By David Gitter |
If you asked someone to describe the culture of Chinese gambling hub Macau, political awareness would hardly be the first attribute to come to mind. But as Hong Kongâ€™s people defy Beijing and keep hope alive for universal suffrage through protractedÂ protestsÂ â€“ which appeared to reignite overnight after talks with Hong Kong authorities failed â€“ Chinaâ€™s other special administrative region is not immune to the allure of democratic concepts coming from across the Pearl River Estuary. As Hong Kongâ€™s influence supplements new homegrown political and labor activism, the stage may be set for Macauâ€™s own grassroots democracy movement.
Macauâ€™s people first showed signs of a political awakening of its own in May 2014, when mass rallies forced the regionâ€™s chief executive to forfeit aÂ controversial bill. The measure would have provided extravagant retirement packages for top officials and given the serving Macau chief executive immunity from criminal charges. In response, as many as 20,000 of Macauâ€™s half a million citizens surrounded the territoryâ€™s legislature and demanded that the idea be scrapped, forcing Chief Executive Dr. Fernando Chui Sai On to heed their call. Many took time off from work to participate, realizing for the first time that political activism can lead to improved governance. As casino worker Ada PunÂ explained, before Macauâ€™s people saw their Hong Kong counterparts as troublesome, â€œBut this time, the Macau government is testing our bottom line â€¦ and we finally realised we could make a change if we stood united.â€ Rally organizer Sulu Sou Ka-hou called the abandonment of the unpopular bill a victory, butÂ maintainedÂ that, â€œat the end of the day, the problem today stems from the undemocratic political system we have.â€
The political influence of Hong Kong is also apparent. The cityâ€™s ongoing political unrest seems to have emboldened many Macau residents to take up the mantle of universal suffrage as well. This June, after Beijing dismissed as â€œillegalâ€ Hong Kongâ€™s unofficialÂ referendum on democracy, which turned out 800,000 voters, Macau held its own unofficial referendum on the same question. This took place even as Macauâ€™s own leader was â€œreelectedâ€ by the territoryâ€™s pro-Beijing election committee in a one-horse race. Of the nearly 9,000 people who cast their ballot, 89 percent cast a vote of no confidence in their chief executive, and 95 percent said they would prefer their leadership to be chosen throughÂ direct elections.
As it happens, this period of dissatisfaction with the political system is overlapping with a period of labor empowerment. On October 3, hundreds of dealers from MGMâ€™s flagship casino went onÂ strikeÂ to demand better wages and benefits, following a summer trend of large-scale labor demonstrations. A Morgan Stanley report projects continued labor shortages and increased casino employeeÂ bargaining powerÂ for several years to come, which may mean increased labor activism during this time. All of this coincides with ongoing political turbulence before Hong Kongâ€™s chief executive election in 2017, which is already having a strong impact on Macauâ€™s political consciousness.
This fusion of drivers over an extended period of time may very well create favorable conditions for massive political demonstrations, supported by Macau labor. It is important to remember that in China, workers have supported calls for democracy before.Â Tiananmen SquareÂ in 1989 was a perfect example of labor marching in support of political rights. In Hong Kongâ€™s current protests, as many asÂ 10,000 workersÂ from all labor sectors have shown solidarity with the Occupy Central movement, adding further legitimacy to their political cause. The workers of Macau may eventually feel inspired to do the same as they witness their Hong Kong compatriots turning out by the thousands to support political freedoms.
For now, the people of Macau will likely look on from afar as the political future of Hong Kong plays out. Even so, Beijing and the world should not simply dismiss Macauâ€™s people as apolitical in orientation, as they soon may gamble that the time to try their luck at democracy has arrived.
This article was originally published in theÂ DiplomatÂ on October 11, 2014.Â