Why are there no protests in Macau?

Macau and Hong Kong: China's Unequal Children

For five months now, people in Hong Kong have been demonstrating for more democracy. What began as a mass protest against a controversial extradition law has turned into a movement that campaigns for greater independence from the Chinese government in Beijing, against police violence and for the resignation of Hong Kong's Prime Minister Carrie Lam. The civil and sometimes violent disobedience of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has become a challenge for China and the principle of "one country, two systems".

Macau: Beijing's showpiece

Only an hour by ferry from Hong Kong is the former colony of Macau, which is celebrating the end of Portuguese colonial times 20 years ago. There is no sign of the neighbors' rebellion. The semi-autonomous Macau is connected to the Chinese mainland by the world's largest sea bridge. The city is often referred to as Beijing's better educated Special Administrative Region, because none of the Hong Kong protests has ever spilled over here. Many wonder how Macau became the flagship object of the Beijing government, while its neighbor is a symbol of resistance.

"Most of the people in Macau are not behind the protesters, they are behind the Hong Kong government," Kin-Sun Chan, assistant professor of administrative law at the University of Macau, told DW. Given the huge differences, it is difficult to compare the two special administrative regions directly, said Chan. "The economic situations of Macau and Hong Kong are very different. Macau is also much smaller. That is why Macau is much more dependent on mainland China."

The majority of Macau people feel they are Chinese

And then there are the residents: While almost 7.5 million people live in Hong Kong, there are just 623,000 in Macau. And: Most of them were born in mainland China, in Hong Kong it is only about 20 percent. "The majority of Macau people consider themselves Chinese and have strong ties to China," said Kin-Sun Chan of the University of Macau.

Compared to Hong Kong's economic development, Macau is only a microeconomy and needs support from China, said Chan. Even if Macau's per capita income is the fourth highest in the world - and thus larger than that of Hong Kong - its economic power is much smaller. For example, Macau depends on mainland tourists for its economic survival. In 2018, 70 percent of the visitors came from China.

Known as the Las Vegas of Asia, Macau, with its many casinos, makes a lot of money - 50 percent of the budget comes from gambling. Hong Kong, on the other hand, a financial metropolis in Asia, is more focused on its business relationships with the West.

Historical differences

The moment Macau was returned to China in 1999

The two Chinese special administrative regions also differ in terms of their history. Hong Kong was colonized by the British more than 150 years ago and returned to China in 1997. Macau had been under Portuguese rule since 1557 and was ceremoniously returned to China in 1999. Both colonial powers have left their mark - not only in the legal and civil society structures, but also in the ideological and cultural identity of the people. For a long time, for example, the Hong Kong people not only had no connection to Beijing, they felt superior to the mainland Chinese. This is the result of Eurocentrism and Western propaganda that came with British rule, said Yuk-Lin Wong, a professor at the University of York.

Under the British colonial power, new or changed belief systems and hierarchies were introduced in Hong Kong. The Hong Kongers gradually accepted liberalism, the judiciary and later freedom of expression. In Macau, on the other hand, the Portuguese struggled to maintain control of the government. They gave the Chinese Communist Party some say in the decision-making process before it was returned to Beijing. In fact, Macau was under Chinese leadership 33 years before its colonial independence.

Gang fights in the casino

Mafia groups known as Triads caused unrest and chaos in both Hong Kong and Macau during the colonial period. In Macau, fighting between rival gangs in casinos led to economic losses and violence. With the withdrawal of both special administrative areas by China, the triads were also expelled. Many Macauers viewed Beijing's intervention as the restoration of social order and financial stability. And so there has been little protest in Macau against mainland China to this day. In 2014 people took to the streets against a pension law, in the same year some tried to push through a referendum against the re-election of Prime Minister Fernando Chui Sai-On. The police quickly put an end to this.

A look inside one of Macau's many casinos

The neighbors in Hong Kong are much more willing to demonstrate. At least since the successful protests against the introduction of the school subject "National Education" in 2012, the Hong Kong people have understood how effective the mobilization of the masses can be. Why does this work here but not in Macau? Kin-Sun Chan of the University of Macau believes it is due to the financial metropolis's legal system, which is more developed than Macau's in terms of civil society and the rule of law. So the people in Hong Kong know that they can rely on a certain order and laws and feel safe even during a demonstration, says Chan. This framework would make protests against an authoritarian government more likely.

Associations apply pressure

In Macau, on the other hand, there are not only many associations but also something like "influential neighborhoods", in which mainly members of the pro-Beijing elite live. Many groups such as the Macau Economic Union and the Jiangmen Community have seats on the city council. While such groups on the one hand successfully lobbyed for disadvantaged groups on many channels, on the other hand they would also exert pressure, according to assistant professor Chan.

How the Macau authorities feel about the protests in neighboring Hong Kong only became clear at the beginning of the month. The city's security officer announced that gatherings of student groups holding placards showing solidarity for the Hong Kong protests could be considered illegal. In August, the police stopped a solidarity event for Hong Kong and took seven people into custody.

"It's too early to say whether Hong Kong has failed and Macau is a success," said Kent Deng, professor of economic history at DW's London School of Economics. "We should give both of them another five years. Then we can make a final assessment."