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Macao Measures Seen as Attempt to Head Off Hong Kong-Like Crisis


FILE - In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, policemen perform a flag-raising ceremony in Macao, Dec. 20, 2021, marking the 22nd anniversary of the former Portuguese colony's handover to Chinese rule.

Planned election and national security measures in Macao, including revision of its national security law, are aimed at preventing any political crisis like that in nearby Hong Kong from taking root in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, experts say.

The Macao government said it “will step up effort to improve governance, and optimize the city’s legal provisions regarding national security and their respective implementation,” in a Dec. 16 statement on the publication of its 2021-25 five-year plan.

Authorities seek to “complete” the national security law, push forward enactment of terrorism and communications interception laws, strengthen enforcement of entry restrictions, and “improve” the election system, according to the official plan document.. The “improvement” of the election system aims to ensure Macao’s governance “is safe and sound in the hands of patriots,” the document said.

Under the plan, Macao, designated a “special administrative region” by Beijing, will “formulate positive and negative lists of swearing allegiance to the SAR and relevant qualification examination mechanisms to regulate the way legislators perform their duties,” the official China Daily said.

September’s “patriots-only” election saw Macao disqualifying three dozen pro-democracy candidates for the first time, including two incumbent lawmakers, for not upholding the Basic Law or not pledging allegiance to the city.

The election changes are an official step to eliminate any possibility that the pro-establishment camp will lose control of Macao, according to Michael Cunningham, visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center specializing in Chinese politics.

“The existing system is already very much stacked in favor of the pro-Beijing establishment,” Cunningham told VOA. “The government wants to make sure it stays this way, regardless of how public opinion or political dynamics may shift in the coming years and decades.”

The change skewing the election law toward the pro-establishment camp follows numerous steps in recent years, according to Jason Buhi, assistant professor at the Barry University Law School and the author of The Constitutional History of Macau.

“The latest five-year plan recommits Macau to its recent project of ensuring the political loyalty of every single deputy [lawmaker], but the two goals it promotes for achieving have already been in development for the past five years,” Buhi told VOA.

Macao
Macao

He said the first goal is to “blacklist” candidates based on oaths of allegiance, and the second is to establish more formal mechanisms to supervise the qualifications of candidates. To determine whom to oust and keep, Buhi said the current five-member election committee, which approves who can run as a candidate, and is directly appointed by Macao’s chief executive, has made sure to screen out any opposition voices.

“Through this agency, Macau’s chief executive has the power to shape the entire composition of the local Legislative Assembly,” he said.

To tighten its grip in the city, authorities also plan to boost national security by legislation, education, training of civil servants, and general promotion.

Macao Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng, told a November press conference that the amendment of the 2009 national security law will mainly involve “clarifying the definition of the articles in the current law.” Work on the amendment is underway but details have not been announced.

The law now criminalizes treason, secession, sedition, subversion, and theft of state secrets, as well as activities by foreign political bodies in the city and their establishment of ties with local entities. Offenders are subject to up to 25 years’ imprisonment.

The communications interception bill, which would allow judges and police to intercept calls and gain access to people’s electronic devices, stirred debate, with critics slamming the bill for giving the police too much power and violating privacy. The journalists’ union in the city also expressed press freedom concerns.

Buhi warned that the proposal could be a new form of government surveillance.

“Who can say precisely where issues touching ‘national security’ begin and end to the authorities? ... The new [proposed] communications interception law imposes significant criminal and administrative liability on telecommunications operators and network communication service providers who fail to collaborate with official requests. This will likely have an impact on the communications platforms available in the region, including encrypted services.”

The five-year plan also says the city will aim to further enforce the law for entry control to “prevent and suppress infiltration and disturbance of foreign power,” without specifying what the foreign power is or what the enhancement will look like.

The purpose of strengthening Macao’s national security is for Beijing to exert its power in Macau further, according to Eilo Yu Wing-yat, associate professor at the University of Macau’s Department of Government and Public Administration.

“The legislation against terrorism and any amendment for national security seem to be a product of fractional struggle among mainland authorities. The further infiltration of national security branch personnel in the MSAR may curb the political significance of the Liaison Office as well as the local authorities and elite,” she said.

“It is hard to say what will be included in the legal reform for national security. I believe the national security branch has been trying, through legal reform, to extend its executive arm in the MSAR formally, she said.

Macao’s national security legal provisions are more preventive measures than tools for crushing dissent, like those in Hong Kong, Cunningham added.

“The amendment will probably bring Macao's law more in line with those of China and Hong Kong. But one important difference is that Macao's national security law was passed by Macao's legislature, and the same will be true of the amendment. It's not being imposed top-down by Beijing like what happened to Hong Kong,” he said.

Cunningham said Macao has barely enforced its national security law.

“Macao has never actually used its national security law [on dissent], and I expect that, short of an actual security threat or the kind of unrest we saw in Hong Kong a couple years ago, they will continue to apply the law rarely,” he predicted in an email.

“Over half of Macao's population was born in mainland China, and the people are generally more obedient to the government authority and much less politically minded than their Hong Kong counterparts. …. But in the unlikely event that Macao experiences unrest, they won’t hesitate to use it.”

“Ultimately,” Buhi said, “Beijing seeks to maintain a veneer of democracy in Macau, while obscuring the realities of its tightly-held system through Byzantine administrative procedures capable of challenging the comprehension of trained political scientists.”

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