Opinion – Why is Macau far more stable than Hong Kong?

On September 11, when Macau Chief Executive-designate Ho Iat Seng went to Beijing to receive his appointment letter from the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, President Xi Jinping praised Macau for successfully implementing the “one country, two systems.”

Xi added that Macau shows the feasibility of the “one country, two systems,” which is characterized by the existence of patriotism, the improvement of people’s livelihood, the persistence of economic prosperity, and the phenomenon of social stability.

Without naming Hong Kong and by implication, President Xi sees the Macau model of “one country, two systems” as a showcase to the world and to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Why is Macau far more socially and politically stable than Hong Kong in 2019?

Historically speaking, the 1966 riot in Macau and the 1967 riot in Hong Kong had totally different outcomes that laid the foundation of socio-political stability of the two places after their return to the motherland in 1999 and 1997 respectively.

The 1966 riot in Macau led to the governmental suppression of the pro-Kuomintang forces and paved the way for the rise of the patriotic forces, which have been serving as not only a crucial link between the rulers and the ruled, but also a glue that narrows the communication gap between the post-colonial government and ordinary citizens.

Hong Kong after the 1967 riot witnessed the governmental suppression of the pro-Beijing forces, which have risen since the middle of 1980s and which have been seen by many ordinary people as a socio-political camp blindly supportive of the post-1997 administration.

Hong Kong since the introduction of direct elections to the Legislative Council in 1991 has envisaged a relatively strong pro-democracy force, which remains using the slogans of democratizing Hong Kong along the Western model and protecting civil liberties as the dual appeals to garner the support of voters and young people.

As such, the historical outcomes of the 1966 riot in Macau and the 1967 riot in Hong Kong led to totally different political scenarios that explain the relatively strong power base of the Macao government after December 20, 1999 and yet the comparatively weaker power base of the Hong Kong administration after July 1, 1997.

Secondly, education has been playing a key role in shaping the identity and political cultures of the young people in Macau and Hong Kong. In Macau, the education system since the late 1960s has been inculcating a much stronger sense of patriotism among the psyche of the young people, who identify themselves as not only culturally Chinese but also politically more harmonious.

Hong Kong’s education system, however, was characterized by an absence of nationalistic curricular. In Hong Kong under the colonial rule, Chinese history as a subject was neglected and it was by no means compulsory to all secondary school students.

As a result, Hong Kong’s secondary school students generally lack a deep sense of Chinese history, being quite ignorant of the history of national humiliation suffered by China from the Qing dynasty to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, not to mention the details of how China fought against Japan during the Second World War.

The absence of nationalistic education in Hong Kong has even been worsened since July 1, 1997, because the Chinese history subject remains non-compulsory, not to mention large-scale visits arranged by schools to visit Nanking where the massacre of Chinese citizens took place in 1937.

The introduction of liberal studies in Hong Kong did inculcate critical thinking among the psyche of many Hong Kong students, but it was introduced without a concomitant requirement of making Chinese history compulsory. As a result, many Hong Kong students have become politically aware, but historically lacking a deep sense of Chinese history.

It can be argued that many Hong Kong students were educated to be quite liberal, recognizing their own rights, but they were not “patriotic” enough due to a weak sense of national history in China. It was in this context that Hong Kong students gradually developed a much stronger sense of local Hong Kong identity combined with a relatively weaker sense of Chinese national identity. 

Macau is very different; the Chinese history curriculum has been traditionally much stronger in both breadth and depth. Macau’s civic education content emphasizes not just the rights of ordinary citizens but also their obligations to society.

Hence, it can be argued that while education in Macau has nurtured a stronger sense of Chinese national identity but a relatively weaker sense of local Macau identity, the Hong Kong education has produced a weaker sense of Chinese national identity and yet a stronger sense of local Hong Kong identity.

These differences led to very different political cultures in Macau and Hong Kong. Many young Macau people see political and social harmony as more important, especially in the context of a small Macau city where social stability and economic prosperity depend on political pragmatism.

Many young Hong Kong people tend to cherish their own rights and embrace a much stronger local identity, seeing their civil liberties as of paramount importance. Although many Hong Kong people are also pragmatic, but the more radical elements are often found in the younger generation.

Due to historical and educational differences, Macau and Hong Kong have a totally different governing environment. Macau has a governing context more conducive to economic and social integration with the mainland, while Hong Kong has a governing atmosphere quite resistant to socio-economic integration.

The outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong in late 2002 and early 2003 led to the policy of the Hong Kong government, in cooperation with the mainland authorities, to introduce the individual visit scheme, which brought about the continuous influx of mainland tourists into Hong Kong.

Such influx of mainland tourists did stimulate economic prosperity but led to social tensions as some local people saw the mainlanders as buying all kinds of daily necessities and affecting their livelihood, including hospital beds for local pregnant women. Although the Hong Kong government later controlled the situation, it was too late as the seeds of social tensions were sown. 

Macau was different; the individual visit scheme led to economic prosperity without social grievances, especially as most Macau people see themselves as not just culturally Chinese but also harmonious citizens embracing the mainland visitors.

The careless Hong Kong government policy of introducing the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in the early half of 2019 totally miscalculated public sentiments. Traditionally, many Hong Kong people have been deeply concerned about their civil liberties and they saw the extradition bill as a menace to their freedom – a perception magnified by the mobilization of public opinion through social media and the rise of political populism.

The Hong Kong government has been very weak in coping with public opinion in social media, let along responding to populism. As a result, large-scale peaceful protests and rallies have become commonplace in Hong Kong. 

Most importantly, the civil society in Hong Kong has been divided into civil (peaceful) and uncivil (violent) segments, with the civil sector participating peacefully in protests and rallies, whereas the uncivil minority participating in violent actions.

These violent actions, such as vandalizing public places and transport infrastructures like the Mass Transit Railway, illustrate the very destructive dimension of the uncivil society in Hong Kong. Such uncivil society was stimulated by violent confrontations between protestors and police and perhaps also by the controversial way in which the police handled protests in the entire anti-extradition movement. 

Youth discontent in Hong Kong was also attributable to the highly exploitative nature of the capitalist society, where the rich people have become richer, and where the young people find it difficult to climb up the social ladder.

While public housing units in Macau have been expanded in recent years, the number of public housing units in Hong Kong remains limited and fails to satisfy the demands of many Hong Kong people. Even worse, some young people in Hong Kong were disqualified in their electoral participation from late 2016 to 2018, leading to hidden youth discontent that led to an explosion of the civil society in the middle of 2019.

What are the lessons from Macau for Hong Kong? Perhaps the two places are so different historically, educationally, socially and politically that the Macau model cannot be replicated in Hong Kong. However, one can also argue that the educational model of Macau can be an example for Hong Kong, where the education system has been administered by bureaucrats without any strong sense of Chinese national identity.

Education reform in Hong Kong has been very slow and was fiercely resisted by the civil society, as in the anti-national education movement in 2012 demonstrated. 

Perhaps the Hong Kong conflicts are proceeding in an inevitable and yet uncontrollable manner that when the economy really suffers from violence and a visible decline in tourism, and when many families suffer from their loss of jobs and decline in income, then the violent protestors would gradually tone down their activities.

If this analysis is accurate, the Hong Kong disturbances are damaging the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems,” even though the Macau model demonstrates the feasibility and success of the “one country, two systems” in the minds of the top Chinese leaders.