Voice of democracy resonates in Chinese cities

May 30, 2014 15:51
The opening of Macau's gaming market has been a tremendous success but its political development is off to a slow start. Photo: Bloomberg

Macau’s first chief executive, Edmund Ho, was in a humble mood when he called the former Portuguese enclave Hong Kong's “little brother”, a reference to their economic development.

Since then, Macau has witnessed dramatic change. The decision to open its casino market has proved a phenomenal success, resulting in economic prosperity and a sense of renewal in a tired and aging society.

And on Thursday, a government backdown over a controversial retirement bill after days of mass protests marked a new phase in Macau's civil rights development and democratic reform.

In a lot of sense, "little brother" has grown up to fill a role in the motherland.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Chief Executive Fernando Chui said the government had not done enough to explain the retirement proposal and consult the public.

The draft legislation sought a monthly retirement pay equivalent to 70 percent of the last salary for a chief executive. Chui receives an estimated 270,000 patacas (US$33,811) a month. Retired ministers would have received a one-off payment of up to 30 percent of their monthly wage for each month of service.

A more contentious proposal was that a serving chief executive would be immune from criminal prosecution.

The bill was to be tabled for approval by the legislature on Tuesday, but Sunday's rally by more than 20,000 people, one of the largest since the 1999 handover, forced Chui to ask the chamber to shelve the item from Tuesday's agenda.

The protesters were not satisfied and continued to gather outside the legislature. They demanded the bill be totally withdrawn. Calls for Chui's resignation grew.

Sulu Sou Ka-hou, a rally organizer, hailed Chui’s concession as a “small victory” for civil rights. “But at the end of the day, the problem today stems from the undemocratic political system we have… The legislature has apparently failed to monitor the government.”

Sou said they plan to hold another rally on June 8 to demand universal suffrage.

With Taiwan already a democracy and Hong Kong a step closer to universal suffrage in 2017, albeit with Chinese characteristics, Macau’s lurch toward democracy is off to a slow start.

Unlike the Hong Kong Basic Law, Macau’s post-1999 constitution does not specify universal suffrage as the ultimate goal of its political system. The Macau government has given no indication of any immediate plan to introduce “one person, one vote”.

For a long time before and after the handover, Macau people have never been given to political agitation. Civil rights activism is at its infancy. The pro-Beijing patriotic movement has been a stabilizing force, making sure grievances against the government don't spiral out of control.

If the July 1 march is the  most important pro-democracy event in Hong Kong, the May 1 Labor Day rally in Macau is a red-letter day punctuated by calls for improved livelihood, clean government, freedom and democracy.

Faced with an increasingly disgruntled populace, the Macau government has been digging into the treasury to distribute the benefits of its strong economy by handing out cash to each resident in the range of several thousand of patacas.

However, this economic relief aimed at easing public discontent, has not dampened the people’s aspirations for a more democratic, accountable and clean government with social justice and equity.

More intriguingly, the voices of people campaigning for civil and political rights in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau have resonated in each other's society, giving impetus to the movement and support for each other.

Last month's occupation of the Legislative Yuan by Taiwan students opposed to a cross-border trade services deal inspired pan-democrats in Hong Kong. They are planning a blockade of Central district if the government does not come through with promised democratic reform.

At the anti-retirement-bill rallies in Macau, protesters locked arms to create an “X” symbol, meaning “no”. It recalled a similarly symbolic gesture by a movement in Hong Kong against a national education curriculum in 2012.

Meanwhile, the success of Macau residents this week has been cited by Hong Kong pan-democrats as proof of the ability of people power to make the impossible possible.

They urged Hong Kong people not to give up the fight for public nomination for the 2017 chief executive election, even though both the central and Hong Kong governments have said no to the nomination proposal.

Across the border in recent years, there has been a remarkable rise of civil activism in areas including environmental protection, anti-corruption and land confiscation.

Compared with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, the mainland is nowhere close to democracy. But the voices of people demanding a say in their government have begun to transcend boundaries, creating a profound impact in each society.

-- Contact the writer at [email protected]


He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.