21 February 2019
Macau (right) has put economic interests above political matters, something that Hong Kong too may have to do if it is to stay ahead. Photos: Bloomberg
Macau (right) has put economic interests above political matters, something that Hong Kong too may have to do if it is to stay ahead. Photos: Bloomberg

Macau and HK: Two paths, one reality

Fernando Chui Sai-on must be a happy man.

Formally appointed to a second term in office as Macau’s chief executive, Chui has fewer worries than his compatriot in Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, who is beset with a fresh wave of pro-democracy protests.

Winning a new five-year mandate after an election in which he was the only candidate, Chui can afford to preen amid a relatively calm society and benign blessings from Beijing.  

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, while signing off on Chui’s appointment on Sept. 22, hailed Macau’s achievements and its efforts to improve people’s livelihood, even as he pointed out some challenges facing the gambling enclave.

More importantly, Li said he hopes that Macau will continue to strengthen ties with the mainland.

The remarks assume significance given the growing apprehensions that Beijing has about Hong Kong, the other Chinese special administrative region where people are waging a campaign for democratic reforms and greater autonomy.

Being a much smaller entity, Macau cannot strictly be compared with Hong Kong, but the two territories still offer an interesting study in contrast in their way forward since their return to China.

Macau, a former Portuguese colony, came under Beijing’s suzerainty in 1999, while Hong Kong came under Chinese rule two years earlier after a handover by Britain.  

The two territories have had similar political arrangements with Beijing since the handover. A “one country, two systems” formula allowed the former European colonies to continue their free-wheeling ways even as they became part of China.

Since its handover in December 1999, Macau has seen its economy grow rapidly, thanks in large part due to its booming casinos, and most people have seen the benefits trickle down.

Joblessness is almost non-existent, and the city now ranks among the world’s wealthiest economies on per capita basis.

Helping hand

For much of the time in recent decades, Macau has remained a quiet place, tucked away in a far corner of the sea. But things changed after an individual visit scheme for mainlanders was launched in 2004, five years after the handover.

An influx of Chinese gamblers helped the territory boost its casino revenue to US$44.3 billion last year, outpacing that of Las Vegas.

A lot of the credit for Macau’s progress must go to its first chief executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah, who clamped down on triads and fostered regional cooperation.

But the real reason behind its success is Beijing’s benevolent eye, as it pumped in tourists and money to the special administrative region. 

The central government will continue with its policy blessing, but it comes with a rider: Don’t make too much noise about democracy and further autonomy.

If Macau people go into confrontational mode with Beijing, as Hongkongers are doing, the mainland can easily deal a crippling blow to the gambling enclave through measures such as scrapping the individual visitor scheme or allowing mainland cities to open casinos.

Since ancient times, Macau was never able to determine its own fate economically. Now, the power lies in the hands of Beijing.

That’s why in the post-handover era Macau has become a politically obedient and patriotic territory. A perfect example was the 2009 enactment of Basic Law Article 23 which deals with national security.

In Hong Kong, when leaders tried to pass a similar law in 2003, there were huge protests and the proposal had to be dropped.

Stronger neighbor

The difference between Hong Kong and Macau is that former’s economic prosperity was built largely by its own entrepreneurs and strengths, while the latter had to rely on outside help.

Hong Kong’s heft is also the result of Britain’s endeavor to turn the colony into a world city in the years before the handover. 

Some observers, such as well-known commentator Tam Chi-keung, argue that the “one county, two systems” arrangement reflects Beijing’s acceptance of reality, during the Sino-British negotiations prior to the handover, that Hong Kong was way superior to China in numerous aspects.

In the initial years following 1997, China kept its hands off Hong Kong in a bid to show the world that it has kept its promise in the face of deep skepticism from the international community.

But pro-democracy calls and demand for more autonomy and political freedoms have made Beijing turn increasingly wary about Hong Kong people in recent months.

The protests following China’s June white paper, which asserted Beijing’s powers over Hong Kong, and the backlash to the chief executive election proposal have only made things worse.

Hong Kong people had wanted genuine universal suffrage for the 2017 election for the city’s top leader, but the central government made sure that only pro-Beijing candidates can contest the poll.

Fearing that Hong Kong could slip out of its grasp, Chinese leaders are increasingly seeking to interfere in the territory’s internal affairs.

Now, since China lacks the experience of running a modern capitalist metropolis like Hong Kong, the interference may destroy Hong Kong’s hard-won status and core values.

Anyone familiar with the history of the People’s Republic of China will be aware that the Communist Party is notorious for being unpredictable in politics and for going back on its word.

China’s rampant corruption, nepotism, red tape and, authoritarian governance could erode Hong Kong’s position if there is deeper economic and social integration between the city and the mainland.

And, Beijing’s natural hostility towards free press and independent legislature and judiciary is also at odds with Hong Kong’s core values.

Of course, Hong Kong can still maintain its status despite the recent disputes over electoral reforms and the Occupy Central campaign. But there is also the possibility, in the worst case scenario, that as Beijing tightens its grip on the territory, it could become just another Chinese city.

Stark choice

Most people in Macau have opted to trade freedom and civil rights for jobs and cash handouts.

Hongkongers, who have long valued freedom, rule of law and clean governance, are also now faced with a stark choice as they realize that the territory’s future is more closely tied to the mainland than ever before.

Compromises cannot be avoided if the city has to retain its status as the gateway to China. Already, some mainland officials have given dark hints that alternative locations will be considered for financial capital transactions if Hong Kong continues to see protests and civil disturbances.  

What is frustrating for Hongkongers is the fact that, unlike the situation before 1997, there are few chips left to play in the bargaining game with Beijing.

Ultimately, the choice is between economic interests and contentious political issues. Given the huge stakes involved, it isn’t difficult to guess which would be the preferred option.

Making peace with Beijing would involve some sacrifices, but it will be the only way out.

Something that Macau will attest to.

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Riot police fire tear gas at pro-democracy protesters on Lockhart Road on Sept. 28. Photo: EJ Insight

The Umbrella Movement reminds Hongkongers of the importance of freedom. Photo: EJ Insight

In the worst case scenario, Beijing may tighten its grip on Hong Kong, making it become another Chinese city. Photo: EJ Insight

EJ Insight writer

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