Different reactions in two cities

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 December, 2008, 12:00am

One man's meat is another man's poison, so the saying goes, and it was never better illustrated than in the attempts to enact national security legislation in Hong Kong and Macau.

While the move sparked massive protests in Hong Kong in 2003, in Macau over the past few weeks it has been plain sailing.

People in the former Portuguese enclave have supported the legislation based on Article 23 of Macau's Basic Law during the 40-day consultation period, which ended just more than a week ago.

Some critics have said Macau's embrace of the legislation is blind loyalty or due a lack of awareness of civil rights. But insiders point out Macau has always had a different relationship with the mainland than Hong Kong.

Macau historian Chan Su-weng said in the locals' eyes, Macau has always been part of China and it was never formally ceded to the Portuguese.

'Ever since the Qin dynasty [221-207 BC], the land of Macau has always been within China's boundary,' Mr Chan said.

'The Chinese emperor let the Portuguese run the land, on condition that they recognised his imperial power.'

The Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking, signed in 1887, by which Portugal legally took over Macau, was ambiguously worded and even failed to fix a border for Macau. And the treaty forbade Portugal from transferring Macau to a third party.

The Portuguese gained the right to 'perpetually stay in and manage' Macau, according to the treaty's Chinese version, while the English version featured the term 'perpetual occupation'.

In contrast, the Treaty of Nanking - by which Hong Kong was ceded to Britain - stipulated that the island was 'to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannic Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors'.

After settling in Macau in the 16th century, the Portuguese paid an annual rent of 500 to 600 taels of silver to the Chinese emperor until 1849, when the Qing dynasty started to decline.

In short, over the centuries, Macau's residents have tended to show allegiance to China's ruler, be it emperor or Communist Party leader. When labour protests occur, Macau workers often appeal to Beijing to solve their problems. It's not unusual to see banners at their rallies imploring 'the central government to please step in', something that would be almost unthinkable in Hong Kong.

Some concerns were raised about the security bill during consultative meetings, such as how to define theft of state secrets and what 'preparatory behaviour' of treason and sedition meant.

But most expressed support for the legislation before suggesting modifications.

Even the pro-democracy camp led by outspoken lawmakers Au Kam-san and Ng Kuok-cheong was quick to declare support, before raising concerns over specific terms and clauses.

Despite the fact that around 65 per cent of Macau people admitted they did not know the details of the bill in surveys, the same surveys found between 60 and 90 per cent of Macau residents supported the security legislation.

When Hong Kong lawmaker 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung staged a protest in Macau on November 23, claiming he was helping Macau's people fight a bad bill, he drew only a small turnout and was greeted with sarcasm and even insults in internet chat forums.

Meanwhile, many of Macau's biggest social groups - the Federation of Trade Unions, the General Union of Neighbourhood Associations, and the Women's General Association - got behind the security bill, mobilising their networks to support it.

These patriotic groups, known as the traditional leftist camp, have been operating in Macau for decades under the auspices of Beijing. They played a key role in the Communist Party's long fight against the Kuomintang for control of Macau last century.

Political commentator Larry So Man-yum said the traditional leftist camp gained influence by leading struggles against the Portuguese administration in the 1960s. And they control much of Macau's educational resources, spreading mainland values, he said.

'Few locals were interested in going to Portuguese-language schools,' Mr So said. 'And most Chinese-language schools came under the influence of the leftist camp.'

Mr Chan said that the Portuguese' lack of control over educational resources added to locals' loyalty to the mainland.

'The Britons controlled educational resources in Hong Kong and managed to spread its colonial values with successful English-language education,' he said, adding that in Macau Portuguese was rejected as 'impractical'.

This is an edited version of an article which ran in the Sunday Morning Post on December 7