All's well and good in Macau ... for now
In the 12 years since its return to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong has been rocked by many political earthquakes, such as the controversy over Article 23 legislation, which saw more than half a million people take to the streets in protest.
By contrast, Macau, which is marking the end of its first decade as a special administrative region, appears calm, almost tranquil. Its legislature passed Article 23 legislation without much public fuss earlier this year. And, later this month, a new chief executive, former culture minister Fernando Chui Sai-on, will be elected uncontested to succeed Edmund Ho Hau-wah.
Yet, this seeming disinterest in politics may be more apparent than real. A recent survey conducted by the Macau Inter-University Institute, sheds some interesting light. For one thing, it showed that 54.3 per cent of 1,120 respondents said they were not interested in politics, yet 51 per cent of them favoured election of the chief executive through universal suffrage. Currently, the chief executive, as in Hong Kong, is chosen by an election committee.
An additional 28 per cent favoured enlarging the Election Committee, which currently has 300 members. Only 15 per cent supported the status quo.
However, while Hong Kong has been promised that its chief executive can be chosen through universal suffrage in 2017, Macau has no similar timetable. In fact, while the Hong Kong Basic Law says that 'the ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage', the Macau Basic Law is silent on this subject.
Similarly, while the Hong Kong Basic Law states unambiguously that the Legislative Council 'shall be constituted by elections' and that the ultimate aim 'is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage', in Macau, there are no such provisions. In fact, only 12 of its 29 legislators are directly elected, with 10 others being chosen by functional constituencies. Seven are not elected at all but are appointed by the chief executive. And there is no provision in its Basic Law for abolishing appointed members.
This survey - the seventh 'quality of life' report since 2007, covering the second quarter of this year - showed that 37 per cent of respondents considered there was an urgent need to have a majority of the seats directly elected while only 15 per cent said there was no need for political reform.
Furthermore, although the democratic rights of Macau residents are more limited, the turnout at legislative elections has been consistently higher than in Hong Kong.
In the latest survey, conducted in May, 66 per cent of respondents indicated their intention to vote in the upcoming legislative election in September, with 45.7 per cent voicing support for pro-democracy lists, compared to 25.1 per cent for representatives of traditional associations, 20.7 per cent for independents and 8.5 per cent for pro-gambling interests.
Asked for their views on a democratic government vis-?-vis an authoritarian one, 45.5 per cent supported democracy, while 22.5 per cent said authoritarianism may be necessary in certain circumstances.
One statistic that could go a long way to explain the attitude of Macau's residents is that 65.5 per cent of respondents - the highest ever score - said they were satisfied with their lives. This might account for so many people not being interested in politics. Yet, when asked for their political views, a majority voiced basic pro-democracy values.
This suggests that, if the economic situation should deteriorate and people's livelihoods were affected, the demand for democratic reform would manifest itself much more strongly. And because Macau's Basic Law does not provide a path to universal suffrage, there is no established channel for democratic aspirations, leading to the danger of pent-up frustrations. This is something that the next chief executive - and Beijing - would do well to keep in mind.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.