Monday, December 21, 2009

Macau anniversary protests as new leader is sworn in

The New Democratic Macau Association has marked the 10th anniversary of the handover of the former Portuguese colony with a demonstration calling for more democracy. The pro-democracy political party is also protesting against the corruption that has settled in the territory in the last decade. For the last few years, they have used the December 20 anniversary to demand universal suffrage and a larger fight against corruption. But this year’s event was especially significant. The Chinese Community Party leadership was in town for the tenth anniversary celebrations and to mark the leadership of a new government. (photo credit: Vixyao)

Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region with a separate constitution guaranteeing freedoms not available to the rest of China. Fernando Chui Sai On was sworn in as the territory’s new chief executive for a five year term. He is only the second person to assume the role since 1999. He replaces Edmund Ho who has dominated Macau since handover. The 52-year-old Chui has been handpicked by Beijing like Ho before him. But Macau has always been considered the more compliant of the two SARs. Chui vowed to continue the “great cause” of one country, two systems but also pledged to support Chinese interests. “For years the motherland has always been a strong backing to the maintenance of Macao's prosperity and stability,” he said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao was on hand to swear Chui in. He praised Macau’s passing of Article 23 state security legislation. The article which came into effect in March 2009 under former leader Edmund Ho prohibits and punishes acts of "treason, secession, and subversion" against the Chinese government, as well as "preparatory acts" leading to any of the three acts. Critics are wary about the ambiguous catch-all language of the act. But Hu said Article 23 “fully reflects the strong sense of responsibility of the government, Legislative Assembly and people of all circles of the Macau SAR to safeguard national security and interests.”

Front and central to those interests is protecting Macau’s gambling interests. Since 1999, Macau, which has 31 casinos, has overtaken Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined in terms of casino revenues. It is now the world’s biggest gambling centre with an annual revenue of $12 billion. International gambling companies like Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts have invested Invest billions of dollars in the local industry. When it opened in August 2007 the $2.4 billion Venetian Macao Resort became the world’s largest casino with 3,000 hotel suites, a 15,000 sports arena, a 6,000 banquet hall and floor space for gambling games more than three times as large as the biggest in Las Vegas. But there are dangers inherent in solely relying on a gambling economy and there is also the stench of corruption.

Three years ago the US Treasury accused a Macau bank of laundering money on behalf of North Korean leaders engaged in nuclear proliferation. The US accused a family-owned Banco Delta of holding $25 million in profits from counterfeit US dollars, cigarettes and drugs made in North Korea. However they were prevented from freezing the assets after it became a sticking point in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. According to former State Office official David Asher, the investigations “demonstrated the awareness of the Macao authorities to these things.”

But if they were aware of it, they showed they had not learned its lesson. In early 2008, a judge sentenced Ao Man-long, Macau’s former secretary for transportation and public works, to 27 years of prison on charges of bribe-taking related to kickbacks on construction contracts. Long had been part of Macau’s administration since 1999 but he was charged in 2007 with 117 crimes including 43 crimes of abuse of power; 41 crimes of corruption for unlawful fact; 30 crimes of money laundering; 1 crime of economic participation in business transactions; one crime of intentional wrong declaration of assets; and one crime of illicit enrichment.

While the stench of corruption never quite reached Edmund Ho, it got near enough to him for Beijing to abandon support of him. But it is questionable if they will listen to the voice of the protesters who want the government to combat corruption and stop selling land cheaply to the casino operators and developers. China is determined to make a success of Macau and with 90,000 PLA troops in the tiny garrison is well able to dictate terms. It is also shrinking the physical distance between the one country and two systems by building a new $10.7 billion 50km-long bridge that will link Guangdong Province to Hong Kong and Macao. When built, it will cut driving time from Macau to Hong Kong from 3 hours to 30 minutes.

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