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    Greater China
     Mar 21, 2009
Fireworks finale for Macau's Ho
By Augustine Tan

HONG KONG - With little effort, Macau's chief executive Edmund Ho Hau Wah pushed through a bill to outlaw treason, sedition and subversion against China's central government, setting the ground for a massive fireworks display when he leaves office at the end of the year.

Not the annual international pyrotechnics competition in the late autumn that has made this former Portuguese backwater the fireworks capital of the world, but a rude awakening to the democratic challenges waiting outside its doors.

A hint of what's on the way came this past week with gentle queries from Britain and the European Commission on how

 

Macau's new law will impact on future visits by European politicians.

The Macau response has not been made public. It has, however, thumped down hard on a handful of Hong Kong legislators and pro-democracy activists who tried to enter over the weekend.

The Hong Kong activists have every reason to be deeply concerned. The law that Ho pushed through - known in Macau and Hong Kong as legislation on "Article 23" of the Basic Laws - is mandated for both former colonial territories under the mini-constitutions underpinning their return to China under the "one country two systems" expedience which allows them to run separate capitalist systems.

An attempt to legislate on Article 23 in Hong Kong first in 2003 led to a firestorm of protests from around the world and contributed to 500,000 turning out to march for the dismissal of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. The bill was dropped. So was Tung, a year later.

It had been widely rumored for some time that Beijing wants Tung's successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, to complete the task before he steps down in 2012. The general belief is that Tsang wants to convince Beijing to hold off indefinitely till the current financial tsunami blows over.

So it came as a big surprise when Macau's Special Administrative Region (SAR) government released a document in October for 40 days of public consultation, during which none other than the chief executive himself chaired all six public meetings.

In Hong Kong there were concerns that Beijing was using Ho to pressure Tsang to act. But in Macau the view is unanimous that the initiative has come from Ho himself. Those close to or sympathetic to Ho insist that he wants Article 23 to be the crowning piece of his highly successful 10-year stewardship of Macau.

That Ho has transformed Macau to almost beyond recognition is not in question. It is the gambling capital of the world, outstripping Las Vegas in takings from some 4,000 tables and 12,000 slot machines in 30 casinos, slightly more than half owned by tycoon Stanley Ho, and the remaining majors owned by Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and MGM, along with a son and daughter of Stanley Ho.

The wonders Edmund Ho has done to the Macau psyche is no piffling matter. Hardly anyone now feels inferior to the average Hong Kong visitor who is now as likely to be scouting around for a job as having a quick flutter on the "big-small" table.

If anyone has to be bowed and scraped to it is the mainlander. Unfortunately, the numbers of mainland visitors have diminished considerably in recent months. And this is where those keeping their distance from the chief executive have a different spin on the speed with which Article 23 was pushed through.

In this view, Beijing began to keep its distance from the chief executive soon after anti-corruption investigators started looking into the properties and bank accounts of the secretary for Transport and Public Works, Ao Man-long, 53. It did not take them very long to establish that corruption was extensive. Ao was subsequently jailed for a total of 27 years on 40 counts of money-laundering, abuse of power and other crimes involving no less than US$100 million.

Also in jail with him are his father, Ao Veng-kong, brother Ao Man-fu and sister-in-law Ao Chan Va-choi, and several of Macau's top businessmen. Ao's wife, Chan Meng Ieng, who has absconded and believed to be hiding in Britain, was jailed in abstentia for 23 years.

Most Macau people believe that the Aos were merely fall guys; that more powerful figures have not been touched. Ao himself said in court that any contract above US$1 million had to be approved by the chief executive. It was also noted during the trial that in some documents presented to the court various names had been blacked out.

Investigators have not recovered all the loot yet. The hunt for millions of dollars, Ao's wife and several accomplices is still going on. Investigations may yet touch people higher up the government.
This may explain what an academic described as "stomach-churning" patriotic language in the law which has no place in any legislation, least of all Article 23, which is already seen by pro-democracy activists as a political tool for Beijing to deal with them.

He was referring to the highly emotional preamble which talks about "love for the motherland and for Macau, in body and soul, which is the tradition of Macau people and which, since returning to the motherland, has been transformed into a driving force for building and developing Macau, and preparing the SAR for the mission of defending national security."

Was it mere coincidence that such an outlandish display of patriotism surfaced just when Beijing is moving in diametrically opposite directions to deal with the effects of the financial tsunami on Hong Kong and Macau?

For Hong Kong, Beijing has speeded up a relaxation of restrictions on Hong Kong financial dealers, allowing Shenzhen people to travel freely into the territory and speeding up road and rail links to Hong Kong.

For Macau, where construction of various casinos came to an abrupt halt, causing job losses by the thousands, Beijing compounded the misery by cutting off the inflow of mainlanders to the casinos.

If Edmund Ho read this as punishment for allowing corruption to run even more rampant than under Portuguese rule, he would have good reason to initiate Article 23 all on his own.

Macau officials have been quick to dismiss talk of Article 23 having a salutary effect on Hong Kong. This is too simplistic a view. Macau's adoption of legislation which has its origins in the suppression of student demonstrations in Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 - to be remembered for the 20th year successive year in less than three months' time - has grave implications for Hong Kong. This adoption will simply be the most important factor for Hong Kong to consider. If Macau can do it, so can Hong Kong; that will obviously be Beijing's line from now on.

The ease with which Ho took the Article 23 bill through the consultation process and the Legislative Assembly is simply breathtaking. To minimize coverage by the international media, no English translation was made.

The only notable criticism came from Amnesty International, whose deputy director for the Asia-Pacific, Roseanne Rife, said: "The proposed legislation introduces restrictive language already in place in the People's Republic of China, including broad provisions concerning 'state security' and 'state secrets' ... These are provisions the Chinese authorities have used to imprison many merely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association."

These include closed-door trials for "state secret" cases when the judge deems it necessary. The central government in Beijing will now determine if the material in dispute is a "state secret" or not.

Chinese authorities have detained many in China, including human-rights lawyers and journalists, for supposedly revealing information classified as "state secrets", including information that would be considered public in many countries.

Amnesty International has repeatedly urged the Chinese authorities to clearly and narrowly define "state secrets" so that these provisions cannot continue to be used to silence dissent and arbitrarily persecute human-rights defenders.

The preparation of treason, secession, or subversion against the central Beijing government are not now considered crimes in Macau and their inclusion in this legislation could limit freedom of expression and encourage self-censorship.

"This legislation jeopardizes the future direction of fundamental freedoms in Macau and the concept of 'one country, two systems', which could affect not only Macau but also neighboring Hong Kong," said Rife.

The organization called for more time for the consideration of this legislation to allow for the fullest possible public discussion. The organization also urged the Macau legislature to make sure the legislation protected the rights of individuals who peacefully exercised their rights to freedom of expression and association as well as other fundamental human rights.

Ho and his administration simply ignored this and other protests. Only the "crime" of "preparing" for treason, secession or subversion was removed during the bill's passage through the legislature.

Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists are not about to stop. Making Ho pay for his audacity in pushing through Article 23 is only one aspect of their push into Macau. They want to arouse Macau people to fight for democracy, and see great opportunities in coming months.

There are several elections in the offing: a replacement for the chief executive, a new legislative assembly and a new electoral committee which will pick the next chief executive, all taking place in the second half of the year. Opportunities to teach the chief executive a lesson and to shake up Macau people abound.

Individually and in groups, the Hong Kong activists have tried to barge into Macau. Several, notably legislators "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan and academic Johannes Chan have been turned back. A South China Morning Post photographer who had previously been allowed in has also been barred.

Macau authorities refuse to give any reason for barring entry. The activists, accusing Macau authorities of interfering with their "right to travel", demanded that Donald Tsang take up the issue with both Ho and the central government.

Beijing has adopted a hands-off attitude. This does not augur well for Ho who, until the corruption scandal broke, had been treated consistently by the central government as something of a "blue-eyed boy" among regional chiefs.

As Beijing increases its distance from Ho, Article 23 begins to look less and less like his crowning glory and more and more like a "crown of thorns". Some activists are even predicting that Macau will be rocked by a bigger scandal before Ho finally leaves office in December - and that this year's fireworks may yet be the hottest ever to hit Macau.

Augustine Tan is a freelance journalist in Hong Kong.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 19, 2009)

 
 



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