Freedom in the World 2004 - Macao [China]

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 470,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Bubbhist (50 percent) Roman Catholic (15 percent), other (35 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Chinese (95 percent), other [including Macanese and Portuguese] (5 percent)


China took steps in 2003 to help boost Macao's economy, easing trade and travel restrictions in the territory.

Ruled by Portugal for 443 years beginning in 1557, Macao was the first European outpost in the Far East, the leading gateway for European trade with China until the 1770s, and a hideaway for buccaneers and Chinese criminal gangs until becoming, more recently, a bawdy city of casinos and prostitution. The territory's road to reunification with the mainland began in 1987, when China and Portugal agreed that Beijing would regain control over Macao in 1999 and that the enclave would maintain its legal system and capitalist economy for 50 years.

Macao lacks the vibrant banking, trading, and real estate industries found in Hong Kong, just 40 miles to the east along the south China coast. Its economic fortunes recently have been tied largely to tourism and the casino industry, as well as to textile and garment exports. When Macao's economy slid into recession in 1995, it was partly because a surge in gang-related violence, including killings and attacks on several local civil servants and Portuguese officials, hurt tourism, which 650 Freedom in the World – 2004 makes up around 40 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The regional financial crisis that began in 1997 prolonged the recession, which ended in 2000.

Gangland violence tailed off significantly in the lead-up to the handover to Chinese rule, which took place in December 1999. China reportedly helped Macao crack down on crime groups, and the outgoing Portuguese jailed a major crime boss.

Despite concerns before the handover that China would renege on its pledges to respect Macao's autonomy, there has been little sign that Beijing is trying to pressure the administration of Edmund Ho, the territory's appointed top official. Still, these concerns remain for some Macao residents, in part because the territory's press and civic groups are less vigorous than those in Hong Kong. Moreover, under the 1987 Sino-Portuguese deal, Macao's chief executive, like Hong Kong's, is appointed by an elite committee rather than popularly elected. Ho, a Canadian-educated banker, was the committee's consensus choice to be the first chief executive. The committee's 199 members were themselves appointed by a Beijing-selected committee.

Concerns about Beijing's influence in the territory may have been allayed somewhat by the fact that Macao's sole pro-democracy party was the largest single vote-getter in the September 2001 legislative elections, the first since the handover. Led by Ng Kuok-cheong, the Association for a New Democratic Macao party took 2 of the 10 directly elected seats in the 27-member body. Business-backed candidates won 4 seats, and the pro-China camp won another 4. Ten other seats, chosen by special interest groups, were uncontested. Ho appointed the remaining seven seats. Macao's legislature, in any case, has little influence under a political setup that puts most power in the hands of Chief Executive Ho.

In a long-expected move, the government in 2002 broke casino magnate Stanley Ho's 40-year monopoly on Macao's $1.99 billion gaming industry by awarding him only one of three new licenses to operate casinos in the territory. Analysts say that increased competition should boost an industry that already accounts for an estimated one-third of Macao's $6.2 billion GDP and about half of the government's annual revenues.

Beijing said in August that it would ease restrictions on travel to Macao, as well as to Hong Kong, for some mainland residents. In October, China and Macao signed a trade pact that will grant Macao firms access to China's legal, banking, and telecom sectors and eliminate Chinese tariffs on 273 types of goods made in the territory.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Residents of Macao cannot change their government through elections, although they do enjoy many basic rights and freedoms.

Macao's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, calls for the government to be led by a powerful chief executive who is subject to few democratic checks and balances. Aside from its provisions on governmental structure, the Basic Law is "riddled with ambiguities," fails to guarantee several basic rights, and grants Beijing emergency powers that are vaguely worded, the human rights group Amnesty International said in 1999. Like the Portuguese governors who served in the waning years of colonial rule, Macao's chief executive is appointed and holds broad executive powers. Meanwhile, legislators are barred from introducing bills relating to Macao's public spending, its political structure, or the operation of its government. Related Territories Reports 651 In addition, bills relating to government policies must receive the chief executive's written approval before they can be submitted.

The legislature elected in 2005 will have two additional seats, both of them directly elected. After 2009, the Basic Law allows lawmakers, by a two-thirds vote and subject to the chief executive's approval, to draw up a new mix of directly and indirectly elected seats.

Outside of a handful of opposition politicians like Ng Kuok-cheong, of the Association for a New Democratic Macao party, Macao has few outspoken voices for greater political freedom or for more transparency in business and government.

Most of the enclave's ten daily newspapers, including the top-selling Macao Daily, are pro-Beijing. None take an independent political line. The press also offers little coverage of people, groups, or activities that challenge Macao's conservative political and business establishment or that call for greater political rights.

Macao residents of all faiths generally can worship freely. Practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, whose followers on the mainland have been suppressed ruthlessly, routinely perform their exercises in Macao's parks. Police, however, often photograph practitioners and at times take them to stationhouses for checks of their identity documents that can last for several hours, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002, released in March 2003. University professors and other educators can write and lecture without interference.

Human rights groups, such as the Macao Association for the Rights of Laborers, operate freely, though they generally have little impact on the territory's political life. Critics say that Macao's dominant labor confederation, the Federation of Trade Unions, is more of a political front for mainland Chinese interests than an advocate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Several small private sector unions and two of Macao's four public sector unions are independent. Laws protecting striking workers from dismissal are inadequate, and government enforcement of labor laws is lax.

Some observers question whether Macao's judiciary is robust enough to protect fundamental liberties should they be threatened in the future. The judiciary is still finding its footing following delays in translating laws and judgments into Chinese from Portuguese. The courts are also grappling with a severe shortage of local bilingual lawyers and magistrates. Only about 10 of the 94 lawyers in private practice can read and write Chinese. In addition, the chief executive appoints judges without legislative oversight. Judicial candidates are recommended to the chief executive by a commission that he himself names. Prisons meet international standards, and there have been few recent reports of police abuse.

Foreign workers often work for less than half the wages paid to Macao residents, live in controlled dormitories, and owe huge sums to the firms that brought them to the enclave, according to the U.S. State Department report. Macao workers, meanwhile, complain that their bargaining power is eroded by the territory's many foreign laborers, who make up around 12 percent of the workforce.

Women in Macao are gaining a greater foothold in business and increasingly holding senior government posts. They are, however, still under-represented in politics and the civil service. Traffickers continue to bring women from abroad into Macao for prostitution, although there are no accurate figures on the scale of the problem.

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