Macau: The Other Special Administrative Region

Author: William Anderson, Johns Hopkins 

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The recent protests in Hong Kong have set off a wave of inquiry into how China administers the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and if true democracy ever will take root. Despite the fact that a significant and vocal pro-democracy movement has existed in Hong Kong since before the handover from British to Chinese control took place, China has continually ignored the movement and its demands. Hong Kong has been attracting much of the world’s attention lately, but there is another SAR just beyond the Pearl River Delta: Macau, the gambling capital of the world, and arguably a capital of wealth disparity as well. Unrest is growing in Macau as well due to poor governance, lax government efforts to address income inequality, and general Macanese dissatisfaction. and the general dissatisfaction of the Macanese – yet China continues to regard Macau in a different light from Hong Kong. Given the international focus on Hong Kong, it is time for Beijing to start treating Macau and Hong Kong equally.

The first and last European colony in Asia, Portuguese Macau was handed back to China in 1999 – two years after Hong Kong’s own transition. However, unlike Hong Kong, Macau was poor, underdeveloped, and rife with tensions between the wealthy mainland Chinese and the native Macanese citizens. While Hong Kong became the service capital of Asia and inspired some of China’s latest economic reforms – such as the creation of Special Economic Zones in Shanghai and Shenzhen – Macau stagnated and suffered from  poor governance, corruption, gambling lobbying, and wealth disparity.

Fernando Chui, the son of a construction tycoon and currently Chief Executive of Macau, has shown himself to be a mainland stooge and a corrupt bureaucrat. Chui is known to be an avid supporter of the mainland, and the Macanese view him as the mainland’s representative in Macau. His policies, including instituting low taxes for the gambling industry, and his botching of the 2005 East Asian Games (which went 70 percent over-budget and became mired in a corruption scandal), have hurt the Macanese while lining the pockets of the gambling tycoons who fueled Macau’s rapid growth and subsequent ridiculous wealth disparity. While Macau’s per capita nominal GDP is $77,353 – one of the top five in the world – this figure does not reflect the glaring income disparity. Many billionaires and multi-millionaires who wield significant influence in Macau through illicit deals, bribery, and threats now hold an enormous amount of Macau’s total wealth. Meanwhile, the native Macanese see only a tiny fraction of this wealth trickle down to them. The Macanese also face a rising number of immigrant workers, as well as an  influx of mainland Chinese, their money, and their influence in the day-to-day affairs of the SAR. Chui’s recent, unopposed re-election in August 2014 shows that he, in his role as only the second leader of Macau since the handover, will probably continue to condone the rampant bribery and abuse.

After years of complacency, the people of Macau are beginning to awaken as their neighbors in Hong Kong agitate for democracy –  pleas that China should heed, at least publicly .  Once reports surfaced indicating a decline in gambling revenue this year,  a union of Macanese casino dealers went on strike and all simultaneously took a sick day. However, there are conflicting reports as to whether the unrest in Hong Kong will further disrupt Macau’s gambling revenues, which are already suffering from the effects of a government-imposed smoking ban, or turn more tourists away from Hong Kong and push them into Macau’s glitzy casinos.

Macau has held several smaller protests, but none on the scale of Hong Kong’s latest marches and sit-ins which have hundreds of thousands of participants. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is a long-ingrained culture of futility in Macau stemming from the idea that it is fruitless to stand up for Macanese rights due to the oppression from two colonial powers: the former, Portugal, and the current, China. While China certainly has a stronger claim on Macau than Portugal did, this does not excuse China’s treatment of Macau and obvious violation of the treaty with Portugal that guaranteed Macanese political and economic rights. A similar voting initiative to Hong Kong’s online ballot was suppressed in Macau in August 2014, and activists are clamoring for a chance to vote for Chief Executive in 2019, a request granted to Hong Kong, even if Beijing has to vet the candidates before Hong Kongers can vote. Meanwhile, such a promise, however empty, has not even been granted to Macau.

If China is going to govern the SARs effectively under the “One Country, Two Systems” strategy, then they need to start treating Hong Kong and Macau equally. Just because Hong Kong is larger and formerly ruled by an arguably more important colonial power does not mean that China can do whatever it wishes with Macau. China must see that the Macanese are starting to grow restless, want to see more of the gambling wealth trickle down to them, and want to have a say in their own governance. The protesters in Macau are few in number, but what they ask for is not a ridiculous request. If China has granted a similar request to Hong Kong, with potentially much larger political consequences, it cannot deny that request to the other SAR.

If China wants to continue to promote itself as the world’s last true protector of socialism, the least it could do is regulate the gambling industry and push some of those billions to the common people of Macau and the exploited casino workers who want nothing more than their health, a smoking ban, and their fair share of Macau’s booming wealth. With the world’s focus on Hong Kong and the Chinese government, there has never been a better time to pay attention to Macau and its own struggle for equality.

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