If you asked someone to describe the
culture of Chinese gambling hub Macau, political awareness would hardly be the
first attribute to come to mind. But as Hong Kong’s people defy Beijing and
keep hope alive for universal suffrage through protracted protests –
which appeared to reignite overnight after talks with Hong Kong authorities
failed – China’s other special administrative region is not immune to the
allure of democratic concepts coming from across the Pearl River Estuary. As
Hong Kong’s influence supplements new homegrown political and labor activism,
the stage may be set for Macau’s own grassroots democracy movement.
people first showed signs of a political awakening of its own in May 2014, when
mass rallies forced the region’s chief executive to forfeit a controversial bill. The measure would have provided extravagant retirement
packages for top officials and given the serving Macau chief executive immunity
from criminal charges. In response, as many as 20,000 of Macau’s half a million
citizens surrounded the territory’s legislature and demanded that the idea be
scrapped, forcing Chief Executive Dr. Fernando Chui Sai On to heed their call.
Many took time off from work to participate, realizing for the first time that
political activism can lead to improved governance. As casino worker Ada
before Macau’s people saw their Hong Kong counterparts as troublesome, “But
this time, the Macau government is testing our bottom line … and we finally
realised we could make a change if we stood united.” Rally organizer Sulu Sou
Ka-hou called the abandonment of the unpopular bill a victory, but maintained that,
“at the end of the day, the problem today stems from the undemocratic political
system we have.”
political influence of Hong Kong is also apparent. The city’s ongoing political
unrest seems to have emboldened many Macau residents to take up the mantle of
universal suffrage as well. This June, after Beijing dismissed as “illegal”
Hong Kong’s unofficial referendum on
democracy, which turned out 800,000 voters, Macau held its own
unofficial referendum on the same question. This took place even as Macau’s own
leader was “reelected”
by the territory’s pro-Beijing election committee in a one-horse race. Of the
nearly 9,000 people who cast their ballot, 89 percent cast a vote of no
confidence in their chief executive, and 95 percent said they would prefer
their leadership to be chosen through direct elections.
it happens, this period of dissatisfaction with the political system is
overlapping with a period of labor empowerment. On October 3, hundreds of
dealers from MGM’s flagship casino went on strike to
demand better wages and benefits, following a summer trend of large-scale labor
demonstrations. A Morgan Stanley report projects continued labor shortages and
increased casino employee bargaining power for
several years to come, which may mean increased labor activism during this
time. All of this coincides with ongoing political turbulence before Hong
Kong’s chief executive election in 2017, which is already having a strong
impact on Macau’s political consciousness.
fusion of drivers over an extended period of time may very well create
favorable conditions for massive political demonstrations, supported by Macau
labor. It is important to remember that in China, workers have supported calls
for democracy before. Tiananmen Square in
1989 was a perfect example of labor marching in support of political rights. In
Hong Kong’s current protests, as many as 10,000 workers from
all labor sectors have shown solidarity with the Occupy Central movement,
adding further legitimacy to their political cause. The workers of Macau may
eventually feel inspired to do the same as they witness their Hong Kong
compatriots turning out by the thousands to support political freedoms.
now, the people of Macau will likely look on from afar as the political future
of Hong Kong plays out. Even so, Beijing and the world should not simply
dismiss Macau’s people as apolitical in orientation, as they soon may gamble
that the time to try their luck at democracy has arrived.
This article was originally published in the Diplomat on
October 11, 2014.
Please note that the opinions expressed by AsiaEye bloggers are theirs alone, and do not reflect the official positions of the Project 2049 Institute.
About the Project 2049 Institute
The Project 2049 Institute seeks to guide decision makers toward a more secure Asia by the century’s mid-point. The Institute is the only Washington-based think tank that focuses exclusively on future-oriented studies of the Asia Pacific.