China’s Communist Party is continuing to export its repression of free speech. After more than 20 years of photographic exhibitions and vigils recounting the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in Macau – displayed every year with no exception – the Macau authorities have shamelessly changed course.

The Tiananmen protests of 1989. Photo: Handout, via Ma Jian.

José Tavares, the head of the Macau SAR’s Municipal Affairs Bureau (IAM), outlawed a series of open-air photographic exhibitions planned for June 4 in different areas of the city. The exhibitions, requested by the Democratic Development Union – headed by long-time democratic legislator Ng Kuok Cheong – had been approved by the IAM at the end of April. It has gained approval consistently for two decades.

However, the IAM suddenly U-turned and informed Mr Ng that the exhibitions were no longer authorised. Considering how embarrassing the whole narrative was, Mr Tavares sounded adamant in his convoluted justification to Macau’s TDM Radio: “Our Board of Directors decided to standardise applications. That is, applications for the use of our spaces must match our attributions and competencies”. He added that regarding “activities that do not match our attributions or competences – we will not yield. It is simple.”

He went on to say that, in late April, the IAM “did not go over things” and that “the Board of Directors understood that it should have a more concrete scope in these attributions”. Freedom of expression seems to be an overly abstract concept for the IAM.

A flag raising ceremony in Macau after the Handover. Photo: Macau government.

This decision was illegal, firstly, because the IAM attributions include precisely “promoting civic education” and issuing “authorisations concerning acts, events and activities.” Secondly, the applicable administrative law does not allow, in these circumstances, a public entity to revoke its decisions once the right has been granted to those who have requested it. Thirdly, and more importantly, this is a frontal violation of freedom of expression – a fundamental right enshrined in Macau’s Basic Law.

Should the IAM believe that allowing for free expression in the public sphere was not within its competences, it should have advised Mr Ng Kuok Cheong to knock on the door of the competent governmental department. If this is just a matter of lack of competence, it is a minor issue, and IAM could just advise Mr Ng or deliver the application to the competent department and inform him accordingly. However, it is plain to see that all other doors will be closed to a Tiananmen related request. It is not about IAM being the wrong door, it is about Tiananmen being the “wrong” topic. All the official doors would surely be locked down, most likely in an Orwellian manner.

The Goddess of Democracy at Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil. File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

Mr Ng Kuok Cheong said, quite rightly, that this was a politically motivated decision and that the IAM was just “playing with words.” That’s precisely what it is. Mr Tavares’ statement is not only wrong. It is foolish, nonsensical, and difficult to follow. The mock-heroic style denoted in his astonishing sentence “we will not yield” – when addressing an application for a photographic exhibition – betrayed his choreographed message of plainness (“it is simple”).

The IAM decision is not an expression of the Rule of Law, but the Rule-of-Whoever-Told-Mr-Tavares-Off. We have just learned that criticism of the Tiananmen crackdown is one more exception to the growingly moribund freedom of expression. There is “freedom” of expression, of course, as long as one doesn’t express what the government doesn’t like seeing expressed. The censure is on content. Therefore, it is political. There is no issue with the law here beyond its reckless violation. As different as the two SARs are, Hong Kong should still be wary.

Sulu Sou. Photo: Macau Cable TV screenshot.

Browsing quickly through the recent past, one watches Democratic legislator Sulu Sou being found guilty of illegal assembly for having walked off-route to deliver a letter that the then-Chief Executive didn’t like (I was his lawyer). All assemblies called in solidarity with the millions of Hongkongers committed to protecting rights and liberties were outlawed and passers-by harassed by the police. Now, recounting the Tiananmen brutality through a form of art and visual narrative – photography – was prohibited and censured. What’s next? Will criticising chairman Xi’s personality, the CCP’s policy or discussing the hundreds of thousands detained in Chinese secretive internment camps for their religion or distinctive culture, be barred from public space? The earth is revolving around the sun so fast in Macau, that the 50-year period is shrinking to the point of starting to taste like 2049.

Casinos in Macau. Photo: Wikicommons.

To succeed, Hong Kong and its financial centre depend crucially on the rule of law and judicial independence, professional competence and outstanding universities, as well as on a way of life that upholds liberties and rights. Sadly, that is not so much the case with Macau. Its economy depends on gaming and gaming depends on Mainland gamblers. Its destiny is ultimately a side-product of the PRC. Depending on the degree of erosion, it could hurt foreign investment, but not Chinese investment.

Hence, Macau’s economy could still somehow succeed in the absence of a system based on the rule of law and protection of fundamental liberties. But it wouldn’t thrive as an engaging, creative and diverse city. It could become just like another Chinese town with gaming, Portuguese churches and restaurants: a historical failure with economic attainment. We are still in time to stop this growing insobriety. Let’s hope that Macau’s rulers know better and understand that autonomy, the rule of law, liberties and fundamental rights are necessary ingredients of Macau’s uniqueness. That there is more to a flourishing life beyond money and material comfort.

Jorge Menezes

Previously an academic, Jorge Menezes is a Macau-based practising lawyer. He has written and commented to the media on the erosion of rights and liberties in Macau, and was named by two media outlets one of the 20 Most Influential Personalities in Macau SAR's history for being "a kind of spokesman for pro-democratic ideas in Macau."