Sunday, December 13, 2009

Macau: Another Place, Another time

As Macau observes the tenth anniversary of its return to China later this week, a recent poll undertaken by the University of Macau showed that 96 percent of the people were “satisfied” with developments since the evening of Dec. 20, 1999, when the Portuguese flag was lowered for the last time after more than 400 years.

Indeed, the enclave’s 500,000 people have good reasons to feel satisfied, for the most part, with their lot. The economy has been in a decade-long boom due to the expansion of the gambling sector. The inaugural chief executive, Edmund Ho provided boringly stable good governance and avoided most of the missteps that accompanied Hong Kong counterpart’s early years in office.

Macau’s last years under Portuguese administration had been a time of strain, partly due to the then faltering economy but also to a spate of gangland murders connected with the casinos, which led many in Macau to cheer the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army garrison on the following day. (In fact, the garrison has stayed mostly invisible).

Recently, I returned to Macau after an absence of six years in order to update my guide book, Explore Macau:A Walking Guide and History, first published in 2002 and now being reissued next month by Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong. One can’t help but be staggered by the physical changes that have taken place..

The Portuguese had scarcely moved out before the American gambling impresarios moved in, bringing with them some of the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. In a move even more significant even than the handover to China, Macau split the gambling monopoly into three parts and awarded two of them to Wynne Resorts and Sheldon Adelson, respectively owners of the Wynne Resort and Venetian Hotel Casino.

Everyone agreed that Macau’s gambling scene needed a face lift. It had neither the old-world charm of Monte Carlo nor the unbridled exuberance of Las Vegas. Few of the casinos offered any entertainment that could not be found by pulling the lever of slot machine. He casinos were tawdry, the dealers surly.

Tawdry is hardly the word to use for the sumptuous new gambling emporiums in today’s Macau, which among other things, boast a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants on the premises. The gaming rooms are as big as football fields, with hundreds of tables for blackjack, roulette and other games of chance.

One has to wonder if there are enough gamblers in China, indeed all of the world, to fill tables. (In fact I noticed that several of the blackjack tables were empty, the dealers waiting patiently for new punters even though it was the beginning of China’s autumn Golden Week holiday.)

Mine was not just uninformed impression, as representatives of the top gambling enterprises huddled in early October to consider whether the offerings might be outstripping the supply and to put a halt to breakneck expansion. That following on a decision in 2008 by Macau government to freeze new licenses and casino building permits.

The Chinese government too, goes through periods of handwringing over the temptations that the Macau fleshpots hold for cadres interested in taking a big portion of their country’s tax receipts to place on the Macau roulette tables, and it recently restricted residents of neighboring Guangdong province to two trips a year, later reduced to a single visit.

The influx of new casino resorts has certainly boosted the economy, but not without some costs. Foreign workers imported to deal the cards and make the beds in the giant hotels account for about 70,000 people out of a work force of 320,000. Today there are more Filipinos in Macau that Portuguese.

In 2007 police fired their weapons into the air to disperse a May-day demonstration against the importation of cheap labor to run the casinos. It was a rare public display of political disgruntlement in a territory that otherwise seems unexcitable compared with Hong Kong and overly accommodating to the Chinese.

Earlier this year the Macau Legislative Assembly enacted a local law to enforce Article 23 of the Macau Basic Law, which like its nearly identical counterpart charter in Hong Kong mandates that the territory enact laws that prohibit subversion, secessionism and protection of “state secrets” a term that is very flexible on the mainland.

When the Hong Kong Legislative Council sought to enact a similar law in 2003 it prompted biggest demonstration since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Some 500,000 people marched in opposition. The Legco backed away from the law, and Beijing has not tried to raise the matter again.

All election groups (Macau does not have political parties) in the September election to the Legislative Assembly supported “more democracy” in theory and a gradual move to the direct election of the chief executive (now chosen by an electoral college of 300), but the democratic ethic is still tepid in Macau.

The local legislature comprises 29 seats of which twelve are directly elected (an increase of two in the past ten years), ten from functional constituencies and seven appointed by the chief executive. The proportional voting system in use means that it is extremely difficult for any one faction to gain more than two seats. The “pro-democracy” contingent has two seats, same as ten years ago.

In some ways Macau was ahead of Hong Kong in political development. It introduced directly elected sets in the 1970s, long before Hong Kong first open seats in 1992. On the other hand, Hong Kong eliminated appointed seats years ago, a system which Macau still clings to.

For the entire decade Macau has been governed by its inaugural chief executive, Edmund Ho, scion of a local banking family, whose second five-year term expires on Dec. 20. His administration has lacked the drama that accompanied Hong Kong’s initial chief, Tung Chee-hwa, who eventually resigned midway through his second term.

Macau avoided many of the problems that plagued Tung’s years, although unease about the rapid rise in housing prices mirrors early criticisms directed at Tung. The biggest domestic scandal during the first ten years, involved corruption of Ao Man-long, a former secretary of transportation convicted of taking bribes from construction deals and sentenced to 29 years in prison.
China’s presence always seems to loom much closer in Macau than in neighboring Hong Kong. The mainland or its islands are so close in some places that one could easily swim across the water and touch the shore. Every day people by the tens of thousands cross through the gargantuan immigration building at the old border gateway, into and out of Macau.

That plus the enclave’s tiny size has given Macau a unique outlook. Hong Kong defines itself in political terms, such as democracy and the rule of law. Macau defines itself more in cultural terms especially its rich history and fascinating architecture.

While encouraging the construction of more gambling casinos and playgrounds such as the Fisherman’s Wharf, Macau has not neglected the cultural side. During the past decade it successfully sought World Heritage status for a dozen or so churches, plazas gardens and houses and other monuments..

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