OPINION – Copycat Macau?

Macau Business | May 2021

In a recent, well-received, if highly selective, ethnography of mainland China (‘Being Modern in China’), Paul Willis identified ‘three arrows of modernity’ at work. First is China’s glorification of the city, with mass rural migration for work but problems of the ‘hukou’ system, low earnings and squalid living conditions for internal migrant labour.

Opinion | Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

Second is a high octane, super‑charged devotion to consumerism, but where vast sectors of society cannot afford to purchase their dream products; escapism on steroids. Third is the fixation with the all‑pervasive internet, particularly smartphones that enable consumers to imagine their unfulfillable dreams but that also bring increasing surveillance and control.

All of these, Willis avers, are accompanied by China’s ‘ferocious’ glorification of a beautiful future, the pervasiveness of the ruthless ‘gaokao’ examination for selective entry to higher education and its control of an individual’s life chances and destinations: success or condemnation to low grade, low paid work. Willis also comments on how China fuses development with tradition and long‑standing cultural continuity.

Most developments have paradoxical, internally contradictory elements: pluses and minuses. Here, Willis questions whether the cost of China’s development, e.g. the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, rampant materialism, an examination‑obsessed education system, and escapism into an unattainable, would‑be world, is worth the benefit of, for example, being the world leader in reducing poverty, becoming a powerhouse of the global economy, and providing infrastructural development that leaves the rest of the world gasping at its achievements.

What would an ethnographer make of tiny Macau? Willis’s sharp ‘arrows’ in understanding modern China are damp squibs in idiosyncratic little Macau. How does Macau parallel Willis’s arrows in his comments on internal contradictions in China?

In comparison to China’s emphasis on the city, Macau’s dream city (and it has its ‘City of Dreams’) instances Baudrillard’s postmodern, nightmarish simulacra of fake city sights (Paris, London, Venice), monstrous consumerism, a glut of brand-name shops, kitsch, and glitzy vacuity: a contemporary reworking of the poet Eliot’s ‘unreal city’. Further, somewhat like China, Macau makes life difficult for the migrant workers that it needs in order to survive economically.

Like China, Macau’s people of all ages are connected umbilically to their cellphones. They are modern-day Skinner’s rats and Pavlov’s dogs, salivating over, and happily satisfied slaves of, the instant operant conditioning rewards of a message or a friend’s photograph of yesterday’s dinner.

In spectacular contradiction to China’s ‘gaokao’, Macau’s joint university admissions examination (for only four institutions) seems to make no appreciable difference to university entrance. Further, many of Macau’s graduates appear to believe that they are entitled to a job, regardless of effort, ability, knowledge, attitude or accomplishment. A high quality local workforce is a dream awaiting incarnation.

Macau is in a liminal state, playing catch-up as it transitions to being an economy to complement that of mainland China. Like China, Macau’s development contains contradictions. On the one hand Macau has physical, infrastructural, economic and material links with China which increase by the month. Its integration with the Greater Bay project proceeds apace, and it appears to be preparing for easy harmonization with China at the end of the 50-year transition period in 2049.

On the other hand, Macau’s infrastructure development and constructions everywhere are hideously ugly. Small businesses die. Homes are unaffordable. Much employment is low‑grade. Many of Macau’s students neither know nor care about the world outside Macau. Macau has gross inequalities in its society. Kafkaesque, Byzantine bureaucracy is a defining feature of its public services. Surveillance is as routine as eating your breakfast.

Adopting the Orwellian prism through which to envision a dystopic future, is Macau preparing to love ‘big brother’? Is Macau a miniature copycat of mainland China?

Not yet. Macau has its own, interestingly quirky identity as a city that seems all‑too‑content with under‑fulfilment, low demand, and compliance; in other words, a triumph of poor quality and neglect of creativity. It could do so much better than this.