Macau Beyond the Glittering Lights

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/07/2007 05:26:00 PM
Macau is famously known as the world's top gambling destination, having topped Las Vegas in gaming revenues in 2006. The bright city lights impress visitors from China and points beyond with a spectacle reminiscent of, well, Las Vegas. Beyond the glittering lights, though, there is growing discontent among native Macanese with how things have changed in the former Portugese colony. They claim that they are being hard hit by two particular forces. First, living costs have soared in the wake of mega-casino developments. Second, an influx of other workers from elsewhere willing to accept lower wages has depressed wages their wages. (It's claimed that up to 70,000 are "illegal.") Recent protests in Macau have been over this double whammy of higher living costs and lower wages. Add in a government perceived as being too cozy with casino operators instead of being responsive to the citizenry and the picture darkens further as widening inequality rears its ugly head. From the International Herald Tribune:
A few kilometers from the bright lights of the casinos that advertise the new wealth of Macao's gambling-fueled economy is Rua Um do Bairro Vá Tai, a grimy row of overcrowded apartments.

In the days of Portugal's ambivalent colonial rule, this street and the surrounding neighborhood in the north of Macao, a short stroll from the border gate with mainland China, became home to some of the city's poorest residents.

Despite years of spectacular economic growth, locals say the area is little changed, left on the margins of the casino boom.

Kuan Keng Nam, whose father runs a small home repair business here, recently escaped the drudgery of his old neighborhood by landing a job as a cook in a Portuguese restaurant in the food court of the Venetian, the newest and biggest of the casinos.

But the 23-year-old Kuan found a casino job was not a ticket out of a place where many of the people he knows are either unemployed or underemployed. The 7,000 patacas, or $876, Kuan earns each month, although a respectable income by local standards, does not go very far.

Like many other Macanese, he complains that the influx of labor across the border with China keeps wages low, while the cost of living - especially rents in working-class neighborhoods - spirals upward.

"Mainland people might be earning 3,000 a month at home. They come here and they earn 6,000," said Kuan. "For them it's a high rate, for us it's too low."

This is the reverse side of Macao's phenomenal growth, out of sight of most visitors to the artificial world created by new casinos like the Venetian, where above the gondolas on the fake canal the sky is always blue and the clouds cheerfully white because they are painted on the ceiling.

"The government tells us the casino boom is bringing wealth to Macao," said José Pereira Coutinho, a deputy in Macao's Legislative Assembly. "That is not true, because this wealth is only for a few. It is not helping people who are suffering."

In what has traditionally been a placid political environment, the signs of public discontent are emerging. Several thousand people protested on Oct. 1, China's National Day, for the first time. They marched on government house over a potpourri of grievances ranging from harsh new penalties for illegal parking of motorcycles, to corruption in government and the use of illegal labor. It followed a rowdy protest in May on similar issues. Another protest is expected in December to coincide with the anniversary of the handover to China.

Macao's small democratic movement is also riding the wave of discontent to step up its campaign for direct elections for the chief executive and Legislative Assembly. Current laws provide for popular election of only 12 of the 29 legislators. The chief executive is appointed by an electoral college of influential citizens, most of whom are seen as conservative allies of Beijing. Democrats say the system stifles debate and encourages government secrecy.

There is a common theme to recent anti-government sentiment, say legislators and political analysts: Living standards for the poor and middle class are being eroded, and the government of Chief Executive Edmund Ho, which has ruled for the eight years since China resumed sovereignty, is out of touch.

An annual report from the European Commission on conditions in Macao said in August that the gambling boom, instead of lifting the quality of life for the Macanese, had resulted in "steep and widening inequality of incomes."

With imported workers - principally from mainland China but also Southeast Asia - numbering about 70,000, or a quarter of the work force, the labor market has become more competitive and wages have not keep up with price rises. Property and rents are estimated to have risen by 200 to 300 percent.

"Local residents who have lost their jobs are expressing their discontent," the commission report said. "Macao's boom is causing the rapid inflation of the costs of living, especially of property-related costs rising faster than the pay rises of some of the poorer groups, reducing thus their real level of income."

It is hard to reconcile the problems with access to work and living standards with the official economic data. By most measures, Macao has been a huge economic success. Last year, the economy grew 16.6 percent, one of the fastest rates in the world. In the second quarter of this year, growth was 31.9 percent. Official unemployment in August was 3.1 percent.

The city's 23 casinos generated revenues of $6.87 billion in 2006, surpassing Las Vegas as the largest gaming market in the world. As money from gambling tourists has flooded in, per capita income reached $28,436 in 2006, according to the government, which placed Macao on a par with Hong Kong, its wealthy neighbor across the Pearl River Delta.

Those who benefit most are the 45,000 people employed by the casinos, where average earnings rose almost 15 percent in the past year to an average of 14,491 patacas per month. For older workers, and those who miss out on a casino or civil service job, opportunities and incomes have deteriorated. Many earn less than a quarter of the wages pulled in by a card dealer in casino.

Lei Kok Eiu, a 62-year-old electrician who retired this year from a pharmaceutical factory, said the reality for many workers is: "Don't get sick. If you get sick, you can't afford it."

Political analysts say the popular frustration over widening income inequality is being exacerbated by a perception the government is corrupt and too close to the casinos and other business interests. Ho's government has been plagued by a succession of bribery scandals, the most damaging involving Ao Man-long, the secretary for transport and public works.

Ao, who had responsibility for land disposal and certain public works contracts, was arrested last December on charges of accepting bribes and money laundering. He and his wife allegedly accumulated 800 million patacas during seven years in office. He is still awaiting trial.

Although Ao's arrest helped Ho bolster his anti-graft credentials, the case is viewed as the tip of a much deeper corruption problem and has provided momentum for public protest.

"There is a gap between the government and its citizens," said Eilo Yu, a political science lecturer at the University of Macao. "The public is not happy with the levels of corruption and does not trust the government. The public seems to be quite angry and its actions are more radical than before."

Still, one group is smiling. Disclosures of high-level corruption and the squeeze on living standards have been a godsend for Macao's democrats, who both before and after Macao's return to Chinese rule were faint voices in the wilderness.

In contrast to the boisterous democracy movement in Hong Kong, the people of Macao have tended to be ambivalent about their politics.

The Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration of 1987 and the Basic Law, Macao's mini-constitution, make no mention of universal suffrage as the ultimate goal of political reform, as Hong Kong's Basic Law does.

But popular calls for greater government openness and transparency emboldened the democrats and swelled their ranks.

Last Wednesday, two days after the protest march, democrats handed a proposal for reform to a representative of the chief executive's office, demanding a consultation with the government on increasing the number of directly elected legislators, in stages, and on the direct election of the chief executive.

"The situation in Macao is similar to Hong Kong in the 1970s," said Yu, the political analyst. "The society is developing in Macao and starting to mobilize. It is becoming more and more politically active. In the long run people will keep on challenging the government."