All is not Well in Macau

Photo by Derrick Chang

The 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.