Macau: China’s other ‘one country, two systems’ region

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Macau, a former Portuguese colony, was handed back to China in 1999

Macau, a tiny former Portuguese colony, is marking the 20th anniversary of its return to China.

The Special Administrative Region, which measures 12 sq miles (31 sq km), uses the same political model as Hong Kong – “one country, two systems”.

That guarantees a “high degree of autonomy” for the regions for 50 years with Beijing maintaining control of defence and foreign affairs.

But this is where the similarity between Hong Kong and Macau ends.

For the past six months, there have been large protests in Hong Kong over a now shelved bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.

But while millions have taken to the streets there, the Chinese government has praised Macau’s “patriots” for keeping the peace and being a shining example of the one country, two systems model.

At the 20th anniversary celebrations on Friday, Chinese President Xi said Macau’s “tradition of valuing unity must be preserved”. He also reiterated that China would not “tolerate” any interference in Hong Kong or Macau.

“I wish to stress that the handling of [Hong Kong and Macau] affairs is strictly China’s internal matter, there is no need for any external force to dictate things to us… we will never tolerate any external interference,” said Mr Xi.

Mr Xi also swore in the region’s new Beijing-backed chief executive, Ho Iat-seng.

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Macau’s new chief executive Ho Iat-seng (L) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping

The changing face of Macau

Macau is a small but important port city on the south coast of China, just south of Guangzhou and about 65km from Hong Kong.

It was leased to Portugal in 1557 and officially became a Portuguese colony in 1887.

“When the Portuguese had complete rule of Macau, they had to negotiate with China because it is so close. All food came from China so the Portuguese always worked and co-operated with them”, says Agnes Lam, director of the University of Macau’s Centre for Macau Studies.

In 1987, Portugal and China signed the Sino-Portuguese joint declaration which said the territory would be returned to China on 20 December, 1999.

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Since the handover, there has been a big focus on the region’s economy

Under one country, two systems Macau has its own government, legal and financial affairs. It has its own local currency, the patacas, and differing local laws, including legal gambling, which makes up a huge chunk of the economy.

The region’s leader, the chief-executive, is chosen by a 400 person Beijing-approved committee comprising of politicians and businessmen. Ordinary citizens do not have a direct say in the appointment of the chief executive, the same as Hong Kong.

“We do not have any kind of open arguments with China about one country, two systems. We understand the boundaries quite well,” Ms Lam told the BBC.

The legacy of communication with the Chinese government was, she said, one reason why one country, two systems is more effective in Macau than in Hong Kong.

Ms Lam added that there has been a big focus on improving the region’s economy as well as its education system.

Media captionXi Jinping defends “one-China” principle during Macau 2014 visit

Home to just over 600,000 people, Macau has the third highest per capita GDP in the world, behind Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Last year Macau’s government handed out 10,000 Patacas (£923; $1,246) to permanent residents as part of a wealth-sharing programme.

“The Chinese opened up Macau to big American gaming industries and turned Macau into a global gaming centre internationally and expanded the economy phenomenally,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

“Macau, previously a poor cousin to Hong Kong in economic terms, now enjoys a substantially higher pro-capita GDP than Hong Kong.

“Nearly half of the current population in Macau came as immigrants from China. So you can see from the Chinese government’s perspective, Macau is a poster boy for the one country, two systems model.”

Have the Hong Kong protests spread to Macau?

Hong Kong is now into its sixth month of protests, but Macau has mainly remained silent.

“This dissent does not exist in Macau,” Jason Chao, an activist and former president of the New Macau Association, a pro-democracy party, tells the BBC.

“A major difference between Hong Kong and Macau is a wish for autonomy. Hong Kong people need autonomy, freedom and rights and they are fighting for it. This does not apply to Macau. The majority of the population are pro-China.

“They have a very comfortable life. This makes pro-democracy and human rights activism very difficult in Macau.”

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People in Hong Kong have taken to the streets for the last six months

He said that some people do protest against the Macau government but these people ask for Beijing to get involved to help with their disputes.

But there have been a handful of instances where people have attempted to rally in support of Hong Kong. In August, the government locked down a square to prevent protesters from demonstrating.

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Then in September, Macau’s high court rejected an appeal from demonstrators to allow a rally to take place.

However Mr Chao said the “vast majority of Macau does not support the protests in Hong Kong nor do they have sympathy with the people in Hong Kong”.

What’s on the table for Macau’s future?

Last week, Li Zhanshu, head of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, said the people in Macau have a strong sense of national identity.

He also praised Macau for having “patriots” in government and for enacting Article 23, a national security law. The law prohibits “treason, secession and subversion” against the central government.

When Hong Kong attempted to introduce the same law in 2003, half a million people took to the streets, forcing the government to abandon the plans.

During Mr Xi’s visit, he is expected to announce policies that will further integrate Macau with mainland Chinese cities in the south. Macau will be allocated more land on the mainland island of Hengqin to develop in areas such as education and healthcare.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London said that, unlike in Hong Kong, there is no serious movement in Macau demanding democracy, and no very “free, aggressive media”.

“Macau is no trouble for China. It is basically doing whatever the Chinese government wants to be done,” he said.

Media captionHong Kong protests: “I was born here, I’m a Hongkonger too”