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Huge protest in Macau echoes Taiwan's Sunflower activism

Publication Date : 31-05-2014


Recently, as night fell on a Chinese-speaking city in East Asia, thousands of people took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of a government policy with their glowing smartphones. They raised their arms, LED-lit phones in hand, and began to sing in unison. It was a historic moment. Some are already describing it as the city's democratic awakening.

Judging from the photos alone, it would be easy to mistake this protest for the March 30 demonstration in Taipei in which tens of thousands of Sunflower protesters sang “Island Sunrise” in a similarly iconic moment. But the town in question is the mainland Chinese city of Macau, a former Portuguese colony of around 550,000, and not a city traditionally known for its political protests.

Thousands of demonstrators, many of them young people, surrounded the city's Legislative Assembly on Tuesday in protest of a proposed bill that would give top officials grand retirement packages and any incumbent chief executive (the city's top official) immunity from criminal prosecution.

The demonstration came despite the government's offer to suspend the proposal, pressed as they were by a 20,000-strong rally on Sunday and one of Macau's biggest protests since its handover to China in 1999. Macau Chief Executive Dr. Fernando Chui Sai-on finally gave in and announced the withdrawal of the bill yesterday.

It is a highly unlikely turn of events for a city described by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) as “usually placid.” A long colonial history, a small population and a highly centralised economy have made Macau somehow immune to political debates. The government is often seen by locals as an employer (government agencies and casinos are the two key employers in the city).

Since the Portuguese colonial government in Macau gave in to pro-Beijing protesters during the Dec. 23 Incident in 1966, Macau has been administered in large part by pro-Chinese organisations.

Beijing's takeover of the enclave has been decidedly smoother compared to Hong Kong. An estimated 500,000 took to the streets in Hong Kong in 2003 in protest of a proposed anti-subversion law that was later shelved. A similar law passed without much fuss in Macau in 2008.

Given Macau's exponential growth to become the world's biggest gambling hub with revenues now seven times bigger than Las Vegas, and considering its low unemployment rate (currently at 1.8 per cent), government officials might also think that local residents have little reason to complain. They were proved wrong.

“Macau people used to see Hongkongers as troublesome — we do not like protests,” casino worker Ada Pun was quoted as saying by the SCMP. “But this time, the Macau government is testing our bottom line ... and we finally realised we could make a change if we stood united.”

While their cause is their own, the Macau protesters obviously took a page from their counterparts in Taiwan. In addition to the smartphone-lit sing-along, local netizens also engaged in social media campaigns similar to that of Taiwan's, such as the dissemination of protest photos, the “naming and shaming” of lawmakers and public figures who supported the bill as well as the changing of social media profile photos (Sunflower supporters changed theirs into a black square, Macau protest supporters to a white square with the Chinese word for withdrawal in the middle).

Meanwhile, the referendum is becoming a major talking point in Hong Kong as the organisers of a controversial campaign to occupy the city's core slated for June offered to hold a “public referendum” to decide whether the campaign should proceed.

It is hardly a coincidence that it took place soon after Taiwan's public discussions of referendum over the fate of Taiwan's Nuclear Plant No. 4.

While the Taiwanese public engaged in the nation's noisy democracy are mostly focusing on domestic concerns and issues with China, their willingness to express their opinions and creativity as well as their deployment of social media campaigns have influenced more than the immediate stakeholders of their causes.

 Perhaps in a way unexpected (and unpleasant) to President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwanese demonstrators are proving his point that Taiwan's democracy can generate substantial impact across the Strait.


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