Wed, Jun 18, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Gaming boom takes its toll on Macau

By Martin Murphy

In April last year, an industry report cited the lack of accountancy professionals, with “only fractional increases” since 2007. Another complained of the city’s “lack of engineers and related professions.”

All this points to a society at the breaking point, and one that is mortgaging its future generations for short-term gains.

Even Macau’s lawmakers now complain that the boom has been building castles in the sand.

Last year, Macau legislator Jose Coutinho told the media: “Macau is a complete illusion of prosperity, because what we are building is only casinos, rooms and some shops with famous brands.”

Yet he and other critics hold a minority view in a legislature where 12 of the 33 members are indirectly elected by industry bodies and another seven are appointed by Macau’s Beijing-selected chief executive.

While Macau officials pay occasional lip service to the need to rebalance the economy and have floated a number of proposals, none so far have the transformative effect needed to set the city off in new directions.

One of the most talked about plans recommends that Macau capture more of the region’s “meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions” (MICE) business — but this has been slow to take off and relies disproportionately on the gaming sector.

For example, Macau’s biggest trade show is the Global Gaming Expo Asia. A plan to develop nearby Hengqin Island as a free-trade zone is also expected to do little to help most of Macau’s small businesses, given its emphasis on large-scale projects.

Yet the main obstacle to a more sustainable economic model is that Macau continues to grow fat on Chinese gambling, and Beijing still sees Macau as an important outlet for the country’s wealthy and middle-class.

The result is that no one in authority is even contemplating the day when China’s economy slows, the gamblers stop coming and the boom ends, even though history has shown that the bigger the boom in a mono-economy, the greater the potential for a crash.

While China says it wants to see Macau rebalance its economy, Beijing’s reluctance to impose policy prescriptions or offer inducements to help it diversify is not surprising.

That is because Macau may be right where Beijing wants it and China’s other peripheral regions to be — societies increasingly dependent on China for their prosperity and therefore less willing to make annoying demands for such things as democracy and greater autonomy.

Martin Murphy is a former US diplomat. He was head of the Economic-Political Section at the US consulate in Hong Kong and Macau from 2009 to 2012.

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