All is not Well in Macau

Recent demonstrations
underscore discontent with the cocktail of sleaze, vice and
corruption that propel Macau’s economy

Photo by Derrick Chang

macaunatdayThe former Portuguese
enclave of Macau has long been almost as notorious for the corruption
of some government officials as for its gambling and sex industries.
But mass public protest is relatively new. Worse for both the
government of Chief Executive Edmund Ho and his masters in Beijing,
the protests occurred on National Day, October 1.

These demonstrations
followed one on May 1 when some 5,000 rallied against the illegal
import of workers from the mainland, which are depressing local
wages. The demonstrations turned violent, police used pepper spray
and one policeman fired his pistol, injuring a demonstrator. Numerous
arrests were made.

Events in fast-growing
Macau offer salutary lessons for Hong Kong, where some of the same
potential discontent is evident as a result of widening income gaps
and collusion between big business protected by Beijing and
government officials.

The protests
themselves, involving some 4,000 people, were fuelled by various
gripes but they were the latest of several reminders on the related
issues of corruption and dynastic politics in Macau. For years
Beijing has relied on a small group of so-called patriotic
businessmen who have been the most important figures in Macau at
least since the 1967 Cultural Revolution, when the Portuguese were
forced to kowtow to the mainland, despite remaining nominal rulers –
and beneficiaries of corruption   until 1999.

Although Edmund Ho’s
government has kept a tight grip on Macau politics since the handover
to China, the inhabitants have, if anything, been keener than ever to
practice some of the freedoms of assembly and the press left to them
by the departing Portuguese. For the past three years or so, Macau
has been experiencing an almost unprecedented economic boom which for
the first time has pushed its per capita GDP above that of Hong Kong.

But for the majority of
Macanese, the statistics lie. Or at least they tell the story of how
a local clique plus a small group of Hong Kong and foreign casino
operators have been making billions while real incomes for ordinary
workers have stagnated. Indeed Macau has become a microcosm of the
mainland, where money and family connections trump good governance.

The economy has been
boosted mainly by the influx of mainland tourists eager to play the
tables. Their often ill-gotten mainland wealth has driven turnover at
the casinos above even that of Las Vegas. In turn the prospect of an
almost limitless mainland gambling market has fuelled investments in
giant hotel, mall and convention projects such as the recently opened
Venetian, at 3,000-room, the biggest casino in the world and a copy
of the Sands group’s venue in Las Vegas.

However, not much of
the billions of investment rub off on the average Macanese. The
high-paying design and management jobs have gone mostly to Hon Kong
and foreign people while most of the building work is done by labor
imported from the mainland and paid a fraction of what Macau workers
would reasonably expect. Away from the glitz of the casinos, tourist
shops and high rise apartments built for sale to high-rollers, little
has changed in Macau other than traffic and pollution – and
public awareness of the depths of the territory’s ills. The
October 1 marchers boldly carried placards accusing Ho and his
government of corruption.

The former Public Works
secretary was charged in August with 76 counts of bribe-taking and
related offences – which at least showed that even in Macau
ministers are not necessarily above the law. The same month it was
revealed in the press that Labour Affairs Secretary Shuen Ka-hung was
the owner of a luxury mansion being renovated by workers illegally
imported from the mainland. The government initially supported Shuen
but then had to back down in the face of public protest.

Also that month Hong
Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper reported that Edmund
Ho had an indirect interest in the casino business of Macau’s
godfather, Stanley Ho, who for long held a monopoly of gambling. The
chief executive insisted that he no longer held that interest.
Indeed, it was his government that ended Stanley Ho’s monopoly
and brought in the Las Vegas casino barons to develop the business.

However, there is no
doubting the deep connections between the chief executive’s
family and both of Stanley Ho and Cheng Yu-tung, the head of the Hong
Kong-based New World property group, which developed from a Macau
jewelry business.

Edmund Ho’s
father Ho Yin was Beijing’s front man in Macau from the early
1950s and when he died in 1983 this mantle passed to his son. The Ho
family business was the Tai Fung Bank, in which the Bank of China now
holds a majority stake – and from which it can doubtless
monitor at least some of the cash being funneled into Macau from
mainland sleaze.

Meanwhile the Cheng
family in Hong Kong maintains close relations with the government of
chief executive Donald Tsang. New World controls bus and ferry
monopolies, its affiliates were the biggest contributors to Tsang’s
campaign in the recent so-called election, and it employs Tsang’s
brother, a former chief of police, in an important role.

Indeed, Macau reveals
how easy it is for the Communist Party to confuse patriotism with
self-interest, and to rely on nepotism rather than public support to
sustain itself. Both inevitably lead to collusion if not outright
corruption.

However, what worked
well enough when Macau and Hong Kong were under colonial rule may not
work so well now that the relatively well educated populations of the
territories expect some participation in government, along with
higher standards of governance than prevail on the mainland. The
Macau protests may also be the harbinger of the future for Hong Kong
if Tsang fails to notice that collusion and dynastic politics
eventually end in disgrace if not revolution.

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