Macau Bans Pro-Democracy Pols as Gambling Hub Cuddles Up to Beijing

By | July 15, 2021

Macau’s electoral commission has disqualified 21 pro-democracy candidates from forthcoming elections, leading to concerns about Beijing’s creeping control over the world’s biggest gambling hub.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets well-wishers during a visit to Macau in 2019. (Image: Reuters)

The commission announced that the loyalty of the candidates was “in doubt” and that the decision was being taken to uphold the principle of “patriots governing Macau.”

The move comes despite an absence in Macau of the kind of violent resistance to Chinese Communist Party influence that has been seen in Hong Kong in recent years.

Opposition lawmakers there have already been purged. Many are in prison, exile, or have been forced out of politics.

In Macau, some of those banned are sitting lawmakers who have served in the legislature for decades.

One Country, Two Systems

Macau, like Hong Kong, is an autonomous special administrative region (SAR) that exists as part of China under the “one country, two systems” policy.

The former Portuguese colony was returned to China in 1999. It’s less rebellious than Hong Kong, 37 miles across the Pearl River Delta, which ceded from British control two years earlier.

That may be because Hong Kong is a major financial center with a global outlook, while Macau’s gaming and hospitality-based industries are highly dependent on tourism from mainland China.

Beijing is not above using the spending power of its citizens to exert economic pressure on regions that incur its displeasure. In the past, it has banned Chinese companies from sending tourists to certain regions as a form of quasi-economic sanctions.

The politburo’s 2014 crackdown on corruption, money laundering, and capital flight was not designed to hurt Macau’s economy. But it had that effect, sending the gambling hub spiraling into almost two years of month-on-month decline.

The crackdown sought to stem the flow of stolen public money from corrupt officials on the mainland into the gambling hub. It battered Macau’s junket industry and temporarily crippled its VIP industry, which had previously accounted for 60 percent of its revenues.

Dissenting Voices

Lawmakers in the SAR remember this well, and are aware the Macau success story could be torpedoed by the politburo’s political whims, and have little interest in rocking the boat.

It helps that more than half of Macau’s population has immigrated from the mainland over the past few decades, which has made it easier for the SAR to embrace the politics of the People’s Republic.

In contrast, Hong Kong’s population was largely born there and brought up in a liberal, free-market democracy.

But Macau’s less-vocal pro-democracy movement wants to protect the former colony from Beijing’s authoritarianism. It points out that Macau and Hong Kong were promised 50 years of autonomy when they were returned to China by their former colonial masters. Now, Beijing is reneging on the deal.

Diversifying Macau

Beijing wants to reward Macau’s loyalty by helping it to diversify its economy, turning it into a financial center. This includes the establishment of a yuan-based stock exchange and other financial infrastructure.

These changes will reduce the SAR’s dependence on casino gaming, which has always been ideologically incompatible with the Chinese Communist Party. It will also diminish Beijing’s reliance on restive Hong Kong for financial services.

But it appears dissenting voices must first be removed from the picture.

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