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Politics Cast Deep Shadow Over Gambling in Macau

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National anti-corruption drive in Macau by Beijing also stifles Macanese pro-democratic protests.

Ieong Man Teng is a baccarat dealer in Macau. At night, he works at the Wynn Macau Casino. When he is not working, he is a dedicated gambling union activist. Along with fellow protesters he is lobbying for an increase in salary and improved working conditions.

Because of this, he is facing the wrath of Beijing’s politicians as he is tampering with Macau’s image. Macau, situated at the mouth of China’s Pearl River delta, is the world’s largest gaming playground. This former Portuguese island brings in a load of revenue for mainland China.

It has happened that 29 year old Ieong has been bullied by eminent Macanese business men and politicians. He was even warned by a local politician of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to be more moderate in his protests. Ieong said the warnings are always from the intermediates of the Beijing government. A CPPCC spokesman refuted the allegations.

Presidential visit sends clear message

The Chinese government is trying to crackdown on such movement instigated by Ieong and others who are driven by Macanese community’s politics. In light of the recent havoc cause by pro-democrat rallies in Hong Kong, they certainly see any protests in Macau as a threat.

A local legislator in Macau, Au Kam San, who is a pro-democrat, said that the gambling union, although approved by Macanese gambling laws, is also a threat to Beijing. This is because the union is more prominent and the power to mobilize much stronger than say the protests happening in Hong Kong.

Just last week, President Xi Jinping visited Macau to mark the 15 years since Macau came under the control of the Chinese government. Jingping’s visit is the Chinese government’s way of showing how serious it was about clamping down on corrupt high rollers in Macau. Macau is the only part of China where casino gambling is legal and which depends on high-rollers from the mainland.

Beijing thinks that the southern territory is too dependent on gambling and is carrying out a campaign against illiegal funds routed from the mainland via its casinos. However with this comes a decline of Macau’s $45 billion profits from casinos and Macanese poker rooms, since its 2001 liberalization.

Macau, a valuable asset

Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui remains in power thanks to the Beijing panel going ahead with its election despite the wave of unrest against the Chinese government. This is also one of Beijing’s solutions to maintain power over Macau.

Since the land based and mobile casino gambling generate 80% of Macau’s revenue Beijing needs to keep a close watch on Macau, as it does of Hong Kong. Both Macau and Hong Kong enjoy freedoms unseen on the mainland but their leaders are selected by a loyalist committee.

Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, believes that “Beijing cannot just look at economic growth and tax revenue when looking at Macau’s overall well-being. It must think from the perspective of China’s economic and social stability and development”.

Social unrest in Macau

Macau has been a welcoming place for immigrants from mainland China. Over half a million people from there have moved to the island during the last 30 years. So with the influx, it is true that there aren’t many people ready and willing to question the Chinese government’s regime since China resumed control of Macau in 1999.

• Democratic political system called for in Macau
• Jingping wants Macau to respect ‘one China policy’
• Gambling blamed for corruption in Macau

That was, until what happened in May of this year. A record 20,000 people demonstrated against the shabby public services and a bill that provided extravagant fringe benefits to senior civil servants in Macau. Then in August, Macau activists organized their own unofficial referendum.

This was to see how many people approved of the territory’s head of government, called a chief executive. Also, to see how many were in favor of full universal suffrage being introduced. The Macau referendum highlighted that 89 percent of the nearly 9,000 people were against Chui, especially since he was chosen by 400 mostly pro-China loyalists.

95 % of the participants said they would like to vote for the next chief executive. The authorities in Macau stifled the referendum by closing down the polling booths and arresting voters. They charged five people for ‘breaching privacy laws because the ballot asked for telephone and ID card numbers to prevent fraudulent voting’.

This also came at a time when activists in Hong Kong, lobbying for a democratic government, left the business district in Hong Kong at a standstill. Some demonstrators also carried umbrellas, a clear symbol of protest there.

The Beijing threat

One of the detainees in Macau was Jason Chao, a computer software developer and head member of the New Macau Association. He had to flee just a few days after the referendum. He got rid of all the data instead of obeying orders to give it over to the police.

Chao said that “There’s a trend for them to use the criminal justice system as justification for getting information from you, for searching your house. They’re doing it to essentially deter us from escalating the movement”.

His group’s annual pro-democracy protest normally takes place on the anniversary of Macau’s handover form Portugal. He was asked by Beijing’s officials not to disrupt President Jinping’s visit at the occasion of the induction of Chui’s second five-year tender.

However Chao said that “In the light of Hong Kong’s umbrella movement, I think Macau people should escalate our actions for democracy,”. So, despite the warnings, dozens of protesters marched through Macau’s historic center last Saturday afternoon as the President finished off his two-day
visit.

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