugal’s colony of Macau reverted to Chinese control in 1999, it has become known for operating the world’s most profitable gaming industry and a go-along, get-along attitude toward Beijing.
However, the continuing protests in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill may be triggering some small change of political attitudes in Macau, 65 kilometers (40.4 miles) away by ferry. Hong Kong businesses closed to support protests, so did some Macau shops, for example.
Jose Pereira Coutinho, president of the pro-democracy New Hope party in Macau, and one of the most influential members of its legislative assembly, told VOA that despite the different legal systems in Macau and Hong Kong, the two Special Administrative Regions of China “are highly similar in the ways of life and their societies in general. We always reflect on what happens in Hong Kong. The recent protests there … are a lesson for the Macau government to not step into a wrong decision, so that the mistakes would not happen … in Macau.”
His is not the only voice hinting at change.
‘One citizen, one photo’ protest
Macau Concealers, a pro-democracy newspaper, organized a “one citizen, one photo” event that asked people to submit photos of themselves holding protest signs.
Jia Lu, a Macanese journalist, said in his commentary on the Hong Kong protest: “Liberty is never free bread to be taken for granted. Today, as long as you are a human, there is no reason to be silent.”
Some Macau activists traveled across the Pearl River estuary to join the Hong Kong protests.
Macanese reporter Jiajun Chen posted on Facebook during the first week of protests that he was injured by the hot chili spray the Hong Kong police used to control protesters as he covered the crowds. Then, while receiving first aid at the scene, he received another stinging dose from the Hong Kong police. Chen said his press pass was visible during both sprays.
“We are just so used to complaining, often in private, but rarely take action,” Di Ng, 27, a Macanese independent filmmaker, told VOA in a phone interview.
“Macau is a very traditional society largely controlled by different she tuan,” he said. She tuan are foundations and associations organized according to industries, interests, family ties and social identities.
“The elderly get to organize the social order, and they are usually pro-[Beijing]. Even youngsters who want to speak out are discouraged by this social structure.”
“Only after coming to Taiwan did I realize that the definition of a modern society should include democracy, not just fancy mega-casinos and free cash from the government,” said Ng, who is now doing graduate work in film at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of Arts.
Macau vs Hong Kong
Meng U Ieong, an assistant professor from the department of government and public administration in University of Macau, cautioned that the values of modern Western democracies are less popular in Macau than they are in Hong Kong, even though Macau was a Portuguese colony for 442 years, or 286 longer years than Hong Kong was under British rule.
“The social mobilization mechanism is very different between Hong Kong and Macau,” he told VOA in an email.
He pointed to the large-scale protest in Macau in 2014 that halted a controversial pension plan for retired officials as the kind of event used as evidence that Macanese will take to the streets only for pocketbook issues.
Abstract “social issues which do not relate to very specific and tangible interests,” such as the extradition bill upsetting Hong Kong, are unlikely to generate protests in Macau, according to Ieong.
Since 2008, Macau’s government has given an annual cash handout to residents. For 2018, all local permanent residents received a cash handout of 10,000 patacas, or about $1,245. Nonpermanent residents received 6,000 patacas.
This largesse is because of Macau’s gaming industry. Its revenues overtook those from the Las Vegas Strip in 2007, according to Reuters.
In 2018, the “Vegas of China” tallied $38 billion, according to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the haul was $6.6 billion in 2018, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
For both Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, and Macau, the changeover from European colony to Chinese territory came with the concept of “one country, two systems.” Communist Party reformer Deng Xiaoping designed the concept as a way to gather Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan into China, while preserving their political and economic systems.
Taiwan remains independent. Hong Kong has met Beijing’s tightening controls with protests, including the most recent, and largest, ones over a proposed law that would allow extradition for trial in China. The law is backed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is closely aligned with Beijing and who has apologized for the current controversy.
In 2014, Beijing’s interference with the selection of candidates for the chief executive position spawned the Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement. It focused on demands for universal suffrage, which is a long-term goal of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Macau, however, emerged as the “one country, two systems” success story. Unlike Hong Kong, with its global reputation as a business center bound by the rule of law, Macau largely depends on gaming and has shown little resistance to Beijing’s influence, according to a recent Foreign Policy article.
“There is stronger Chinese influence [in Macau]. Plus, we usually just see things in economic terms, unlike Hong Kongers who uphold the value of democracy that they inherited from the British,” said a 17-year-old Macanese student. A freshman at a Los Angeles area college, she asked to remain anonymous because she was in Hong Kong attending orientation for non-U.S. students when the protests erupted.
Eilo Yu, an associate professor in the department of government and public administration at University of Macau, expects the Hong Kong protests to influence Macau’s August vote for its chief executive.
“If Mr. Ho Iat Seng, whom I believe will be the only candidate, cannot manage well in responding [to the protest], this will hurt his legitimacy in ruling when he becomes the CE,” Yu said to VOA in an email. “The current situation may be good to his campaign [in] that he need not make a firm statement for a possible extradition between Mainland and Macao. However, if Carrie Lam is going to resign during the Macau election, Ho will be questioned and pressured on his possible resignation when his performance” disappoints Macao citizens.
“We were known for being silent,” said Ng, the filmmaker. “But with the Hong Kongers setting the example, things might be different in the future.”