Another Throttlebottom for Macau

For cynical disdain for anything that might remotely be described as values of good governance, little can beat Beijing's attitude towards Macau. Few expect there to be more than token nods towards democracy in the territory, which moved seamlessly from nominal Portugese sovereignty over a system of cronyism and corruption to one formally presided over by China.

But the July 26 "election" of a new chief executive, Fernando Chui Sai-on, for the Special Administrative Region was such a brazen imposition of the pudgy, inarticulate Chui that even some of the 300 persons carefully selected by China to perform the "election" ritual rebelled. Although there was no opposition candidate on offer, 14 electors declined to vote for Chui.

Meanwhile an internet poll in which 30,000 votes were cast showed Chui at the bottom of the list of four candidates – all administration figures – on offer, receiving just 5.2 percent of the vote.

So what is Chui's appeal to a government in Beijing which has reason to be concerned about Macau, given economic problems in the wake of the downturn in the gambling business, widespread high-level corruption which has been only partly addressed, and underlying local dissatisfactions which culminated in large scale demonstrations two years ago – embarrassingly on May Day and October 1 National Day respectively?

The answer appears to be that Beijing still values family ties as more important than competence. And in the Macau case that also means business connections to the gambling overlords who not only control much of Macau but have links to politically influential business figures in Hong Kong. (The New World conglomerate has links to Macau gambling king Stanley Ho and roots in Macau. It is also close to Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang, being the largest contributor to his "election campaign" in 2007 and employing as a senior executive Tsang's brother, the former head of the Hong Kong police).

Chui, who holds a doctorate in public health from the University of Oklahoma, was previously Macau's Minister for Culture. But a more formidable qualification is membership of one of Macau's inter-related ruling clans. His late uncle Chui Tak-kei was one of the key "patriotic businessmen" who both made a lot of money while also being an integral pro-Beijing figure during the Mao years and later. He is thus is the same mould as the outgoing chief executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah, son of Ho Yin, the most prominent of the patriotic businessmen who controlled the sprawling Tai Fung group.

Despite occasional shows of anti-corruption fervor, those with Beijing's blessing continue to use their connections to profit from their official positions at the expense of the public purse. Long after becoming chief minister in 1999, Ho continued as a director of a private Hong Kong firm, along with Stanley Ho and New World's Cheng Yu-tung, with major stakes in tourism assets in Macau. Until as recently as last year, according to the South China Morning Post, he continued as a shareholder in a company with a large holding in Sociedad de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau, the core of Stanley Ho's gambling and tourism empire.

Edmund Ho was a shareholder in Air Macau from its founding in 1994 and remained so until very recently when his stake was acquired by the mainland's Air China, itself a wholly owned subsidiary of the central government. At the same time, Ho's administration in Macau injected 200 million patacas (US$25 million) into the struggling airline. This bailout of a bankrupt airline with state money is all too typical of Beijing/Macau cronyism. Meanwhile Macau's failure to tackle organised crime does not appear to have improved much since the change of sovereignty.

All this puts into some perspective the jailing last year for 28 years of Macau's former public works secretary Ao Man-long on a long list of charges of corruption and money laundering.

Ao's avarice may have been on a particularly grand scale during a period of rampant construction of gambling palaces and other facilities in Macau since 1999. But given the sheer scale of payoffs, his prosecution appears to have been selective. Most curious of all it does not appear to have stalled the career of Chui. He was chief organizer of the East Asian Games held in Macau in 2005. They cost 80 percent more than budgeted, in large part due to a 50 million pataca (US$6.5 million) payoff to Ao by the builder of the games' principal venue, the Macau Dome. Either Chui was remarkably incompetent in overseeing the games' organization, or he was silently complicit.

Either way his "election" has already raised murmurings of discontent from some normally quiescent Macau media and legislators. So to give him a boost Beijing may need to loosen up on some of its restrictions on cross-border visits for money laundering in Macau casinos by mainland officials and state company bosses.

But if Macau was unenthusiastic about its soon-to-be chief executive, Hong Kong's Tsang was to be relied upon for an over-the-top tribute by one unelected Beijing cipher to another: He wrote:

"You are totally committed to serving the people of Macau. With your devotion, resolution, and wealth of experience in public service you have rightly earned your place as the chief executive (elect) of the Macau SAR".

Indeed he has.