China’s state media celebrated the “election” Sunday of pro-China politician Ho Iat Seng as the chief executive of Macau, despite Ho being the only candidate legally on the ballot and the voters being a committee of China loyalists tasked with choosing the city’s leaders.
Prior to Sunday’s election, Reuters described Ho as “a Beijing-backed former legislator who is expected to cement China’s control over the special administrative region and distance it from escalating protests in neighboring Hong Kong.”
Macau is an autonomous city in the same “bay area” as Hong Kong and run under the same policy: One Country, Two Systems. It is known as the world’s gambling capital and uses its freedom from communist policies to generate revenue that fuels the greater Chinese economy.
Millions of Hong Kong residents have been taking to the streets to protest against China regularly since June, objecting primarily to a law that would allow Hong Kong police to arrest people in the city if accused of breaking Communist Party law, a violation of the One Country, Two Systems policy. As many people, especially youth, regularly travel back and forth between Hong Kong and Macau, authorities fear that discontent will spread and the protests will take hold in Macau.
Currently, a small but growing dissident movement is present in Macau.
Xinhua, Beijing’s government-controlled news agency, reported on Sunday that the Communist Party expects Ho to “shoulder responsibilities to push forward the practice of ‘one country, two systems,’ and to safeguard national sovereignty, safety and interests.” The agency noted that Ho attributed his win to “the agreeing of most voters on his election motto ‘Unity and Effort, Change and Innovation.'”
Xinhua noted that Ho cannot take power without being “approved by China’s central government.”
To the extent Ho campaigned for the job, he presented himself as someone offering stability and continuity to the small economic hub, and claimed that he had been urged not to “mess up Macau” the way that Hong Kong had been “messed up” by calls for full democracy. He promised new initiatives to boost “patriotism” for communist rule.
Despite running uncontested, Ho only won with 98 percent of the vote. He lost eight of the 400 votes given to China loyalists “from all walks of social life” on the matter. The Macau Daily Times reported that seven of the votes against Ho were blank, potentially intended as protest votes, and one was “ambiguous” and disqualified.
Ho will govern for at least five years.
Ho held a two-hour press conference following his election where the Hong Kong protest movement’s impact was strongly felt’ Xinhua did not cover this portion of the press conference. Reporters, the Daily Times noted, asked Ho about Macau potentially considering an extradition law similar to the one that triggered the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. Ho “pledged that local people would not be sent to the mainland [China] for legal trials, responding to a question related to possible extradition laws.” Ho also defended the police’s choice to refuse a permit for a pro-democracy protest in Macau last week in response to questions regarding his support for freedom of speech and assembly clearly inspired by the Hong Kong movement.
Ho replied by asserting, “Macau has never seen as much freedom as it has now.”
China is eager to elevate Macau as a law-abiding, business-friendly alternative to the much larger Hong Kong, currently in the throes of millions-strong protests against Beijing’s communist authoritarianism (in contrast, Macau only has a total population of about 600,000). While China governs Macau through the same policy as Hong Kong, Macau’s Portuguese heritage prior to the Chinese takeover and less bustling youth culture have kept it somewhat marginalized from the protest movement a two-hour ferry ride away.
Macau is nonetheless home to a germinating democratic movement, in part inspired by Hong Kong. In mid-August, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that Macau’s disaffected youth are beginning to organize for the right to participate in their government. Many are students who frequently visit Hong Kong and have ties to student protesters there, and many rightfully fear that the consequences for protesting in Macau are higher than they are in Hong Kong.
“In Macau, if you protest or if you openly support the movement, you will probably lose your job, receive threats and be watched by the police,” 20-year-old student Christine Kuok told the SCMP this month. “It’s quite painful for youth like me in Macau. I only feel alive when I am in Hong Kong or in Taiwan,” she said.
A sign of growing discontent in Macau emerged on August 15, when an anonymous poster began circulating in the city advertising a “legitimate, rational, and peaceful” protest in Senado Square on August 19. The protest would feature protesters standing together in silence at 8 p.m. local time. Protesters attempted to obtain a permit from police but authorities deemed the idea of a protest a disturbance of social order and refused to grant permission.
Fearing that protesters would gather in the square regardless of the legality of the protest, police dispatched dozens of officers to the square at the hour the posters ordered supporters to attend. The Macau Daily Times identified “at least six police minibuses” full of police descending on the small square. No protesters arrived, but officers reported harassed passersby found to be wearing black, the color of the Hong Kong protest. The newspaper identified at least one couple who police “arrested,” and later claimed to be “investigating,” because they carried “unclear” stickers in their bags.
In addition to a protest, the pro-democracy New Macau Association (ANM, their initials in Portuguese) attempted to poll residents about their democratic aspirations and faced a barrage of cyber-attacks on their website. The ANM launched a city-wide survey asking if residents would like to elect their leaders directly.
“The voting website has faced severe cyberattacks since last week. Although I have no evidence to suggest whether the attacks are ‘state-sponsored’, I can tell that the attackers are professionals,” Jason Chao Teng-hei, an activist running the voting website, told the South China Morning Post last week. “Traces of their activities suggest that the origin is mainland China.”
Despite having to shut down online voting early due to suspected Chinese regime cyber attacks, the poll found 94 percent of respondents supported the popular election of Macau’s chief executive.