Hong Kong and Macau
No politics, please
Mar 19th 2009 | HONG KONG
From The Economist print edition
Macau sails through a test Hong Kong flunked in 2003
MANY people visit Macau in search of sinful things to do. The tiny city next door to Hong Kong is Asia’s capital of gambling and decadent fun. However, Johannes Chan, dean of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty, visiting for a far more austere purpose, found the self-governing Chinese enclave less than hospitable. On February 27th he took the one-hour hydrofoil ride to give a lecture at a university. But he was turned away on arrival, when an immigration official found his name on a list of banned visitors. Mr Chan is not alone. In the past year Macau has denied entry to several other potentially bothersome visitors from Hong Kong, including a pro-Tibet student activist, a press photographer and members of its Legislative Council.
Disturbed by what looks like politically motivated discrimination, 33 pro-democracy Hong Kong legislators and activists crossed the sea on March 15th to force a showdown. The Macau authorities promptly put five of them on a return ferry, citing internal-security reasons. The others were allowed to deliver a letter of protest to the Macau government.
This failed to mollify Macau’s critics. Under pressure from its own legislators, Hong Kong’s government has conveyed “concern” to Macau’s. For its part, Macau says it values exchanges with Hong Kong but reserves the right to deny entry to anyone. Lau Nai-keung, a Hong Kong member of China’s National People’s Congress, adds that because of Macau’s reliance on tourism, its low tolerance for troublemakers is understandable.
One reason for Macau’s jitters about any hint of unrest may be economic. The downturn has reduced tourist arrivals. Throughout 2008 Macau also saw waves of lay-offs, as casino developers struggled with a cash squeeze. The government is worried about labour discontent. Two years ago, on May Day, local residents staged violent protests against the gaming industry’s employment of foreigners. Indeed, one of the Hong Kong legislators turned away on March 15th is general secretary of an umbrella union group.
Politics, however, seems the bigger issue. Mr Chan suspects that Macau blacklisted him for his role in a group in Hong Kong that in 2003 lobbied against a national-security law, which the government in Beijing wanted Hong Kong to adopt. Many thought the sweeping but vague language banning sedition in the so-called “Article 23” legislation a threat to Hong Kong’s open society. Huge street protests forced the government to shelve it indefinitely. But just two days before Mr Chan’s trip, Macau passed its own version of the law, without a peep from its less-politicised public.
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong fear Macau’s tighter border controls reflect the new post-Article 23 reality. Worse, they see a glimpse of Hong Kong’s repressive future, should the government make a renewed push to pass the legislation and succeed. China’s role in the brouhaha, if any, is unclear. It no doubt considers Macau an obedient child. But if its zeal to please its parent antagonises its bigger sibling, even China may be unhappy. For now, people of all political leanings are urging Macau and Hong Kong to patch things up on their own.