Why prosperous Macau does not follow Hong Kong’s gamble for independence

4 September, 2016 was a watershed moment for Hong Kong: for the first time in the city’s history, parties supporting the independence of the territory were elected to parliament. As Hong Kong faces problems such as an influx of Chinese migrants, soaring housing prices, a lack of democracy, and a perceived neo-colonial and arrogant attitude from Beijing, pro-independence sentiments have gained ground. Yet Hong Kong is not the only territory in China with these problems. Neighbouring Macau faces many of the same troubles. Now that a pro-independence movement has emerged in Hong Kong, is Macau going to follow suit?

Macau and Hong Kong together form China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs). The former Portuguese and British colonies are officially part of China, and while they are allowed self-governance and their own constitutions, it is China who is responsible for their international affairs, defence, and military. This One Country, Two Systems principle will be kept in place until 2047 for Hong Kong and 2049 for Macau, and it remains in question what will happen after these dates. Yet, after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and of Macau in 1999, both territories went through periods of rapid economic and social change. The influx of Mainland Chinese tourists increased rapidly with 12 million Mainlanders visiting Macau and 17 million visiting Hong Kong in 2014. Moreover, the amount of Chinese migrants living in the territories increased significantly, putting local housing markets under pressure.

However, the most significant change was the increasing involvement of Beijing in local politics. Even though the One Country, Two Systems principle forbids Beijing to interfere in local politics, in practice the SARs’ Chief Executives are selected by Beijing. Pro-independence politicians are banned from politics, and booksellers publishing critical books on China have been kidnapped to the mainland. Thus, since the handovers in the late 1990s, both Macau and Hong Kong have faced an enforced ‘sinicization,’ which can be seen through local institutions becoming more Chinese, increased dependence on China within the economy, and more Chinese flocking to the territories.

Yet, this is where the similarities between the two city-states end. Where anti-Beijing protests and a call for independence are now a common sight in Hong Kong, the same cannot be said for Macau.

Hong Kong and Macau are among the most densely populated places on earth, making the influx of Mainland Chinese tourists and migrants particularly challenging.

One of the main reasons for this is gambling. Today, Macau is the ‘gaming capital of the world’, with higher gambling revenues than America’s Las Vegas. As of 2014, gambling tourism makes up 50% of Macau’s GDP. Macau’s skyline is characterized by a strange, golden skyscraper, supplemented by other glittering and colourful towers, as casinos are being built all over the territory. Yet, thanks to these gaudy casinos, Macau is extremely rich. As of today, Macau is one of the richest countries in the world, and its GDP per capita is twice as high as Hong Kong’s and eight times as high as China’s. Much of this wealth has been accumulated since the handover in 1999, with most visitors to the casinos being Chinese. Consequently, Macau’s economy in large part depends on rich visitors from China spending time gambling in its casinos. Whereas Hong Kong has a strong economic foundation even without Chinese visitors flocking to the territory, Macau does not. The Hong Kongers can permit themselves to be anti-Beijing and scare off tourists, while for the Macanese, scaring off Chinese gamblers would be too costly.

Another factor explaining why anti-Chinese protests have been limited in Macau is the successful working relation between Macanese politicians and the Chinese. In 2014, when Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was in full swing with hundreds of thousands protesting every day, the Macanese were protesting as well. Nevertheless, whereas in Hong Kong ideals such as democracy and freedom of speech were demanded, in Macau the goal was much clearer: a proposed bill increasing the power of the Chief Executive Fernando Chui should be recalled. As this was much less of a threat against Beijing’s interests than Hong Kong’s longing for democracy, the Macanese protesters succeeded and the bill was withdrawn. This set a precedent for public involvement in local politics and greatly increased the trust in local governance. In Hong Kong on the other hand, both the C.Y. Leung government and Beijing refused to initiate change of any kind, causing a great increase in the population’s distrust in both local politics and the Chinese government.

The skyline of tiny Macau, with the Grand Lisboa Casino towering above the other gambling places.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, Macau has a much weaker civil society than Hong Kong. As a former British colony, Hong Kong has a strong civil society with institutions supporting free press, organizations fighting for the interests of groups of residents, and many universities with strong political traditions. As a consequence of this strong civil society, much of the current independence movement comes from the University of Hong Kong, where students started to discuss the possibility of becoming independent in 2014. Macau on the other hand does not have a civil society to this scale; the few universities are less ‘political’ and organizations representing the interests of citizens are much weaker. In Hong Kong, dozens of already existing organizations accomplished the unification of groups of angry citizens, whereas in Macau this was much harder as the social infrastructure is simply not there.

In the prosperity of Macau, weakly unified citizens have been successful in influencing local politics and thus have greatly increased the trust between citizens and the state. In Hong Kong on the other hand, well-organized university students and non-governmental organizations have fought for democracy, only to be completely ignored by both the local government and Beijing. Although Beijing will never accept an independent Hong Kong, the anti-Beijing sentiments show some of the great problems both the SAR and China face. Crossing the border from China into Hong Kong is like travelling through space, as the cultural differences are evident, and fewer and fewer Hong Kongers are identifying as ‘Chinese’. It seems unlikely that Hong Kong and China will form one culturally homogenous body by 2047, the year when Hong Kong will lose its special status. For once, the gambler’s paradise of Macau might be on a more sustainable path as it embraces the Mainland’s sinicization and truly becomes part of mighty China.

Rick Huisman

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