Macau braces itself for a political storm in wake of Typhoon Hato

The response to Typhoon Hato infuriated many, but how will that translate at next week’s polls?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 11:37am

A deadly typhoon in Macau last month left behind not just catastrophic damage but a political undercurrent that could stir the legislative elections this coming Sunday.

Fierce debates have been raging online on how votes should be cast to hold the government accountable. Angry residents have railed against its anaemic response after Typhoon Hato left 10 dead, scores injured, and many more without water and power for days in Asia’s biggest casino city.

Questions on the political dividends to be garnered from Hato make the polls more interesting. For the most part, politics in Macau revolves around pro-establishment shoe-shining.

Macau suffers US$1.42 billion economic loss in wake of Typhoon Hato

Yet the election debate in one of China’s two special administrative regions, or SARs, could not be a more stark counterpoint to Hong Kong, the other SAR. Macau returned to China in 1999, two years after Hong Kong made the transition from Britain.

In Hong Kong, any poor handling by government of a crisis would be guaranteed to give its critics a massive edge.

Marching of the PLA

In Macau, things are not so clear-cut. Hence, despite all the attacks on the government, one of Macau’s most seasoned democrats was not counting his chips yet in seizing any advantage from the debacle. Au Kam-san’s questioning of the government’s decision to call in the People’s Liberation Army to undertake the massive clean-up after the typhoon was not an outright winning call.

The marching of the PLA from its garrison onto the streets marked the first time Macau had made such request to the central government, as provided for under the Basic Law, since 1999.

“If even cleaning up rubbish requires the help of the PLA, what right does Macau have talking about its people governing themselves?” Au, who is seeking another term, wrote in a Facebook post.

Angry internet users flooded his page to accuse him of being “cold-blooded” and “talking more than helping”.

A rare quarrel over the PLA invitation also erupted between Macau locals and Hongkongers, who fear it had set a worrying precedent. Alarmists wondered aloud if this was a precursor to the garrison being called upon in future on the security front.

While the calamitous situation and the fear of a disease outbreak might have prompted the invitation, the receptive attitude highlighted yet again the different paths the two cities had taken in the roll-out of the “one country, two systems” blueprint when they returned to mainland rule.

In May, the top Beijing official in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, Zhang Dejiang, drew attention to the difference by holding up the former Portuguese colony as a role model in implementing “one country, two systems” and an example to Hong Kong on how to meet Beijing’s expectations.

Good student v rebel

He made a pointed reference to Macau’s success in “safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests”. Many read it as a veiled attack if not warning to Hong Kong, which in the past few years has witnessed the rise of separatist sentiments. In a nutshell, Macau was the good student and Hong Kong, the rebellious one.

Storms bring out the worst in governments, but the best in people

“The situation of Macau and Hong Kong is completely different,” Sulu Sou Ka-hou, a rising Macau pro-democracy activist contesting the elections, told the Post.

It was very difficult for the democracy movement to take root in Macau, said Sou, who attributed it to the residents’ lack of interest in politics amid a thriving economy with gaming as its lifeline, contributing to nearly half its GDP.

According to Macau’s official figures, per capita GDP last year was 554,619 patacas, compared with Hong Kong’s HK$338,806. Both currencies have almost equal value.

“The young people in Macau are living a more stable life compared to their counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan and thus they may have a weaker sense of crisis,” the 26-year-old candidate said.

“One might expect the youth would tend to back young candidates in the election. But no – they in fact worry the young activists would destroy the relatively stable life they are living.”

In 2014, Sou led a protest joined by 20,000 citizens to condemn a bill that would allow cushy benefits for outgoing top officials. The turnout marked the biggest demonstration in the city since residents joined hands worldwide with other protesters rallying against the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The 2014 protest, which forced the government to shelve the bill, was regarded as Macau’s political awakening. But three years later, any momentum from it seems a distant memory.

Sou now hoped in the aftermath of Typhoon Hato that the Macau residents, who have seen young people united in volunteering to help clean up, would be encouraged to go out and vote – and hopefully cast their lot with pro-democracy aspirants.

Social affairs commentator Larry So Man-yum also felt that the typhoon’s devastating consequences could play a role in the elections. “Every politician is using this issue and putting it to their own advantage … But pro-democrats are the ones who have criticised the government about this all along,” he noted.

In wake of deadly typhoon, Macau chief executive faces tough questions over ‘unforeseen incidents’ committee

Although the unpreparedness of the local government in handling the disaster might play in their favour, the pro-democrats are fragmented into three lists – the result of what many understand to be an ideological split– and this could affect their performance.

“The pro-democracy candidates will have a harder time than before … The split among them is not only a disadvantage, it can also be disastrous… Traditional associations will make use of that,” So said. This is why he was not hopeful of a major shift in the balance of power.

Macau’s Legislative Assembly comprises 33-members, 14 of whom are directly elected by Macau residents; 12 are indirectly elected by associations, similar to the functional constituencies in Hong Kong. The remaining seven are appointed by the chief executive.

Unlike Hong Kong, Macau does not allow political parties and the political landscape is mainly formed by three major blocs: the pro-democracy and moderate camp, which currently holds only four seats in the chamber; the pro-Beijing bloc; and the business camp spearheaded by the gaming industry, with representatives including Angela Leong On-kei.

Leong, the fourth wife of casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun and the executive director of SJM Holdings, is seeking re-election with businessman Kuan Vai-lam and her son Arnaldo Ho Yau-heng.

Hoping to secure two seats, Leong is campaigning on getting the city to take advantage of the country’s “Belt and Road” initiative as well as the Greater Bay Area, a network to create a technology hub based on the further integration of Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong cities.

Leong said Macau was a traditional and harmonious society that tended to put economic development above politics and had set “good precedent” in cooperating with the mainland.

She cited the relocation of the University of Macau to Hengqin, an island in southern Guangdong province, in 2013. The Macau government paid 1.2 billion patacas for a 40-year land lease.

“Other Macau universities could also consider moving to Hengqin or Zhongshan in future ... so more space in Macau could be reserved for residential use,” Leong told the Post. “The implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ in Macau has absolutely no problem in Macau.”

Government incompetence

Political scientist Dr Eilo Yu Wing-yat, of the University of Macau, said the incompetence of the Macau government had contributed to the “successful” implementation of “one country, two systems”.

“While Hong Kong might oppose Beijing’s intervention, Macau locals actually find the intervention suitable in the face of a rotten government,” Yu said.

The Macau government had commissioned a number of preliminary research projects related to waterworks and livelihood issues to mainland advisers because of its inability to undertake such projects, he noted, citing such cases to show how they triggered almost no suspicion from the public.

“A bad government actually strengthens the concept of ‘one country’ among citizens,” Yu said. “It is entirely different from Hong Kong, where its administration is regarded as effective compared to the mainland.”

Weather bureau in Macau faces graft probe in wake of Typhoon Hato

Yu said he believed the typhoon would give pro-democracy candidates like Sou only a tiny fillip as the civil participation of the city’s youth was barely nascent.

The differences in mindsets between the two cities were also reflected in opinion polls. According to studies by University of Hong Kong in 2016, over 61 per cent of Macau residents said they trusted the central government, while only 38.8 per cent of Hongkongers shared the same sentiment.

Similarly, almost four in five Macau locals expressed confidence in “one country, two systems”, compared to the 47 per cent in Hong Kong last year.

Liaison offices

But there was one thing in common between the twin cities: the increasingly active role played by Beijing’s liaison offices.

In July, Jose Pereira Coutinho, one of the most outspoken lawmakers in Macau, publicly apologised for accusing the liaison office of interfering in the city’s elections – a move that some political analysts saw as an attempt to limit any potential damage to his re-election chances.

The controversy centred on a dinner organised by the liaison office in June with members of the Macanese – residents of mixed heritage – and Portuguese communities. He was not invited.

Coutinho, who heads the Civil Servants Association and has been a directly elected lawmaker since 2005, accused the liaison office of favouring a rival Macanese candidate, Jorge Neto Valente, son of the president of the Macau Lawyers Association.

But he unexpectedly issued an apology letter published in two major local Chinese-language newspapers. “The words I used were profoundly inappropriate,” Coutinho wrote. “The liaison office has ... contributed to the harmony of the local society. Its efforts are recognised by the Macau people, including the Macanese.”

Political commentator Leung Kai-yin noted that the liaison office played a very active role in Macau society. “There are many middle men on behalf of the central government here … It does not mean they control the elections, but they have much influence over it, because there are many pro-Beijing associations and they can coordinate them,” he said.

A Hong Kong-based analyst on Macau affairs, Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, noted that the former Portuguese hub “is a small place, which requires a certain degree of harmony among political actors”. At the end of the day, Lo noted: “Any lawmaker needs the support and communication with Chinese authorities to get things done.”

Despite the closer cooperation, Sou did not believe Beijing would ever be ready to give Macau more latitude politically.

“It was just for the sake of cautioning Hong Kong that the central government showered praise on the city,” he said. Macau also had to reckon with a fast-ageing population, like Hong Kong, and that too could add to its economic burdens, making the future not as rosy as some would like to believe.

This, Sou said, was why he was in it for the long-haul and would stick around even if lost on Sunday.

“If Beijing insists universal suffrage can only be implemented in a stable society, then let us demonstrate it to Hong Kong.”