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China, national security and a tale of two cities

Posted by Author on November 28, 2008

By Tom Mitchell in Hong Kong and Justine Lau in Macao, The Financial Times, November 26 2008 –

Macao and Hong Kong, China’s two special administrative regions, speak the same dialect, watch the same television programmes and are just an hour away from each other by ferry. But when it comes to politics, the two cities are a world apart.

Five years ago a debate over national security legislation mandated by article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, rocked the territory’s political establishment. On Sunday in Macao, fewer than 100 people attended a rally against a similar law.

“It is always stressful to oppose the government in Macao because it is such a small place,” said Au Kam-san, a Macao legislator. “If your boss sees you march and doesn’t like it, you may lose your job.”

“I am not joining,” Ms Chan, a housewife, said as she walked past the demonstration. “I don’t really know anything about politics. I am happy as long as my husband and my two children have jobs and pay rises.”

In Hong Kong five years ago, opposition to article 23 legislation, a severe economic slump and the unpopularity of Hong Kong’s first Chinese chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, inspired more than 500,000 people to take to the streets in protest. It was the beginning of a period of political turmoil that forced the Hong Kong government to scrap the proposed national security measures and led to the resignations of Hong Kong’s security and finance chiefs. Mr Tung also stepped down two years later.

A stew of econ-omic and political grievance is bubbling up in Macao, however, posing a challenge to the government and its chief executive, Edmund Ho. Strains arising from rampant growth of the former Portuguese enclave’s gambling industry, the world’s largest, were already eroding popular support for Mr Ho before the economy began to turn.This month Las Vegas Sands made 11,000 people redundant after the casino operator suspended work on two construction sites.

That said, the situation remains much less explosive in Macao than it did in Hong Kong, in part because China looms a lot larger in tiny Macao.

China’s sovereign power laps at Macao’s own shores. Unlike Hong Kong, Macao does not have territorial waters and reclamation projects require special approval from Beijing. With a population of 550,000 and land area of just 29.2 sq km, the territory is so small that residents have a diminutive nickname for it: “Macao Street”. Hong Kong, by contrast, has a population of 7m spread across more than 1,100 sq km.

Hong Kong inherited a much more robust legal system and civil society from its former British colonial rulers than Macao did from Portugal, which never reasserted its authority after riots in December 1966 inspired by the Cultural Revolution. A full-scale invasion of Macao by Maoist red guards was averted only after the People’s Liberation Army mobilised to protect the then Portuguese enclave. Adding insult to injury, Macao’s colonial rulers were also forced to negotiate a humiliating truce with a pro-Beijing cabal of local labour leaders and businessmen known as the “committee of thirteen”.

Ronnie Tong, a barrister and Hong Kong legislator, got a taste of the claustrophobia on Macao Street when he travelled there on Saturday at the invitation of activists and students opposed to Mr Ho’s proposed national security laws.

Mr Tong was a founding member of the article 23 concern group that lobbied against Hong Kong’s proposed national security laws five years ago. The concern group later evolved into the Civic party, now one of the largest pro-democracy forces in the city.

Mr Tong said his meeting had to be rearranged after the organisers were refused a venue and it was also subject to government surveillance. “Those students are pretty scared. They haven’t seen anything like this before,” he said.

“Macao is quite a small society,” said Tsang Kwok-fung, a Civic party official who also accompanied Mr Tong. “The students are quite worried about their job prospects after graduation if they come out to express their views. They have to think [through the consequences] very carefully.

“When we went to the meeting place, we were tailed by three [plainclothes] policemen. They followed us the whole trip. We were shocked.”

Mr Tong fears that passage of national security legislation in Macao could put pressure on Hong Kong, which has yet to enact such legislation as constitutionally required.

“I fear [Macao’s] legislation will get passed in March very quickly and very quietly,” he said. “It is so widely drawn and could apply even to Hong Kong media [operating in Macao].”

The Financial Times

One Response to “China, national security and a tale of two cities”

  1. patricia230 said

    I think even if they moved in force bare handed they would take some stopping!

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