HONG KONG (Reuters) - The Chinese territory of Macau is set to elect as leader the only candidate for which it is allowed to vote: a Beijing-backed former legislator who is expected to cement China’s control over the special administrative region and distance it from escalating protests in neighboring Hong Kong.
The selection of former legislature head Ho Iat Seng - the sole candidate approved to run - is scheduled for Sunday, when he will be chosen by a 400-member pro-Beijing committee to lead the world’s largest gambling hub for at least the next five years.
The 62-year-old’s highly scripted appointment comes as the former Portuguese colony tries to position itself as a beacon of stability and model for the Chinese government’s “one country, two systems” formula through which Beijing administers Macau and Hong Kong.
“Many people expressed they do not want to mess up Macau,” Ho told local media this week, explaining that he had heard much opposition to the protests that have plunged Hong Kong into its deepest political crisis since its handover to Beijing in 1997.
Ho, who has deep ties to China and was on the committee of the mainland’s prestigious legislative body, said local youth could resist the influence of Hong Kong’s protesters and supported measures to boost patriotism in Macau.
Although anti-government protests have roiled the former British colony of Hong Kong for nearly three months, Macau has seen little dissent to Beijing’s rule.
Many in Macau, particularly the middle-aged and elderly, have sought to distance themselves from the movement.
“People in Macau are more satisfied. Everyone is secure with their jobs. We have annual payments. We are comfortable and we are grateful for it,” said Ms Leong, a marketing executive who declined to give her first name.
Chinese rule has generally been welcomed in Macau, which has seen economic growth soar and a sustained period of stability - a sharp contrast to the years preceding the handover in 1999, when there were a series of mob wars.
About half of Macau’s population of 600,000 immigrated from China in recent decades, which has helped foster a stronger affinity for the mainland than in Hong Kong, where most of the population was born in the territory.
In recent years, millions of dollars have been piled into creating youth associations linked to the Chinese government that encourage study and learning in the mainland.
Macau’s behavior has pleased Beijing. In state media this week, netizens applauded the swift shutdown of a planned unlawful protest against what activists described as excessive violence by Hong Kong’s police.
Police told Reuters that dozens of officers were deployed on Monday to the historic Senado Square, where the protest was meant to take place, and that 30 people were “investigated”.
The ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily said on its online Weibo account “why are Macau people so excellent#? It comes to the importance of education.” Other comments praised Macau’s police enforcement and local mindset.
“Positive life is meaningful,” wrote another user. “Macau doesn’t want to respond to Hong Kong. Don’t prevent Macau people from making money, you are not welcome to revolt here.”
Ho, who campaigned on integrating Macau’s economy with the Greater Bay Area and improving livelihoods, will take over from incumbent Fernando Chui in December as Macau celebrates 20 years under Chinese rule and President Xi Jinping is slated to visit.
The Communist Party will also mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct 1.
Macau-born Ho moved into government in the early 2000s after starting off in the family business under his industrial tycoon father, Ho Tin.
He has no ties to the casino industry, in contrast to previous leaders, and will play a key role in determining what will happen to the six casino operators - Sands China, Wynn Macau, SJM Holdings, Galaxy Entertainment, Melco Resorts and MGM China - when their licenses expire in coming years.
Ho has said he wants “healthy” development for the gambling industry, as it is the main source of tax revenue for the government. He has also warned that the protests and the China-U.S. trade war could hurt Macau’s economy.
As Hong Kong’s protests have intensified, Ho has cautioned against rushing through controversial legislation such as national education and a public investment vehicle, and stated that the government needs to be more inclusive.
But Macau pro-democratic activists, mainly in their 20s and 30s, say the city has a broken and undemocratic political system and called on the international community to support Macau’s efforts for democratization.
An open letter from a group of anonymous locals on Wednesday demanded universal suffrage and said Beijing had been imposing stronger control with increasingly authoritarian rule.
“The time to fight for our universal rights is now, before Macau becomes just another Chinese city,” the letter said. “The eyes of the world are on Hong Kong right now. But please also take a look at its next door neighbor.”
Reporting by Farah Master; Additional reporting by Kevin Liu; Editing by Gerry Doyle