Monday June 1, 2020


August 28, 2014

Underneath the neon lights of its casinos, Macau is still very much a sleepy former Portuguese colony. The city has its problems (like inflation, high property prices, and traffic congestion), but life is generally good for its residents. With a small size of 600,000 permanent residents, almost every Macaunese knows each other. The two-hour lunch break is still common. People have a generally high standards of living, with different aspects of their lives subsidized by the giant corporate tax the government wages on casino revenues. If Macau was an independent county, it would have the world’s 4th largest per capita GDP. With a contented population, public demonstrations and activism of any kind have been rare.

But Macau’s starting to wake up. Unprecedented numbers have taken to Macau’s public spaces within the past several months to call for more say in Macau’s future and a more responsive government – and now, democracy. In May, a proposed plan to pad the pensions of retiring government officials sparked the trend. 20,000 residents turned out to protest the current political system. Thousands of the casino workers that fuel Macau’s economy also started demonstrating for better workplace standards and regulations. Then last week, Macau took a page from Hong Kong’s book and organized a mock referendum to draw attention to the cause of universal suffrage for chief executive elections and the impending reappoint of Chief Executive Fernando Chui on August 31st by a group of 400 electors who have numerous ties to Beijing. The referendum was expected to show that in a popular election, Chui would face more opposition.

A 50-minute ferry ride away in Hong Kong (with its population of 7 million), the picture has always been active. While Macau quietly changed its school curriculum to include nationalist moral and civic education written by the mainland, the same proposal was met with massive protests in Hong Kong in the summer and fall of 2012 that eventually made the government postpone the introduction of the new curriculum until 2015. When the annual anniversary of Tiananmen passes as little more than a blip on Macau’s radar, tens of thousands in Hong Kong hold candlelit vigils and remembrance marches. Hong Kongers have recently turned out en masse with the Occupy Central movement to protect their suffrage and call for more diverse candidates in the next chief executive election; officials in Beijing meet this week to decide whether the candidates on the ballot for the chief executive election in 2017 will be decided by a committee (likely to be largely composed of pro-Beijing community and government members to vet candidates for their loyalty to Beijing).

Demonstrators in both Hong Kong and Macau have faced repercussions for challenging Beijing’s authority to determine who leads their respective governments. In Macau, police shut down voting stations shortly after they opened and arrested 5 of the referendum’s organizers. However, residents were still able to cast their vote online – 6,000 of them did. In Hong Kong’s similar referendum in June, 800,000 residents cast their ballots in support of a popular electoral system with free choice of candidates. Hundreds of thousands participated in a march for democracy on July 1, prompting Beijing to issue a warning that Hong Kong’s ultimate fate still rested in its hands. Occupy Central has responded threatening mass civil disobedience if Beijing decides to veto candidates with questionable loyalty.

Chinese leaders in Beijing fear that opening up the system could lead to instability and further challenges to the mainland’s role in local affairs. In the past, popular discontent led to efforts by mainland officials to hold public consultations and allow the Hong Kong government to shift policies accordingly, but lately, Hong Kong government actions have been largely viewed as rubber-stamps for decisions passed down from Beijing. Many residents, younger generations especially, fear the same outcome with elections. With Beijing determined to assert its control, there may not be much that protestors can gain with their actions right now. But with the next elections in Macau and Hong Kong years away, it is certain the democracy debate will not fade away soon.

For more information on this topic, please see the following news sources:

BBC News – “Protests point to Macau awakening

Bloomberg – “This is what Hong Kong democracy looks like

Bloomberg – “Now It’s Macau That’s Mad at China

Macau Daily Times – “Eric Sautede sacking raises debate surrounding USJ

South China Morning Post – “Macau protests that halted pension plan seen as political awakening

Wall Street Journal – “5 Arrested After Macau Attempts Hong Kong-Style Democracy Poll

Wall Street Journal – “5 things to know ahead of Beijing’s decision on Hong Kong political reform

Wall Street Journal – “Decision time in Hong Kong

Wall Street Journal – “Macau Scholar Says He Lost His Job Over Pro-Democracy Activism

Xinhua News – “China will never leave HK affairs alone

Compiled and edited by Amanda Conklin