The Macau authorities’ hostility to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the rule of law is growing by the minute.

First, the Municipal Affairs Bureau (IAM) outlawed a series of open-air Tiananmen massacre themed photographic exhibitions planned for June 4 that it had approved the month before. They have been displayed annually over the last 30 years. But IAM changed its mind when someone tapped their shoulder, recalling that autonomy is for the law books only.

File photo: Macau Gov’t.

Then, the police banned a Tiananmen massacre vigil organised by Lawmaker Au Kam Sam in Senado Square – an event which has never been refused since its inception in 1990. The Court of Final Appeal (CFA) upheld the ban.

Although there is not a single person infected and no new Covid-19 cases in the last two months, the reasons given were the pandemic and – given the circumstances – an inapplicable health law.  

This 2020 vigil ban followed the banning of several protests in September 2019 against police brutality in Hong Kong. These decisions were also backed by the CFA in a politicised judgment which conveyed to Macau citizens that their fundamental rights may be suppressed if their opinions should breach overseas laws (as the police see it) and the police force is allowed to outlaw protests should they disagree with the political message.  

I concluded my last article in HKFP with the rhetorical statement that if the true reasons behind the 2020 assembly ban were the ones behind the 2019 ban, even a one-person vigil would have been prohibited on health grounds. Bingo!

On June 4, 2020, Macau police dispersed crowds who remained at Senado where annual Tiananmen vigil takes place annually. Photo: Chan Sai-mei, Choi Chi-chio/United Social Press.

Lawmaker Sulu Sou and Chan Lok Kei called for vigils in several places in Macau made up of groups of one, three and five people for June 4. The police outlawed every one of them on Covid-19 health grounds.

They appealed to the CFA on June 1. The police filed its response in the morning of June 4. The CFA deliberated long enough to decide that it did not have time to make a decision, dismissed the appeal, and a fundamental right was summarily dispensed with based on an ice-breaking doctrine: the ticking of the clock.

This is the same Macau that is undergoing – organised by the same IAM that banned the photo exhibition – the Macau International Dragon Boat Race, a massive event with thousands of people attending last year.

It is also the same city described by the Macau Daily Times editor-in-Chief Paulo Coutinho in a recent editorial: “[A]nyone walking around in Macau and going to places to dine or drink, or shop or even dance knows that the town has been back in business for well over a month. In a walk in the park, any park, you see hundreds of people. Go to a supermarket or a shopping mall: you meet crowds.”

But not if they want to voice an opinion about Tiananmen, as the editorial indicates.

Senado Square in Macau. File photo: Meraj Chhaya, via Flickr.

This train of sad events continues. On June 4, several people went to Senado Square. It was so highly populated with police officers that they were jokingly complimented on social media as appearing to have gathered in opposition to the Tiananmen massacre.

They were also laughed at for holding hands in disregard of social distancing rules. Yet, the police behaviour was not only laughable, it was repressive. There was no protest, just some people chatting peacefully and, hence, no reason to detain anyone.

Still, the police detained two young ladies: the two daughters of Au Kam Sam, the lawmaker who called the vigil. By targeting the family of a political activist, it would have been harder to go morally lower.

Further, two underage girls were forced to identify themselves and ordered to leave the Square, without immediate contact with their parents – one illegality on the top of another.

On June 4, 2020, Macau police dispersed crowd who remain at Senado where annual Tiananmen vigil takes place annually. Photo: Chan Sai-mei, Choi Chi-chio/United Social Press.

Police harassment continued. It later emerged that plain-clothes police officers detained another teenager, took her to the police station, checked her belongings, forced her to grant access to her mobile phone and told her that she was too young for politics. The crime? Her love of freedom.

On June 5, the pro-Beijing Macau Youth Association organised a demonstration in a crowded red bus, which drove through the city unimpeded shouting support for the National Security Law for Hong Kong. The police never stopped them.

Asked by journalists why they did not act, the police said that they were unaware of the activity, despite everyone else talking about it. This level of unapologetic disregard for the truth is a sign of their sense of being above the law and of a selective exercise of power – precisely what the rule of law was designed to avert. They don’t even pretend anymore.

On June 4, 2020, Macau police dispersed crowd who remain at Senado where annual Tiananmen vigil takes place annually. Photo: Chan Sai-mei, Choi Chi-chio/United Social Press.

A couple of days later, the police explained: the Au Kam Sam and Sulu Sou vigils were “protests”; the pro-National Security Law demonstration was a “parade”.

The Health Department was not called to explain how SARS-CoV-2 knows this fine conceptual distinction made up at the last minute by this new body of constitutional law experts – the police force. Two weeks later, following widespread criticism, the police handed the matter over to the prosecutor’s office for investigation.

It was never about the pandemic and never about the law. It has always been about pro-Beijing politics, subservience, and disregard for the law. A one-person vigil decrying the Tiananmen massacre is a health concern. A crowded bus shouting pro-Beijing slogans for hours is freedom of expression.

Single-person vigils are banned because they can spread a political virus of the pro-democratic sort – a far greater danger than the pathogenic one in a city where there is no one infected to spread it.

Macau has done everything “just right” and been lauded by Beijing paternalistically as “the good student.” All politically sensitive protests have been banned. A law criminalising disrespect to the PRC National Anthem, flag and symbols has been approved. And so was a National Security Law. Self-censorship is effective among most of the media and the people.

What did Macau get in return? A directly elected Chief Executive and Legislative Assembly? More liberties and rule of law? No. The more freedoms you give up to please Beijing, the more Beijing demands of you. And it pays in cash.

Teachers, students, professionals, and journalists have been said to fear discussing politically sensitive issues even among colleagues. Citizens with democratic and pro-liberty views willing to speak to the media are the same three or four usual suspects. Few risk talking: civil society is under significant pressure.

Macau Legislative Assembly. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Freedom of the press depends on freedom of expression and the latter is becoming a told story in Macau. Even on social media, criticism is increasingly shy. Except for those who agree with Beijing on strategic political issues, citizens are scared to talk. The critics only get whispered compliments. The starting point wasn’t good, but Macau is changing for the worse at the speed of light.

Autonomous entities (like IAM), the police, the prosecutor’s office, schools, universities, all seem to follow what a local God tells them to do. On politically sensitive matters, the CFA has not been up to the job. Macau is becoming more and more a one-man-show: a powerful Beijing marionette.

The Communist Party has not been clever enough in the way it uses Macau to try to convince Hong Kong that being a good student pays off. Ever so close to becoming a repressive city, Macau is the living proof that it doesn’t pay. The high degree of autonomy subsists mostly in name only. The ‘better’ you are, the less you get.

Why should Hongkongers believe that submission and passivity towards Beijing policies will be rewarded with freedoms and democracy? Look at Macau.

Macau’s story of unsuccess (in a materialistically successful region) throws into stark relief Beijing’s political greediness. It may well try to do with Hong Kong what it is doing to Macau: a tamed well-off herd, taught how profitable silence can be, increasingly stripped of rights and liberties necessary for critical thinking and a creative, free and rewarding life.

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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."