When after the recent devastation wrought by Typhoon Hato, 1,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers poured out of their barracks and into the ravaged streets of Macau to take charge of the cleanup, the symbolism was unmistakable.
In contrast to neighboring Hong Kong – 60 kilometers to the east and, like Macau, a former European colony handed back to China as the 20th century came to a close – Macau has been walloped and subdued not just by Hato but also by the even bigger post-colonial storm of Chinese sovereignty.
Although Macau was granted its own mini-constitution guaranteeing free speech, unfettered media and other rights non-existent on the mainland at the 1999 handover from Portuguese to Chinese rule, the city’s damning response to Hato 18 years later made one thing painfully clear: The gambling hub has largely ceded its autonomy to Beijing and accepted its role as an obedient stepchild dependent on the motherland for survival.
Not that this filial capitulation hasn’t brought great economic rewards. Thanks to the Chinese, Macau’s gambling industry has become the largest in the world.
Under the Portuguese, the industry was controlled by one player, the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM; Tourism and Entertainment Company of Macau), still owned by the region’s once-colorful but now disabled “King of Gambling”, Stanley Ho Hung-sun, now 95.
In 1961, the colonial government granted STDM a monopoly on all casinos operating in Macau, and Ho and his partners made a fortune off Hong Kong gamers making the ferry (and, later, one-hour hydrofoil) journey for weekend and holiday gambling binges. When the STDM monopoly license expired in 2001, however, Macau’s first chief executive, Edmund Ho Hau-wah, allowed outside players such as Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and Galaxy Entertainment Group to join the party.
The handover had opened the casino doors in this city of 612,000 people to millions more punters from the mainland flush with new money generated by China’s booming economy, and the Las Vegas gambling moguls were eager to expand their empires by building more lavish hotels and resorts under Macau’s expanded licensing system.
For 40 years, gambling had been a lucrative business for STDM, which has remained a force in the city as other operators have moved in, but under the new gaming regimen, the return on investment, boosted by wagering hordes from the mainland, reached dizzying new heights.
By 2007, Macau had surpassed the Las Vegas Strip in gambling revenues and today, despite the Chinese government’s recent attempts to stem the massive amounts of cash being funneled out of the country, is by far the biggest gambling mecca on the planet.
But this rapid growth has come at a cost. Gambling tourism has grossly distorted the Macau economy, accounting for 50% of the city’s earnings and 70% of it tax revenue. Many secondary students in Macau aspire not to go to college or university but, rather, to be dealers in one of the city’s 33 casinos.
Moreover, as was tragically demonstrated by the damage inflicted by Hato, Macau’s infrastructure has not kept up with its phenomenal growth as a casino paradise. Admittedly, Hato was a monster storm packing winds of more than 200km/h, but that same storm hit Hong Kong, where no one died and it was pretty much business as usual in the days that followed.
In Macau, on the other hand, 10 people were killed by Hato and more than half the city was left without power and water for days after its passing. During that time, residents were compelled by their dire circumstances to venture into streets strewn with garbage and debris to tap fire hydrants to quench their thirst.
On August 25, two days after Hato struck, with much of the city still in turmoil, Macau’s current chief executive, Fernando Chui Sai-on, bit the bullet and called for help from the PLA.
The Chinese troops promptly dropped their guns and picked up shovels to help in clearing the city’s public spaces of shattered furniture, mangled appliances and mounds of putrid refuse.
Macau’s inability in disaster relief
While the PLA routinely engages in disaster relief on the mainland, this was the first time its soldiers had been deployed in Macau, showing the special administrative region’s inability to cope with disaster relief.
Compounding the negative news, immigration authorities then barred a group of Hong Kong journalists from entering the city to cover the disaster, claiming they “posed a risk to the stability of internal security”. That repressive tactic, right out of Beijing’s Communist Party playbook, clearly violated principles laid down in Macau’s own mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.
In a week full of public-relations disasters for Macau officials, barring entry to reporters demonstrated a reliance on central authorities that went beyond emergency assistance to include tutelage on how to deal with questions from the media that they don’t want to answer.
Macau has also made a practice of denying entry to Hong Kong politicians from the pan-democratic camp lest they spread their poisonous advocacy for democracy to Macau – again following Beijing’s lead in snuffing out threats to authoritarian control.
These heavy-handed efforts notwithstanding, Macau’s small pro-democracy movement continues to speak out. The New Macau Association, a political party that occupies one of four seats held by the pan-democratic camp in the city’s 33-member Legislative Assembly, has demanded greater government accountability in the wake of the chaos wrought by Hato, even calling on the chief executive to consider resigning.
Weather chief is blamed
Instead of Chui stepping down, however, it was weather chief Fong Soi-kun who took the fall for the government’s failed response to Hato. Citing “personal reasons”, Fong resigned a day after the storm struck.
With Hato bearing down on the city on August 23, Fong’s weather bureau waited until many Macau residents had made their way to work before raising the Signal 8 “severe storm” warning. In Hong Kong, by contrast, Signal 8, under which businesses and schools must close, had already been hoisted and people stayed home and battened down the hatches. Both cities later raised Signal 10, the most severe warning.
Hato will be remembered not just as the strongest storm to hit the region in 18 years, but also for the flaws it exposed in Macau’s madcap casino growth and its top-down, unresponsive system of governance.
Both Hong Kong and Macau were handed back to China under a “one country, two systems” agreement that was supposed to guarantee their autonomy in all but military and foreign affairs. If for whatever reason 1,000 PLA troops ever flooded into the streets of Hong Kong, it would be widely condemned as a sign that Hong Kong officials had surrendered any semblance of that autonomy to Beijing, and those same streets would soon be full of protesters.
In Macau, they blame the weatherman.