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A Pat on the Back

Sat, 17th Jan 2015
President Xi praises Macao’s achievements, advises diversification. (January 2015)

President Xi Jinping paid a two-day visit to Macao to mark the 15th anniversary of the handover and attend the swearing-in ceremony of Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai On for his second term, together with his new cabinet.

He praised the region for its rapid development in all aspects since 1999, thanks to the implementation of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy and the Basic Law. “The situation is very good and particularly beautiful in some areas,” he said, and presented as gifts two giant pandas.

He also said that the central government had decided to demarcate the city’s maritime area, a critical step needed for the development of its marine resources, including yachting, water sports and receiving cruise liners.

At the same time, he advised the new government to address “deep-seated problems”, strengthen and improve regulation and supervision over the gaming industry and diversify its economy away from over-dependence on gambling.

During his visit, he found the time to visit a public housing estate and the new campus of the University of Macau.

He brought a double message – congratulations for what has been achieved in the 15 years since the handover but a warning of the challenges over the next 15 years, in a region that is the fastest growing in the world; the city cannot rest on its laurels.

Swearing-in ceremony

On 20 December, the 15th anniversary of the handover, President Xi attended the swearing-in of the Chief Executive and his new cabinet.

The ceremony at the Macao Dome in Cotai was attended by 1,500 people, including community leaders, business people and lawmakers.

Chui Sai On was the first to be sworn in, followed by the ten members of his new cabinet, as well as the 11 members of the Executive Council. After the ceremony ended at 10.30 a.m., Xi met those who had been sworn in, as well as representatives of mainland enterprises based in Macao.

He also visited the Macao garrison of the People’s Liberation Army in Taipa. He praised the soldiers for portraying a good image of the PLA and winning the acclaim of local people for their contribution to maintaining the SAR’s prosperity and stability.

On Saturday morning, his wife Peng Liyuan visited the Mandarin House, the former home of Zheng Guan-ying, a major reformer of the late Qing dynasty. She was accompanied by Winnie Fok Wai Fun, the wife of the Chief Executive, and Guilherme Ung Vai Meng, president of the Cultural Affairs Bureau.

In the afternoon, President Xi visited the campus of the University of Macau in Hengqin Island, where Rector Zhao Wei showed him round and briefed him on the latest research under way in its laboratories.

President Xi met two dozen students and talked with them about Chinese culture and literature; he stayed at the university for an hour, before going to the airport. There the Chief Executive, his wife, government officials and more than 200 primary school students saw off the president and his wife on their return to Beijing.

The new campus is the most tangible example of cooperation between Macao and the neighbouring district of Hengqin. In August 2014, the university moved from Taipa to a new, custom-built campus on a site of 1.09 square kilometres in Hengqin; it is 20 times larger than the old campus and can accommodate 10,000 students. The campus is under the jurisdiction of the SAR government, which is paying the city government of Zhuhai 1.2 billion yuan for a 40-year lease; it also funded the construction cost of 9.8 billion patacas.

The message

President Xi brought a mixed message to Macao. He was full of praise for what it has accomplished in the 15 years since the handover but warned that success in the past did not guarantee success in the future.

These were the themes of a major speech he gave on 20 December at the Macau Dome.

“Our compatriots in Macao are masters of their own house entitled to broad freedoms and democratic rights in accordance with the law. Macao enjoys orderly progress in democracy, fast economic growth, rising living standards and social harmony and stability.

“Since its return to the motherland 15 years ago, Macao has scored remarkable achievements that make not only Macao compatriots but also people of all ethnic groups in China proud,” he said.

Then he gave four pieces of advice for the years ahead. “Efforts should be made to build a diligent, clean, efficient and fair government under the rule of law… We need to strengthen the ranks of public officials, enhance their regulation and improve their ability to perform their duties in accordance with law.”

His second theme was the economy. “Continue to make overall planning and actively promote appropriately diversified and sustainable economic development. In recent years, Macao has enjoyed rapid economic and social progress. At the same time, certain deep-seated problems formed over the years have surfaced and development risks have built up to some extent.

“It needs to follow a two-pronged approach, improving its own ability of development while strengthening regional cooperation. It needs to come up with greater courage and wisdom to solve difficult problems in its development, strengthen and improve regulation and supervision over the gaming industry, nurture new growth areas for its economy and work for substantive results in its appropriately diversified and sustainable economic development,” he said.

The gaming sector has been one of the great success stories of the post-1999 era. In 2013, it generated US$ 45.2 billion, more than five times that of Las Vegas in the United States. Taxes from gaming account for more than 80 percent of government revenue.

In 2013, the city attracted 29.3 million tourists, up from 7.4 million in 1999, including 18.6 million from the mainland, up from 1.6 million in 1999.

This has helped increase the number of hotel rooms from 9,514 in 1999 to 28,800 in 2013, with the occupancy rate rising from 53.7 percent to 83.1 percent. The vast majority of visitors come to gamble.

But the sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi since 2012 is hitting the casinos badly. In November 2014, their revenues fell 20 percent to 24.3 billion patacas, a drop of 20 percent from a year earlier, the sixth successive month of decline. Analysts expect total 2014 revenue to fall about 0.6 percent from the 2013 level.

High-rollers or VIPs account for about two thirds of the casino market; it is these people who are among the most affected by the anti-corruption campaign. Beijing is cracking down on the use of the UnionPay debit cards used by gamblers to bypass currency controls.

So Xi’s message is two-fold – assist the mainland authorities in tracking down illegal transfers of money into Macao and attract visitors for reasons other than gambling.

In his inaugural address after the swearing-in, Chief Executive Chui said that Macao was adjusting the scope of its gaming industry, promoting integrated tourism and cultivating new and emerging industries including the convention and exhibition business.

“Adequate economic diversification is the inevitable choice and long-term strategy for the development of Macao’s economy. I stress the importance of our aim of establishing Macao as a world tourism and leisure centre,” he said.

“The government will continue to give priority to stable economic development and orderly adjustment of the city’s economic structure. We will focus on developing the economy, improving the livelihood of people and actively pursue the proper diversification of the economy,” he said.

Chui promised more efforts to achieve sustainable development and maintain long-term prosperity and stability in Macao.

The major casino companies in the city are developing large and luxurious shopping malls, theatres and performances, the retail industry, boutique hotels and a wide variety of cuisines.

Each year the city hosts many events including an arts festival, an international music festival and a parade through the Latin City.

Ung Vai Meng, president of the Cultural Affairs Bureau, said that his bureau had policies to integrate culture with tourism and promote the development of cultural tourism.

Portuguese-speaking countries

President Xi also spoke of the importance of Macao as a bridge between China and the Lusophone world.

“It is necessary to make long-term planning, seize the opportunity of the national effort to comprehensively deepen reform and promote appropriately diversified and sustainable economic development of Macao based on its position as a global tourism and leisure hub and a service platform for economic and trade cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking countries.

“This is important not only for the people in Macao but also for the development of the region and even the whole country,” he said.

For his part, Chief Executive Chui said: “Macao must secure its role as a business platform for commercial and trade cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking countries, become thoroughly involved in international relations and integrate local development into the nation’s overall growth,” he said.

Needs of ordinary people

President Xi’s third piece of advice was to pay close attention to the needs of ordinary people. “The MSAR government needs to put people first by learning more about people’s lives and needs and address their concerns and difficulties. It needs to properly respond to diverse demands in society, balance the interests of various sides and foster a more equitable and just social environment. It needs to make sure that people have better access to the fruits of development, improve their quality of life and increase their happiness index.”

Here he was referring to the problems of daily life that have resulted from the remarkable economic growth since 1999.

The most urgent problem is housing. The average monthly wage in 2013 reached 12,000 patacas, compared to 4,920 patacas in 1999.

But the average price of residential space reached 106,341 patacas per square metre in October 2014, according to the Financial Services Bureau. Prices have tripled since 2009, making the city one of the most expensive places in the world to buy property; it means that the average family cannot possibly afford a new apartment and must look to neighbouring cities in Guangdong or even abroad.

In March, more than 400,000 people competed for 1,900 affordable housing units, with some queuing up outside the city’s housing bureau at 4 a.m.

Perhaps that is why the president chose to visit two families in the Seac Pai Van public housing estate. It consists of 4,672 low-rent housing flats and 4,343 subsidised home ownership scheme (HOS) units.

“How many housing projects of this kind are being built in Macao?” he asked; he also inquired about the management of the complex, official restrictions on the sale of HOS flats and what the government does when the tenants become better off financially. 

He said that, while Macao’s economy and livelihood had improved significantly over the last 15 years, there was still much room for improvement. “I hope Macao residents and the government will work hard together.”

In his inaugural speech, Chief Executive Chui said that he fully understood people’s expectation for quality of life and healthy growth of the younger generation. “We are accountable for prioritising the enhancement of people’s well-being, expediting the development to make Macao a liveable city with a favourable working environment,” he said.

Improve education

The president’s fourth strand of advice was to improve education. “We need to strengthen the education and upbringing of your people to ensure that the fine tradition of loving the motherland and loving Macao will be carried forward from one generation to another,” he said.

He sounded a similarly mixed message in a speech on 19 December at a welcoming banquet in his honour at the Macao Dome.

“The practice of ‘one country, two systems’, an undertaking with no precedent, will not be plain sailing… Macao has its own share of problems to handle and faces numerous difficulties and challenges that must be properly managed.

“Opportunity waits for no-one. Macao compatriots should make the best of the institutional advantages of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and seize the opportunities presented by the development of the mainland.”

He said the SAR should deepen its cooperation with the mainland, especially Guangdong province and the Pearl River Delta.

“Macao needs to expand its development space and gain greater impetus for its development through regional cooperation and strive for common development and progress with the mainland,” he said.

At midnight on 18 December, the day before the president’s arrival, Macao’s border with the neighbouring district of Hengqin opened 24 hours a day, for people and passenger cars. It was the first time since the Portuguese arrived in Macao 450 years ago that the border had been opened permanently.

This island, whose land area is three times that of Macao, is the place where it can expand most easily.

Xi’s message was that the city must work with Hengqin and the other neighbouring areas of Guangdong to maximise economic advantages and use their complementary strengths. In reality, it involves both cooperation and competition between them.

Gifts

President Xi said that the central government would give two giant pandas to Macao as an anniversary gift.

Five years ago, Beijing gave two pandas - Hoi Hoi, a boy, and Sum Sum, a girl - to mark the 10th anniversary of the handover. They arrived from their native Sichuan on 18 December 2010.

But, on 22 June 2014, the government announced the death of Sum Sum of acute renal failure and related ailments; it shocked and saddened local people.

Chief Executive Chui said that Macao people loved giant pandas. “So we are extremely grateful to be given a pair,” he said.

The other gift was the decision to demarcate the city’s territorial waters. Since 1999, Macao has had no authority over its waters; this has belonged to Guangdong province.

The negotiations between the central and local governments are due to be completed before the end of 2015. This will greatly facilitate water-related tourism, including yachting, cruise ships and water sports, involving cooperation with the hundreds of islands that are part of Zhuhai. 

By Luo Xunzhi

Photos by Xinhua News Agency and Macao Government Information Bureau 

(Issue N. 26, January 2015)