sábado, 4 de julho de 2009

Progresso sem política (ou vice-versa...)

Macau progress leaves out politics

Muhammad Cohen
Asia Times Online (1)
July 3, 2009

MACAU - In the nearly 10 years since Portugal left the then-sleepy Macau, the former enclave has made stunning economic progress. As a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China, with a high degree of autonomy under the "one country-two systems" principle, Macau's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has nearly tripled as billions of dollars of mainly foreign investment in new resorts has made it the world's leading gambling destination.

Amid this extraordinary advancement, Macau's political processes have regressed. After a decade of Macau people ruling Macau for the first time in 450 years, the city's apparent response is, "No, thank you," as the select few declare satisfaction withtheir lot even as the public at large are caught up in frustration and fear. Economic development has focused on the big players while Macau's majority get little but scraps, a pattern seen even more sharply in politics in this city of 550,000 people.

The local elite are circling their wagons, not on orders from Beijing but in response to dissatisfaction from both above and below. While it may protect them in the short run, it will leave Macau's leadership more isolated and vulnerable in the long run, ill-equipped to face the city's problems.

No contest

The most obvious sign of stunted political growth is the upcoming uncontested ascension of Fernando Chui Sai-on as Macau's new chief executive. When Edmund Ho was chosen for the post in 1999, he faced token opposition from businessman Stanley Au, which at least lent the small circle election a patina of choice. This time, support from democratic factions has been blamed for undermining the potential candidacy of chief prosecutor Ho Chio-meng, who chose not to run despite an early boost from a favorable article in a Chinese Communist Party publication.

Ten years after escaping colonialism, Macau can't even tolerate debate over who 300 of the city's great and good should choose as the new chief executive. Through an incredible coincidence or a series of backroom deals, exactly 254 people registered for the 254 places parceled out to representatives of seven functional constituencies (business, professional and civic groups), eliminating the need for a vote. The rest of the electors were chosen behind closed doors.

When I asked a cross-section of Macau professionals to comment on the chief executive election or the performance of the incumbent Edmund Ho, the overwhelming majority refused to speak on the record, sometimes offering extraordinarily creative excuses or simply admitting, as one did, "I have too much to lose."

Others agreed to speak on limited topics, declaring other subjects off-limits because, as one well-known Macau figure explained, "I'd have to be negative." Many people are afraid to express ideas. Uncontested elections amplify those fears, signaling that debate and disagreement are unwelcome.

After Chui announced his candidacy in May, an Internet campaign raised money to run a newspaper advertisement opposing a chief executive who, like Chui, comes from one of Macau's most powerful families. The bank involved abruptly closed the group's account. The ad eventually ran in a Hong Kong newspaper, after one Macau publication supposedly told the group, "We wouldn't run it for 10 million patacas [US$1.25 million]."

Inequality breeds discontent

Macau as a Portuguese colony never developed a political culture, and civil society has made little progress beyond the kai fong, traditional Chinese neighborhood associations. Two seats in the Legislative Assembly are held by members of the only declared pro-democracy party, which plans to split in two to increase its chances of winning more seats. Only 12 of the 29 legislature's seats are directly elected, with 10 chosen by functional constituencies representing business interests, and seven appointed by the chief executive, ensuring vested interested are in control.

Grassroots opposition to Macau's government tends to be ad hoc and lightly organized but discontent simmers close to the surface over the uneven benefits of Macau's economic growth.

May Day 2007 drew unprecedented crowds into the streets, protesting over imported labor. Panicked police fired warning shots close to the demonstrators, wounding a bystander. The incident drew international attention, and, along with the US$100 million corruption scandal involving former public works secretary Ao Man Long that began unfolding in late 2006, undermined Macau's position as Beijing's preferred special administrative region compared to larger, usually more unruly Hong Kong.

In the absence of other drivers, the incident remains the dominant event on Macau's political landscape, exerting influence across the spectrum.

For the past two years, the government's main objective has been to prevent a repeat of the mass demonstrations. Ahead of May Day 2008, it declared a 5,000 patacas payment for all permanent residents and upped the handout to 6,000 patacas this year. (In both years, non-permanent residents received half of the declared amount.) When the economic crisis began to bite late last year, the government did all it could to ensure the ax fell on foreign workers rather than locals. In some cases, professionals who'd lost their jobs and lived in Macau for years were required to leave within 48 hours to guarantee they left the local labor pool.

The government's focus on foreign workers is at best misguided in a city that, certainly in May 2007, enjoyed virtual full employment and rapidly expanding labor demand. Specifics are different now due to the global economic crisis and mainland visa restrictions that limit visits, but the underlying truth remains that Macau unemployment isn't due to imported labor but lack of suitable skills, including English-language ability and professional training.

Lack of appropriate labor undoubtedly impacts economic development across Macau, from small and medium-sized enterprises that can't find the help they need (or can't compete with casino wages to get it) to hospitality services that can't match what's available in other resort destinations. Those situations touch on wider issues and far bigger problems facing Macau, and none of them will be solved by indiscriminately distributing 6,000 patacas.

More money than sense

Macau's government literally has more money than it knows what to do with, and the city's lack of political dialogue means leadership has no reliable mechanism to consult the public to help craft policies. Cash giveaways are an admission that the government has no real policies to address pressing issues. The upcoming change of chief executive will put a leading figure from the current, lost administration in charge, a man many in Macau see as less competent and personable than the incumbent, with closer ties to the shocking corruption that's helped undermine the administration's legitimacy.

Lack of political development occasionally suits Beijing. The central government got anti-sedition provisions known as Article 23 added to the Basic Law in Macau with little fuss; in Hong Kong, 500,000 people marched against Article 23 and the government abandoned it. Passing Article 23 in Macau was expected to provide impetus for its reintroduction in Hong Kong, but Macau's uncontested elections and stifled dialogue are precisely what Hong Kong fears.

Overall, Beijing just wants Macau to run smoothly, a priority it shares with investors, particularly those from overseas who aren't part of Macau's ruling clans. Leisure expert Andy Nazarechuk, dean of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Singapore campus, once told me, "I thought Las Vegas was the only place where people would invest billions in a mega-resort." He didn't believe that any other jurisdiction could offer security to investors, including rule of law and public order, combined with business potential, to support that level of investment.

But now, visible from Nazarechuk's window in Singapore, the two most expensive casino resorts in the world are being built with a combined price tag approaching US$11 billion, while Macau is still seeking more than $10 billion to complete its transformation into the Las Vegas of Asia. Across the region, from Seoul to Saigon to Siam Reap, casinos resorts are being built to compete with Macau.

To remain the destination of choice in this rising international competition for visitors and capital, Macau must lose the trappings of a banana republic and become a modern, efficiently run city where all stakeholders work toward shared goals. Uncontested elections and stunted civil society are not a winning bet.

(1) Os destaques são, naturalmente, da minha responsabilidade.

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