The death of Stanley Ho at the age of 98 has momentarily drawn attention away from Hong Kong to one of China’s other Special Administrative Regions, Macau. Returned to Beijing’s control in 1999, this former Portuguese colony shares the “one country, two systems” framework supposedly embedded in Hong Kong and which is the trigger for ongoing violent protests in the former British colony. Despite the furore to its near east, Macau has not been swept up in the disorder and looks likely to remain one of Beijing’s major success stories for the foreseeable future.
Ho, a Hong Kong native, made his name and fortune by turning Macau into one the of the gambling capitals of the world, it’s neon-emblazoned streets more than a little reminiscent of Las Vegas. When he was born in 1921, Macau was under the dominion of the Kingdom of Portugal, a status enshrined in the 1887 Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking. This gave the Portuguese perpetual colonial rights to Macau in exchange for its assistance in aiding the decaying Qing Dynasty in its campaign against opium smuggling, which had become the scourge of a weakened China in the 19th century.
The Portuguese had first made it to China by sea in 1513 and, after attempting to establish trading ports along the south China coast, eventually settled on Macau by the middle of the 16th century, agreeing an annual lease with the ruling Ming Dynasty. Becoming an important staging post in the maritime silk trade between China and Japan, Macau quickly grew in size and status under its European administrators, reaching its apogee towards the end of the century.
Competition from rival European maritime powers – especially the Dutch – and the closing off of Japan in the early 17th century, in addition to similarly anti-foreign legislation enacted by the conquering Qing Dynasty, restricted Macau’s commercial ambitions.
The Portuguese retained nominal sovereignty, however, with their traditional light-tread colonial administration, based as it was on maritime and mercantile expertise rather than overwhelming military force and over-extended bureaucracy. With a small, impoverished home state under constant pressure from neighbouring Spain, this was the best recourse for Portuguese imperialism and was used to good effect across south and east Asia, not to mention Brazil, in the first two centuries of the Age of Discovery.
China’s ‘century of humiliation’ allowed the Portuguese to re-assert themselves in the 19th century and Macau once more became an important commercial port, this time for the Canton trade. The 1887 treaty solidified Portuguese rule and, despite the upheaval in Chinese society and politics during the first half of the 20th century, Macau remained relatively stable.
Casinos began to appear in great numbers after the Chinese Civil War, with many former Kuomintang loyalists fleeing there. With only a threadbare administration retained, the Portuguese were happy to see this largely indigenous-driven expansion of the tourism industry that significantly raised incomes and living standards for many in the city. After the downfall of the authoritarian regime in Portugal in 1974, the new democratic government relinquished Macau as an overseas territory, whilst remaining in administrative control until its handover to China in 1999.
Since the reassertion of Beijing’s sovereignty Macau’s economy has continued to grow steadily, with the gambling industry right at its heart. With high per-capita GDP rates and a relatively free press, things look rosy for the world’s most densely populated city, and this seems to be reflected in the lack of public disgruntlement towards the mainland.
Whilst Hong Kong’s development accelerated under a British administration that championed democracy and democratic rights (if only in name on some occasions), Macau was not attuned to a similar outlook through the four-and-a-half centuries of Portuguese rule. Perhaps this absence of democratic tradition accounts for the silent majority in Macau as opposed to Hong Kong.
Whether things will change in lieu of the coronavirus pandemic, the currently ensuing economic downturn (particularly in relation to Macau’s casino industry) and Beijing’s supposed desire to turn more of its attention towards Macau (as opposed to Hong Kong) remains to be seen.
Either way, Stanley Ho is sure to have died both a wealthy and satisfied man, his pivotal role in dragging Macau from its status as a mercantile colonial backwater into a pioneering gambling and tourism hub a remarkable achievement amidst the upheaval that engulfed China, and much of the rest of the region, during the 20th century.
Crowley, R. Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire (2015)