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Tea Leaf Nation

No Umbrellas for China’s Las Vegas

 A pro-Hong Kong student rally attracts hundreds, but Macau won’t risk angering Beijing.

Photo: Jeffery Lam
Photo: Jeffery Lam

Around 800 people, mostly students, gathered in Friendship Square in the center of Macau on Oct. 1, waving yellow ribbons and their phones as they sang "Do you hear the people sing?" from Les Miserables, the anthem of the democracy protestors in neighboring Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s "Umbrella Revolution" — so named for the now-iconic umbrellas that protesters have carried to protect against pepper spray, tear gas, and rain — has inspired sympathetic protests around the world, from Edinburgh to Sydney. But perhaps nowhere are those expressions of solidarity more charged than in the gambling mecca of Macau, another former European colony that’s been returned to Chinese sovereignty. The online announcement for the Friendship Square solidarity rally (pictured above) was clear about what was at stake: "If Hong Kong’s right to real universal suffrage is denied, so will it likely happen in Macau." Though China hasn’t promised Macau direct elections (a pro-Beijing electoral college picks leaders), some in the territory still hope for them. 

Just a one-hour ferry ride away, Macau is closely linked to Hong Kong and shares a similar history. Both are regions that were for decades independent of China before being brought back under Beijing’s wing in the late 1990’s under similar but not identical "one country, two systems" models. Hong Kong was promised universal suffrage; Macau wasn’t. Hong Kong has 7 million people, while tiny Macau has just 600,000. Hong Kong is a bustling financial center, while Macau relies almost exclusively on gaming, and is the only place in China where gambling is legal. And whereas Hong Kong is politically boisterous, with opposing parties and an outspoken press, Macau’s leadership and media are solidly pro-Beijing. And yet, over the past year or so, Macau has seen the emergence of an aggressive labor movement fond of protests and strikes and the stirrings of a political opposition with democratic ambitions. It remains to be seen how Hong Kong’s experience — massive protests over many days that police have tried to beat back with pepper spray and tear gas — will color those developments. What’s clear is that Macau is watching intently.  

Eric Sautede, a former professor of politics at the University of Saint Joseph in Macau who was fired in June for criticizing the region’s government, told Foreign Policy that students in many Macau schools and universities were wearing yellow ribbons of solidarity. "There is a lot of awareness and clearly the youth is following closely," he said. Some residents of Macau have been zipping over to Hong Kong by ferry to show their support in person or just to see the scene, said Sautede. Prominent Macau labor activist and casino worker Leong Man Teng posted photos on his Facebook feed Sept. 30 that showed him making the quick trip and joining in the Occupy Central protests.

Jeffery Lam, a 22-year-old performing arts student at St. Joseph Diocesan College of Macau, who was born and raised in the territory, attended the rally Oct. 1, filming and photographing as his classmates and friends waved their phones and sang. He said young people in Macau like himself do not want to be under Chinese control. "We want to fight for a democratic system," he told FP via Facebook messenger.

Sautede said many in Macau "regard Hong Kong as a source of inspiration," and as the "last-resort guarantor of the ‘one country, two systems’ formula." 

Is Macau ripe for a Hong Kong-style Umbrella Revolution? Alex Choi, an assistant professor in public administration at the University of Macao, told FP that while the territory’s labor movement gathered steam, he doesn’t expect them to shift their focus from better wages to universal suffrage any time soon. Choi said it would be "a big jump" to go from labor issues to "a fight for democracy and against Beijing." So far, he said, the labor movement hasn’t appeared eager to take that leap. "The general atmosphere in Macau is more on solidarity and concern [for Hong Kong], rather than seeing it as an inspiration for action," Choi said.

While alike in many ways, Hong Kong and Macau differ in many key respects. Macau is tiny, with only 10 square miles of territory compared to Hong Kong’s 400 square miles. Hong Kong has a larger economy, but Macau punches well above its weight economically because of a booming gambling industry, which boasts seven times the annual revenue of Las Vegas. The World Bank said in July that Macau had jumped ahead of Switzerland to become the fourth richest territory per person in the world, behind only Luxembourg, Norway, and Qatar; Hong Kong ranks 24th behind the U.S., Canada, and France.  

Because it relies so heavily on the casino business, which caters mainly to Chinese visitors, Macau is more dependent on Beijing’s favor. As the 15th anniversary of Macau’s return to China on Dec. 20 approaches, the territory is likely under strong pressure to ensure it doesn’t catch the protest fever sweeping Hong Kong. When Macau’s Chief Executive Fernando Chui met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sept. 22, the Chinese leader reproached Chui, saying that the changes in Macau and regionally meant the administration required "better work from the new administration." He was also told to hone his "foresight and preparedness." The scolding, reported by Xinhua, appeared to be related to Chui’s failure to anticipate and head off a protest in May over new legislation that gave generous retirement packages to government officials. The demonstrations, which snowballed to more than 20,000 people, caught many in Macau by surprise.

Chinese leaders traditionally attend anniversaries like the one looming in December. If Chui can’t keep a lid on Macau’s students, he could be in hot water with Beijing. Choi said the Macau government is already working hard "to keep dissidents under control" and has been harassing and detaining people with dissenting voices.

No wonder then that Lam, the student who attended the rally, asked that he be referred to by his English name instead of his Chinese name. He said he was afraid of reprisals from both Macau and Beijing. On Sept. 30, he said he stayed up late watching a live stream of the Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong on the website of Apple Daily, a Hong Kong outlet known to be critical of Beijing. It made him too excited to sleep.

"If we don’t deal with these things now, our society will have even more serious problems in the future," he said.

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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