Jan Harrison| China Fellow
With the political turmoil in Hong Kong and the ever-present “Taiwan Issue”, one would be forgiven for neglecting the events transpiring in Macau. One of China’s Special Administrative Regions, Macau is home to just over 650,000 people and yet boasts the third-highest GDP per capita behind only Luxembourg and Switzerland.
The region was handed over to China in 1999 following four centuries of Portuguese rule and has flown under the political radar ever since. That was until, in mid to late December, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping touched down in Macau to commemorate the 20 years since the handover and inaugurate the new Chief Executive of Macau, Ho Iat-seng. China’s paramount leader took this opportunity to heap praise on Macau, continually touting the administrative region as the gold standard for the “One Country, Two Systems” (yi guo liang zhi) policy. Xi’s visit to Macau couldn’t have come at a better time, as the PRC looks to reinforce Macau’s status as a political extension of the mainland.
Juxtaposing Macau with Hong Kong and Taiwan, a “Little Brother vs Big Brother” narrative comes to mind.
On the one hand, Hong Kong is playing the rebellious older brother. Under British rule, Hong Kong developed its economy and created a nation-wide appreciation for the rule of law. Now discontent with the political structure imposed by over-bearing parental figures, it seeks greater autonomy and takes to the streets in protest.
Macau on the other hand, playing the obedient little brother, is oblivious the reasons behind older brother’s disgruntlement and is happy to let the PRC pull the strings as long as he gets rewarded. But how long until its residents, dissatisfied, for example, with the lack of public infrastructure and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the elites, start to take note of events in Hong Kong?
Heightened security measures are already starting to appear in Macau. Upon Xi’s arrival to Macau, multiple journalists from Hong Kong were refused entry. More concerning are reports that seven protestors were arrested following an organised demonstration in support of the pro-democracy protests. These disturbances follow on from the suspension of Sou Ka Hou a prominent pro-democracy lawmaker—after his support for activists against “civil right suppression” in Macau.
Obviously, the Chinese Communist Party is on high alert to any pro-democracy or anti-mainland movements, as it seeks to keep Macau as closely aligned to its national agenda as possible.
During his visit, Xi addressed new developments for the Macanese economy in an apparent effort to quell concerns about the region’s over-reliance on gambling as its leading source of revenue. Another crucial part of Xi’s tour was to usher in pro-China statesmen Ho Iat-seng as the regions new chief official. At a recent meeting, Li Zhan Shu—China’s third highest-ranking official—stated that only by “including Macau in China’s governance and oversight, can the [Macau] region truly improve.”
Iat-seng’s appointment couldn’t have pleased Xi Jinping and his cadres more. As the only region left that seems truly content with China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy, Macau is crucial to the legitimacy of the PRC. Losing Macau to the wave of nationalism and separatism that has swept through Hong Kong and Taiwan, would significantly damage China’s dream of “National Rejuvenation”.
Although not to the extent of the anti-mainland sentiment expressed in Hong Kong and Taiwan, China may have a “Macau Issue” in the future. The pre-emptive measures taken by Xi Jinping are undoubtedly reactionary to the events Hong Kong. Nonetheless, he has cleverly manufactured the party’s increased attention and awareness of the situation, under the guise of economic integration and politicisation of the new administration.
While the public is focused on Hong Kong, China has rushed off to her dearest little boy to make sure everything is in order. Monitoring Macau will be incredibly important in understanding how China deals with controlling and guiding its Special Administrative Regions amidst complex and tense political environments.
Macau serves as the canvas for China to finally get the system right and to prove to outsiders that the Chinese system works. For significant political and strategic reasons, it cannot afford to lose Macau in the way it is losing Hong Kong and how it has essentially lost Taiwan.
In the meantime, Macau has a pro-Beijing Chief Executive, generates millions from casinos and is more or less satisfying its citizens. However, what happens when Little Brother grows up and sees what life could be like after rebelling against its parents? Or is Macau just too dependent on China, forever remaining under the loving embrace of the motherland? Will Macau pose the same headache Hong Kong currently does? Only time will tell.
Jan Harrison is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.