It’s best known as a glitzy gambling haven, but Macau is now drawing the unwanted focus of rights groups after it passed a tough new security law and began blocking visitors from Hong Kong.
Macau’s decision to bar a handful of Hong Kong politicians, academics and a photographer has underscored the cultural and political gaps between the two former colonies, which now both belong to China.
On one side sits Hong Kong, home to a vibrant if unfulfilled tradition of democracy. An hour away by ferry is Macau, one of the top gambling destinations in the world.
Squarely between them is an increasingly bitter dispute that has many in Macau telling Hong Kongers to mind their own business.
“We cannot see why the relationship between the two places, which are meant to be like brothers, could have got so bad,” Hong Kong Democratic Party Chairman Albert Ho (何俊仁) said.
Ho, one of the politicians barred from entering Macau in December as he hoped to take part in a protest against the new security legislation, will lead a new delegation of Hong Kong lawmakers trying to get in on Sunday.
Some here wish they would simply stay away.
As Macau’s colorful and most powerful gambling tycoon Stanley Ho (何鴻燊) put it: “Those people were all shit-stirrers.”
Macau’s new law toughens the punishment for crimes such as treason and subversion. Critics say it will stifle the freedoms guaranteed when the colony was handed back to China in 1999.
“[The bill’s] vague and broad provisions could be used to imprison individuals merely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association,” Amnesty International Asia Pacific deputy director Roseanne Rife said.
But the measure sailed through the legislature and only a handful of protesters bothered to turn up for a candlelight vigil before it was passed.
Antonio Ng (吳國昌), one of just two pro-democracy legislators in Macau, said the apathy was unsurprising.
“Most people know the government does not need to use this law to carry out any abuses — it already has sufficient means,” Ng said.
But the wider issue of rights gained more attention when an academic traveling to a conference in Macau and a photographer who was accredited to cover a court case were refused entry.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) said he had raised the issue of the border blocks last week with his counterpart Edmund Ho (何厚鏵), who insisted officials had acted lawfully.
If the lawmakers are barred on Sunday, some fear the dispute could end up hurting Macau’s business.
Jonathan Galaviz, a gaming analyst with consultancy Globalysis, said it was crucial that the row did not escalate.
“It will be important for political issues that develop in Macau to not pollute any marketing or promotional campaigns that it is currently executing to attract more tourists or foreign investment,” he said.
Harald Bruning, editor of the English-language Macau Post Daily, said that when it comes to politics, Macau and Hong Kong have little in common.
“Politically, Hong Kong and Macau are located on two different planets,” Bruning said. “Sunday’s trip is widely seen here as a political show primarily directed at a Hong Kong audience.”
Ng said the security legislation was only being introduced to smooth the passage of similar legislation in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong scrapped plans for a security law in 2003 after huge public protests, and some believe Sunday’s visit by legislators is meant to warn the Hong Kong government not to try again.