For Hong Kong democrats, the news from the other side of the Pearl River Estuary has provided a modest morale-booster. With six pro-democracy legislators already disqualified in the oath-taking saga, several others awaiting the same fate, 16 political activists jailed, and multiple court cases likely to end in the same result, the mood here is all doom and gloom. Everything has failed, they say, and no one can suggest what to do next.

In contrast, their loyalist opponents are riding the wave, some even demanding the ultimate punishment for all who dare defy Beijing and champion the cause of Hong Kong independence.

Special elections to begin replacing the six ousted Legislative Councilors are six months away and new restrictions mean candidates will be vetted for politically correct behavior. But therein lies the first glimmer of opportunity for revival. And where should the first signs appear to point the way forward but in the most unlikely of places, namely, an election in Macau. If it can happen there, anything is possible.

Beijing's Favorite

The former Portuguese colony seems to have settled comfortably into its new post-1999 role as Beijing’s model Special Administrative Region (SAR). Macau followed Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty, but demonstrated little dissent and has nothing comparable to Hong Kong’s defiant democracy movement defense of civil rights and freedoms. Macau and Hong Kong received all the same promises about one-country, two-systems, local autonomy, preservation of the existing way of life, etc.

In Macau’s case that included the preservation and development of its main sources of income: gaming and tourism. And Macau has prospered as a result. Thanks to casino capitalism it has one of the highest gross domestic product per capita ratios in the world and now claims to rank number one in the global gaming industry.

The sources of its wealth were nevertheless no problem for ranking Communist Party leader Zhang Dejiang who had nothing but praise for Macau during his visit there a few months ago. It was actually a message to Hong Kong from Beijing delivered via Macau: the good son as role model for his wayward sibling. Editorial writers here expressed the idea in terms of an old four-character-phrase: 指桑罵槐 literally: point out the mulberry to scold the locust tree.

That conclusion was inescapable since Zhang’s Macau itinerary and praise at each stop along the way, coincided with all the points on Beijing roster of accumulating grievances against Hong Kong. In Macau, there had been no arguments over the practical implications of Beijing’s sovereignty and its declaration of “comprehensive jurisdiction”; no dissident antics in the Legislative Assembly; no scenes over oath-taking; no resistance to Basic Law Article 23 legislation on national security; no complaints about integration with Beijing’s national economic and infrastructure plans; no need for reminders about the authority of the national constitution; and no problem with national patriotic education for the younger generation.

Typhoon Hato and the PLA

Like Hong Kong, Macau holds legislative elections once every four years and Sunday, September 17, was Election Day in Macau. It seemed set to be another routine exercise until the interruption caused by a severe tropical storm in mid-August. The typhoon was named Hato and was one of the strongest in many years, impacting both Hong Kong and Macau. But Hong Kong has built strong defenses against these storms that blow in from the South China Sea every summer. Macau for whatever reason is less well-prepared and also didn’t raise the storm signals in good time.

The loudest critics said it was because the authorities didn’t want to shut down the casinos and call an early end to the gaming day. Others said the problems were more basic: building construction, transport, water, and electricity all adding up to inadequate preparation beforehand and slow response afterward. There were fatalities, many injured, and much property damage. Economic losses were estimated at US$1.4 billion.

City authorities also did what Hong Kong has steadfastly refused to consider. They asked the local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison for help. Beijing had insisted that both SAR’s have military representation as a symbol of restored Chinese sovereignty over the two ex-colonial territories. Their mandate is to help maintain public order and participate in disaster relief as and when necessary, at the request of the local governments. A thousand uniformed military personnel came out armed with brooms and buckets to do the sweeping up and heavy lifting.

When election campaigning resumed, pro-democracy candidates thought they saw an opportunity where none had existed before. They targeted both the local government’s poor response to Typhoon Hato and the PLA’s clean-up detail.


Macau’s 650,000 people are represented in a 33-seat Legislative Assembly, which features even more colonial-style holdovers than does Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. In Macau, the 33 seats are divided among 14 directly-elected representatives; 12 filled by occupational or Functional Constituencies; and seven still appointed by Macau’s Chief Executive. Conservatives and pro-establishment, pro-Beijing legislators dominate in all sectors with only a handful of pro-democracy opposition members confined to the directly-elected sector.

Despite their minuscule influence, democratic forces were, inevitably, at odds with each other. The division was between mainstream moderates and younger activists. Until recently all were mostly contained within the New Macau Association. But the group split last year depriving it of its two incumbent mainstream legislators: 60-year-old Au Kam-san (區錦新) and Antonio Ng Kwok-cheong (吳國昌). That left Sulu Sou Ka-hou (蘇嘉豪) at the helm. He was a defeated candidate in the last election four years ago when he was only 22 years old.

Initially, after the storm, they all began by targeting the government’s poor response and especially its decision to call out the PLA for clean-up duty. This line partially backfired, however, once the general public let it be known that people didn’t really care where the extra help came from at a time when it was definitely needed. Pro-establishment pundits then began predicting a wipe-out for pro-democracy candidates.

Instead, they not only did better than expected but better than ever before. For Macau, it was a kind of wave election because Democrats’ gains came at the expense of their establishment opponents.

The first unusual aspect of the election was the record number of registered voters: over 300,000 in a population of only 650,000. Next was the Election Day turnout: at 57 percent not a record high, but a record number of votes cast. In 2009, the turnout was almost 60 percent but with fewer registered voters and ballots.

Third was a slight shift in the power balance. Democrats were not only not eliminated but won an additional seat, up from four to five. Despite the tensions in the New Macau Association and fears that the “youth wing” would crowd out their elders, there were enough votes to share all around.

Running on separate lists, the two older incumbents, Au and Ng, retained their seats as did a third: government critic Jose Maria Pereira Coutinho. The two young newcomers are Sulu Sou and Agnes Lam. She is an independent with pro-democracy leanings.

The pro-Beijing pro-establishment bloc will continue to dominate the assembly. But casino-related candidates, for their part, did less well than expected. Macau observers attributed the results to the government’s poor storm performance … reinforced by something else. The new element is a generation of younger voters concerned as much about social issues and how public money is spent as Macao’s ranking on the global gaming stage.

Beijing’s overwhelming presence in Macau is evidently a given. In any event, it seems not to have been a matter of controversy in the election.

The man in the spotlight, however, is Sulu Sou and not just because of his age. Only 26, he will be Macau’s youngest ever legislator. But he must be of special concern to Beijing because of his past associations and obvious leadership potential at a time when the younger generation is beginning to take more notice of its surroundings.

After graduating from secondary school in Macau, Sou went on to study politics in Taiwan. Even worse from Beijing’s perspective, he participated in student protests there.

Links between Taiwan and HK activists invariably evoke blasts of indignation from Beijing on grounds they are all part of a grand foreign-inspired conspiracy to promote independence and destabilize China. The pro-Beijing press here lit up in rage a few months ago when soon-to-be jailed Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, plus a few other local activists traveled to Taiwan and established links with counterparts there.

In Sulu Sou’s case, not only is he the man of the election moment in Macau. He’s also advocating among other things the reform of Macau’s Legislative Assembly. His call for a wholly-elected legislature has a familiar ring. So does his message to young people about the importance of paying more attention to politics. No wonder Macau immigration officers are so keen on refusing entry to day-tripping Hong Kong activists who arrive saying they just want to visit with relatives and friends.

Macau’s shifting electoral landscape thus raises some interesting possibilities for Hong Kong’s democracy movement … and not just the prospect of a revival via the coming special elections. There is also the major pending issue of presenting Beijing with new alternatives for solving the Hong Kong political impasse.

Beijing sees the favorite “power to the people” slogan of Hong Kong’s election reformers as a direct defiant challenge to its unified one-party rule. Subversive and treasonous. The contradiction is seemingly unsolvable.

But in Macau, the demand for a wholly elected Legislative Assembly represents nothing more threatening than the loyalist community’s search for a more equitable effective means of managing its local governing institutions. The challenge is to convince Beijing that locally elected legislatures do not necessarily foretell anything so dramatic as the end of days for the People’s Republic.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.