Following in the footsteps of neighboring Honk Kong, activist groups in Macau are planning to hold their own pro-democracy referendum. But Beijing is likely to do what it can to prevent the vote, Rebecca Liao tells DW.
In what could prove to be one of the biggest challenges to Chinese authority yet, three activist groups in Macau, a special administrative region of China and the world's biggest gambling hub, are planning to hold an unofficial referendum on electoral reform.
The announcement came in the wake of a similar referendum in nearby Hong Kong where more than 10 percent of the city's population voted for the public to be able to nominate candidates for the territory's top position.
The former Portuguese colony - returned to China in 1999 - has a legal and economic system separate from the mainland. But just as in nearby Hong Kong, Macau's chief executive is not chosen by universal suffrage, but by an electoral committee made up of 400, mostly pro-Beijing, residents.
In their poll slated to run between August 24 and August 30 - just ahead of the election for chief executive on August 31 - the activist groups say they want to ask Macau's residents questions, including whether there should be universal suffrage for the 2019 chief executive elections and how confident voters are in the sole candidate Fernando Chui, who has been in the position since 2009.
But the move has already been slammed by Beijing as "illegal." In a DW interview, Rebecca Liao, a corporate attorney and writer specialized in Chinese politics and culture, says that the Chinese authorities' ultimate fear is that a successful attempt by Hong Kong and Macau to politically distance themselves from Beijing would also embolden pro-democracy activists on the mainland.
DW: After Hong Kong, now the special administrative region of Macau is planning a referendum on democracy, is this a new headache for Beijing?
Rebecca Liao: Absolutely. Historically, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang have presented the greatest challenges to Beijing's political control.
Beijing's ultimate fear is that pro-democracy activists on the mainland will be emboldened, if Hong Kong and Macau succeed in securing greater democratic freedom, says Liao
While China has been aware since Hong Kong's handover in 1997 that the "one country, two systems" solution would come to a head one day since it satisfies neither the mainland's desire for complete reunification nor the former colony's insistence on its democratic way of life, it has not been prepared for Hong Kong's open protest in the last few years.
As for Macau, the region's populace is generally apathetic about politics, and so its sudden mobilization comes as an even greater shock. Beijing has responded with harsh words, from editorials in its prominent newspapers to a white paper warning Hong Kong to tread lightly in defense of its autonomy. It is telling, however, that the only concrete action taken so far against the Hong Kong referendum has been the arrest of five organizers of a sit-in a few days after.
China is concerned and alarmed at the open rebellion, but it has stayed its hand so far. Most likely, it recognizes escalation is not wise at this point, nor necessary. The economies of Hong Kong and Macau are too dependent on business from the mainland.
What would the Macau referendum symbolize?
The Macau and Hong Kong referenda are motivated by completely different concerns. Hong Kong sees mainland China encroaching on its way of life and reneging on the promises of democracy made during the handover. The Macanese, on the other hand, are angry about increasing income inequality and corruption.
For them, it can still be said that democracy is a means to an end, not a sacred right. If their referendum focuses the government's attention on improving their living standards, they will probably be pretty satisfied.
What kind of people are behind these civic movements both in Hong Kong and Macau?
Hong Kong's pro-democracy movements are led by activists whose main goals are to promote the region's autonomy and push for greater democracy, rule of law and press freedoms. Political movements are relatively new in Macau, and so they are organized by more eclectic groups of civil society organizations.
How are Chinese authorities likely to react to a referendum in Macau?
Chinese authorities, including Macau's government, have condemned the referendum as illegal and unconstitutional. It's likely that negotiations are beginning to happen behind the scenes between the local government and the organizers to prevent the referendum from taking place. Should the referendum go through, Beijing is likely to ignore the results and repeat its current rhetoric.
This has been the strategy for dealing with unrest in Hong Kong, and it may be sufficient for this latest development in Macau. What Beijing must realize soon, however, is that its understanding of the situation is completely different from that of the Hong Konger or the Macanese.
For mainland China, those living in the former colonies are Chinese and should be grateful to have been reunited with the People's Republic. This demand for self-governance and barely concealed nostalgia for colonial rule is absolutely mystifying.
Hong Kong and Macau, on the other hand, do not see this as a matter of patriotism, but of trust. Unlike Taiwan, neither will ever deny that it is a part of China. However, certain agreements vis-a-vis autonomy have been made, and profound cultural and political differences should be respected.
How similar to and how different from Hong Kong is Macau, in terms of its legal system and political system?
Both are afforded greater press and political freedoms than the mainland. Each has a committee of elites stacked with pro-Beijing conservatives that elect the chief executives. Importantly, however, Hong Kong's Basic Law explicitly calls for universal suffrage by 2017. Macau possesses no such legal right to the vote.
Beijing was quick to slam the referendum as illegal. What is Beijing mainly concerned about?
Beijing does not want to lose control of its special administrative regions. Political self-determination on the level demanded by the Hong Kong and Macau referenda will be interpreted by the mainland as a near-declaration of independence and an attack on China's sovereignty by foreign (i.e. Western) powers sympathetic to democratic movements and eager to contain the country's growing power.
The ultimate fear is that if Hong Kong and Macau succeed in distancing themselves further from the mainland and securing greater democratic freedom, pro-democracy activists on the mainland will be emboldened as well.
Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney and writer based in Silicon Valley, focusing on Chinese politics and culture.