What do the Portuguese think of Macau?

ChinaMacau: Hong Kong's apolitical antithesis

The magnificent Largo do Senado - Senate Square - is the tourist hub of Macau. It is adjacent to the building that used to house the offices of the Portuguese colonial government. Chen Qing Ying is standing in front of St. Dominic's Church on the edge of the square, taking selfies with three friends. They came to Macau to shop, they happily tell. The four in their early 20s live in Zhuhai. This is the immediate neighboring city of Macau on the mainland Chinese side, ten kilometers as the crow flies. For Chen Qing Ying, the day trip to Macau feels like a trip to another country.

"It's all so exotic here. There's no such thing in mainland China. The culture cannot be compared."

And indeed, even if Macau has been part of the People's Republic of China as an autonomously governed special administrative region for 20 years: the magnificent Senate Square exudes a very European attitude towards life. The small black and white tiles with which the square is paved in a wave-like shape are reminiscent of the old towns of Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto.

With an area of ​​just over 30 square kilometers, the Macau Special Administrative Region is by far the smallest part of the People's Republic. For comparison: the total area of ​​Macau is around one tenth of the area of ​​the state of Bremen.

In terms of population, Macau is the smallest of the 33 parts of China: around 650,000 people live here in a small area - almost 100,000 more than in Bremen.

On the South Island of Macau, on Taipa, is the campus of the Macau Polytechnic Institute and the office of Xu Chang. Born in Beijing, he heads the "Centro de Estudos de um país, dois sistemas", the center for one-country-two-systems studies.

The Portuguese ruled here for more than 400 years

One country, two systems - similar to the neighboring city and former British colony Hong Kong, Macau has also been governed according to this very special principle under international law for 20 years. At that time, the Portuguese handed their colony of Macau over to the People's Republic of China after more than 400 years of rule over the area. Since then, the state and party leadership in Beijing has officially only been responsible for the national defense and foreign policy of Macau. The rest of the work is done by the government of the autonomously governed city itself. Political scientist Xu Chang is satisfied with the way Macau is governed today. Not surprising. Because the "Center for One-Country-Two-System Studies", which he heads, is an institute expressly close to the government. Really critical positions are therefore not to be expected. Xu points to statistics that show that Macau is doing better than ever economically.

"The gross domestic product has grown rapidly. In 1999 it was around 15,000 US dollars per inhabitant, in 2018 it was a good 112,000 US dollars per capita. This prosperity has ensured comprehensive social stability."

The magnificent Largo do Senado - the Senate Square - is the tourist center of Macau (imago images / Danita Delimont)
Xu Chang emphasizes that the policies of the Macau governments since the handover have done the city good. The state and party leadership in Beijing also had a share in this economic success.

But the main reason that Macau is doing so well economically is above all gambling. Because the former Portuguese colony is the only place in all of China where casinos are allowed. There are more than 40 in the Special Administrative Region, including the "Venetian Macau", the largest casino in the world in terms of area.

Most of the visitors are from mainland China. "Macau is mainly about baccarat, blackjack, roulette, dice games, various games that are only available in China - and poker."

Bella Vong has been in the industry for more than 30 years. She started out as a croupier, today she is the manager of one of the large casinos along the so-called Taipa Strip. This is the boulevard built in the mid-2000s, on which the largest and most modern casinos in the city are located. Bella Vong is one of around 110,000 people in Macau who work in a casino.

"I see it this way: We are a city of the leisure and entertainment industry. Of course, that shouldn't harm people. I see myself as an entertainment service provider and I just hope that people will have a good time here."

The economic fate of Macau depends on gambling

Gambling has a long tradition in the former Portuguese colony. But it wasn't until Macau was handed over to China 20 years ago that the industry really picked up speed, after the government of the Special Administrative Region relaxed the rules for casinos in the early 2000s and thus attracted foreign providers. Within a few years, the industry became by far the most important economic factor in the city. In 2018, Macau casinos generated annual sales of nearly € 35 billion. It's an open secret: Macau's economic fate depends on gambling.

"We all know that this is dangerous. The government has been talking for ten years that we have to make our economy more diverse and not just gamble."

Agnes Lam is a member of the Macau Parliament. Although she belongs more to the pro-mainland and pro-government camp in parliament, the former TV presenter criticizes the government for gambling. She would like more state supervision and control.

The casinos ensure that the state coffers in Macau are well-stocked. From January to October 2019, for example, the casinos in the Special Administrative Region paid almost eleven billion euros in taxes, according to industry information. Nonetheless, MP Agnes Lam says:

"That doesn't do Macau well in the long run. I think we are economically too dependent on the casinos. That is one thing. In addition, the gambling industry ties up too many social resources. That also harms us and also drives up inflation. "

Not only that, because even the gambling industry is not immune to the effects of the economic turmoil in mainland China and the aftermath of the trade dispute between China and the US. Because visitors from mainland China are now spending less money, sales at casinos in Macau have recently declined. That could even plunge the Special Administrative Region into recession next year, say analysts. For this reason, too, more and more citizens, politicians and representatives of civil society are calling for Macau's economy to be broader than before. But that's easier said than done, says casino manager Bella Vong:

"I have the feeling that the government is urging the operators to also set up entertainment offers that have nothing to do with gambling. However, we have to realize that, for example, international entertainment shows and the like simply do not attract enough viewers. that our guests from mainland China don't care enough. "

There is no real democracy in the Special Administrative Region

Despite the weakening economy in mainland China, the halls with the roulette, blackjack and poker tables are still well filled. The casinos make less profit than before, but the concept of the giant casinos with the connected hotels and shopping centers is still obviously working too well to fundamentally change anything.

The convenience that fast and, above all, a lot of money creates, has also meant that far fewer people in Macau are interested in politics than in neighboring Hong Kong, for example. There is no loud opposition or even protests and demonstrations against the government in Macau. Since the departure of the Portuguese 20 years ago, the city has been ruled by politicians who are expressly friendly to mainland China. There is no real democracy in the Macau Special Administrative Region. Similar to Hong Kong, for example, the heads of government are determined by an electoral body that is not democratically legitimized. And the candidate is de facto selected in advance by the communist leadership in Beijing. At least the parliament is elected partly democratically. But here too, certain laws ensure that pro-mainland MPs always retain a majority. Because of the 33 seats, only 14, and thus not even half, are freely elected by the people of Macau.

The casinos ensure well-stocked state coffers in Macau (picture alliance / dpa / Ym Yik)
One of these freely elected MPs is Sulu Sou. The 28-year-old is the youngest politician on the Macau Legislative Council. Unlike the also freely elected MP and former television presenter Agnes Lam, Sulu Sou sees herself as a critic of the government in parliament. It is not easy for him and his "New Macau Association" party.

They are not only in the minority in parliament, says Sulu Sou, but also in Macau society. Nevertheless, his work and that of the few other members of parliament who are critical of the government make sense.

"We cannot influence the outcome of parliamentary votes, but we do influence legislation and policy making. We receive first-hand government information during deliberations. And we can make this available directly to the public and the press."

16,000 public cameras

Sulu Sou sees his task primarily in making the actions of politics transparent. Accordingly, he and his party are very active online, especially on Facebook. The topic that is currently on Sulu Sou's political agenda is the numerous new surveillance cameras in the city.

"Since the democracy movement in Hong Kong, known as the Umbrella Movement, began five years ago, the Macau government has become more cautious. It has passed numerous public safety laws through parliament and a lot of surveillance cameras have been installed across the city. We now have 16,000 public ones Cameras in this small town. From next year they will also be equipped with face recognition. We want to draw society's attention to this issue. "

The young MP does not only mention events in the neighboring city of Hong Kong when it comes to surveillance cameras. In the conversation he referred several times to the former British colony, only 40 kilometers east of Macau. Both cities have something in common, but there are also many dividing lines, emphasizes Sulu Sou:

"Hong Kong and Macau are different societies. We have different histories. We are completely different. But we share a common fate: We are the only two special administrative regions under the control of the Beijing leadership."

Both cities have a special political status under the motto "One country, two systems." Like those in Hong Kong, the citizens of Macau enjoy certain autonomous rights such as freedom of expression and uncensored internet. In addition, like Hong Kong, Macau has its own currency, its own customs system and passport controls at the borders with mainland China. But that was it with the similarities, says Xu Cheng from the Center for One-Country-Two-Systems Studies:

"Macau is in much better shape than Hong Kong, which we are currently experiencing. We have stable political conditions, a growing economy and good social relations. That is very obvious."

The majority of the people have come to terms with it

While neighboring Hong Kong has been going through the biggest political crisis since the end of the colonial era since June, with demonstrations, mass protests, strikes, riots and bloody police operations, a majority of the people in Macau have clearly come to terms with the government's pro-mainland course. This has a long tradition: When anti-Portuguese protests broke out in Macau at the end of the 1960s, the colonial rulers at the time got involved in a deal: China's communist state and party leadership was indirectly involved in the affairs of government in Macau, long before the actual handover of the city 20 years ago. According to the pro-democracy MP Sulu Sou, this does not mean that everyone is satisfied with the state of affairs in Macau. Of course, there is also a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction here.

"Many people here who can think independently are against the course of the Macau government. At the same time, they are afraid to speak out in public. They are afraid of losing their jobs, of problems at university and of stress with their families. That is why we are in the minority. "

If you are traveling by bus, you can drive through the Macau Special Administrative Region completely from north to south in around three quarters of an hour. The stops are announced in four languages: Cantonese, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese and English.

For most people in Macau, the mother tongue is Cantonese, which is also spoken in Hong Kong and much of the neighboring mainland Chinese province of Guangdong. Standard Chinese - also known as Mandarin - has grown in importance in the past 20 years, mainly because of the large number of immigrants from mainland China. They now make up more than a third of the population. Portuguese is still the official language in Macau. All official government documents are still being translated into Portuguese. Road signs, information signs, banknotes and many billboards are also labeled in Portuguese in Macau.

The most Portuguese place in Macau is the small, sleepy village of Colonel, in the very south of Taipa. With its cozy promenade, the small church and a market square surrounded by colonnades, Coloane could also pass as a village in the Portuguese Algarve.

A 72-year-old shopkeeper sits in front of his small kiosk, which apparently almost exclusively sells beer and lemonade. He feels very comfortable here in the village, he says, because everyone knows everyone here. You can rely on that.

Macau is one of the cities in China with the fewest problems

He has lived here in the house behind the kiosk for 50 years, says the shopkeeper. Not much has changed in Coloane. The handover from Portugal to China did not change that much. With one exception.

"Unlike in the past, we old people now have more money available. Every month there are a few hundred euros from the state. The handover day 20 years ago - that wasn't a big thing for me. Nothing has changed. But of course I am I am glad that Macau is now part of China again. "

Without a doubt, Macau is one of the cities in China with the fewest problems and worries. Nowhere else in East Asia are people so rich on average, nowhere else do they get as old as in the former Portuguese colony. That seduces many people to completely suppress the fact that in the year 2049 Macau's autonomous status will be over, says the government-critical MP Sulu Sou.

"In Hong Kong, the end of the 50-year autonomy status has been discussed for years. This debate is not taking place here. The people are enjoying the good economic situation."

Until the transition period negotiated with Portugal expires in Macau in 30 years and the status as an autonomous special administrative region ends, the 28-year-old wants to continue fighting for the preservation of civil rights and for more democracy in Macau. Even if it's not easy.

"We have to remain optimistic. My colleagues and I are a minority in Macau, but if we stop standing up for these important core values, who will do it? That's why I keep smiling."