Macao SAR is no model for Hong Kong

December 12, 2019 08:00
Chinese officials and state media have been showering praise on Macao, describing the SAR as a model that Hong Kong should emulate. Photo: Reuters

Macao is busy preparing for a visit by President Xi Jinping to mark the 20th anniversary of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and the swearing-in of new Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng. On November 29, hundreds of armed police using 80 vehicles carried out a high-profile anti-terrorist exercise in neighboring Zhuhai.

Senior Chinese officials and the state media have been showering praise on the city as a model SAR which Hong Kong should follow.

At a meeting in Beijing on December 3 to mark the anniversary, Li Zhanshu, chairman of the National People’s Congress, said Macao was a role model for implementing the “one country, two systems” system. He urged Hong Kong to be more like Macao.

He praised Macao for implementing a national security law and having the social foundation for implementing the Basic Law and putting in “patriots” in key government posts.

Macao and Hong Kong have little in common, other than being SARs that were previously controlled by European colonial powers. They differ in history, culture, civil society, economy and media.

Portugal first obtained a lease for Macao from the Ming dynasty in 1557. It became an important port for China’s trade with the West. But the establishment of Hong Kong in 1841 was a bitter blow, with many trading firms moving to a city that had an excellent deep-water port and was part of Britain’s global commercial network.

For the economy of Portugal, the important colonies were those in Africa and South America. Macao was marginal.

In December 1966, Portuguese security forces in the city killed eight and wounded more than 200 following a protest against colonial rule. In January 1967, the Governor signed a statement of apology, agreed to pay compensation of two million patacas and increase the role of the city’s Chinese business elite in running the government. Its leader, Ho Yin, became the ‘unofficial Governor.’ He had close ties with Beijing and was the father of Edmund Ho, first Chief Executive of the post-1999 SAR.

In 1974, the ‘Carnation Revolution’ overthrew Portugal’s military dictatorship. The new government wanted to give up its colonies. It withdrew from those in Africa and Asia. It offered Macao to Beijing – but Beijing declined, saying that it would take it back in its own good time.

Facing similar protests, the colonial government in Hong Kong acted in a different way. In 1967, it endured six months of violence orchestrated by Communist-led organizations. The government acted with a rod of iron. The final toll was 51 dead, including 10 police officers, 1,100 injured and 5,000 arrested. After four months, the central government in Beijing withdrew its support for the protests.

The two events showed Portugal’s refusal to confront Beijing and Britain’s determination to do so. The majority of Hong Kong people preferred colonial rule to revolutionary China – this was the start of the development of the distinct Hong Kong identity that has showed up so strongly these last six months.

The residents of Macao saw the opposite – Portugal’s reluctance to engage in a colony so far from the motherland and of limited economic value.

This difference was shown starkly during negotiations for the return of the two colonies to China. Britain's talks took two years; they were bitter and confrontational. Disagreements on many issues, especially the degree of political reform, continued right up to the handover in 1997.

Lisbon’s talks with Beijing, on the other hand, went smoothly. They lasted a year and concluded in a Joint Declaration on March 1987.

Today the two SARs resemble each other little. Hong Kong boasts a dynamic civil society, opposition parties, free media, intense public debate and churches deeply engaged in civic and political affairs.

In Macao, the Chinese-language media is pro-Beijing. Most critical is the Portuguese-language press, which is read by a small minority of people. Education is ‘patriotic’.

A majority of residents were not born in Macao, The 2011 census found that 327,000, or 59 percent of the population, had been born outside the SAR; of these, 255,000 were born in the mainland.

So the ‘Macao identity’ is weaker, not comparable to that felt so strongly in Hong Kong.

Its population and economy have grown dramatically since the handover in 1999. The population, 419,000 that year, has grown to 623,000 today.

Macao's economy has been transformed by the granting of new casino licences, which has created thousands of well-paying jobs. Per capita income last year reached US$58,054, compared to US$48,684 in Hong Kong. In addition, 2019 is the 12th year that the government has given cash handouts to its citizens – 10,000 patacas to permanent residents and 6,000 patacas to non-permanent residents.

If Li Zhanshu wants to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people, he must offer something more than the 'Macao model'.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.