The Economist – KNOWN for its casinos and conservative society, the city-state of Macau is a magnet for the rich in search of decadent fun. It is rarely the site of political protest. But on August 25th around 1,000 of Macau’s dealers and servers took to the streets to demand pay hikes and better working conditions. They are among those who support an unofficial referendum on Macau’s political future, which began on August 24th at polling stations and online.
Jason Chao, a 29-year-old software developer and the president of the Open Macau Society, a local pro-democracy group which helped sponsor the poll, hoped it would “help people draw connections between things like inflation and high cost of housing and the political system.” The poll asked residents if they support universal suffrage by 2019; and whether they have confidence in Macau’s current chief executive, Fernando Chui, who is running unopposed for re-election later this week, on August 31st—the same day the poll results are due to be released.
Protests in the city-state began in May, when 20,000 Macanese marched against a bill that would give lavish benefits to retiring officials. The government dropped it. Activists then began pushing for better government accountability, inspired by Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement during which 800,000 people voted in a poll in June to demand “genuine” universal suffrage in the city’s next elections.
But on the first day of unofficial voting in Macau, police dashed hopes for reform when they arrested five polling-station volunteers, including Mr Chao, for failing to comply with a government order to halt the referendum. All five were released, but Mr Chao now faces a legal battle after prosecutors charged him with “serious disobedience with police”. Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, says the arrests appear to be politically motivated.
The former Portuguese colony is governed by China but maintains separate legal and economic systems, as Hong Kong does. The leaders of both territories are elected by appointed committees. The Chinese government’s local liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau have denounced both informal referendums and insisted that administrative regions have “no authority” to organise such activities.
Polling will continue online in Macau until August 30th. As of August 26th, around 6,700 people had cast their votes, according to the event’s official website. But low participation so far makes the project little more than a public-relations exercise. Unlike in Hong Kong’s case, the Chinese government has not promised Macanese residents eventual universal suffrage. Activists in Macau say their best chance for democracy is if it is granted to Hong Kong first, perhaps allowing Macau to negotiate similar rights.
The Chinese government has maintained that it would honour its promise of allowing the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. The government is expected to release a decision by next week on how Hong Kong’s next leader will be elected. Occupy Central leader Benny Tai said his group is prepared to protest if the decision does not meet international standards for democracy and if it allows no room for further negotiation. A short ferry ride away, more Macanese citizens will be watching developments with anticipation.