Macau, Hong Kong’s Sister City

Written by: Ryan Thiele

Over the last few months there has been considerable attention given to Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) that was turned over from the British Empire in 1997. Hong Kong’s democratic protests are sure to grab headlines for months to come, especially since they are inspiring other movements across the globe, notably Catalonia in Spain. But Hong Kong’s neighboring city, Macau SAR, has been largely quiet. In fact, with so much attention on Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that people have forgotten the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) second SAR, the city of Macau, only a few miles away by sea-bridge.

Macau SAR sits on the southern tip of China’s Greater Bay Area, 40 miles west of Hong Kong. For over 400 years it stood as a colony of Portugal, compared to Britain’s 150 years of rule over Macau’s neighbor. The city of Macau, despite its extremely small area, had a diversified economy of tea, tobacco, and incense production during its colonial history. Its strategic position and large port allowed it to become a major trading stop for merchants coming into China until British Hong Kong came to dominate the region’s commerce. In the early half of the 20th century, the city saw a massive population boom from mainland Chinese who were fleeing the Chinese Civil War, contributing to an increase in textile and clothing industries. It was then that Macau began to legalize gambling and develop a tourist sector that has become the majority of its economy, in stark contrast to the economy of mainland China, where around 85 percent of the largest Chinese companies are government owned.

Portuguese rule was different than British rule, contributing to the differences in cities. While British imperialism sought to establish British traditions of democracy, liberal economics, and common law, Portuguese rule was slightly more hands off, giving monopolies to businessmen and allowing mainland Chinese, especially the eventual communists, to have cultural influence over the Portuguese institutions. This made it easier for China to assume control over the city when Portugal gave up administration in the 1970s to Chinese businessmen and unions, cultimating in the official transfer of government in 1999.

Macau was established as a Special Administrative Region, just like Hong Kong two years prior, under the doctrine of “one country, two systems.” The philosophy allows Macau and Hong Kong to maintain their own legal and economic systems for 50 years with limited influence by the regulations and laws of the PRC. This allowed Hong Kong to continue, to an extent, the Western traditions that imperial Britain instilled, while Macau could continue growing its now competitive casino and resort industry.

While Hong Kong developed a distinct culture and identity separate from China, Macau has no issue sharing an identity with China. First of all, the cities’ populations are quite different, with Macau sitting below a million people while Hong Kong is teetering on 7.5 million. 50 percent of the population was born in China, compared to only 20 percent in Hong Kong. Hong Kong grew to become the main financial center in Asia while Macau became the “Las Vegas of the Orient,” the city now on track to become the world’s richest, yet most densely populated, territory in 2020. Many believe the growth of Macau could not have happened without China removing the gambling monopoly, allowing citizens to cross over for tourism and gambling, as well eliminating criminal gangs within the city, which incentivized Macau to further align closer to the mainland.

Kin-Sun Chan, an assistant professor of government and public administration at the University of Macau, stated: “The two economies are very different. Also Macau is much smaller. As a result, Macau is more dependent on [the] mainland than Hong Kong…Compared with Hong Kong, Macau is a micro-economy and needs a good relationship with China…Most Macau people still recognize themselves as Chinese. People have a strong link with the mainland.” 

The influence of the mainland began when the Portuguese could not administer the city properly, and the influence of the communist regime will only continue to grow as a SAR. In 2017 Typhoon Hato struck Macau, prompting the Macau SAR government to request PRC troops to assist with disaster relief, much to the pleasure of the Macau people. In contrast, Hong Kong protested against a security law that would allow the government to punish treason and successionism; the law was scrapped. President Xi Jinping has also shown favor to Macau over Hong Kong for being the “better-behaved” SAR, moving an upcoming meeting with President Trump to Macau as well as telling the city to diversify its economy as casino income declines.

The chances of a Hong Kong protest-like situation happening in Macau are slim to none. The city has an economy too closely tied to China and a culture too similar to the mainland. Macau is wildly distinct from Hong Kong; therefore, when Macau is slated to officially become under control of the Chinese administration in 2049, it will be a smoother transition than its sister city Hong Kong.