Stanley Ho and the Making of Macau: Hong Kong’s Obedient Cousin Earns Beijing’s Gratitude

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.

Macau’s casinos would not look out of place in Las Vegas

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.

Macau depicted as a bustling trading port in the 18th century

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.

The formal handover ceremony 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.

The growth in numbers of wealthy mainland Chinese tourists visiting Macau’s casinos has aided economic development

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.

Riot police prepare for battle in Hong Kong: the protests there have not been mirrored by similar disorder in Macau

Additional reading

Crowley, R. Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire (2015)

Tsai Leads Taiwan into Second Term: Beijing Grumbles but the Status Quo Remains Unchallenged

Tsai Ing-wen has been sworn in for a second term as Taiwan’s president. The first female leader in the island state’s history is currently enjoying high approval ratings, largely as a result of her government’s response to the coronavirus crisis but also because of its stance towards cross-Strait relations with China.

Tsai Ing-wen is adamant that there will be no ‘reunification’ between Taiwan and mainland China

I recently wrote about the potential global flashpoint on the Sino-Indian border but the ‘Taiwan issue’ – as it is often referred to in international forums – is a more conventional arena for analysts to predict local conflict spiralling out of control to involve all the major powers.

Having lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces fled across the Taiwan Strait to establish a new government, named the Republic of China (ROC). The communists of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have steadfastly refused to accept the ROC as an independent state, rather believing that it is a constituent part of the mainland, enshrined in its ‘one China’ policy, and reunification is one day inevitable.

Reluctant allies against the Japanese invaders in WWII, Mao Tse-tung (l) and Chiang Kai-shek (r) resumed their civil war in 1945, the former triumphing in 1949

Since the end of military dictatorship in Taiwan, its democratic leaders have blown hot and cold with regards to their relations with Beijing. Whilst they have generally followed the mantra of ‘peaceful co-existence’, some leaders have been far more pliable to the PRC, seeking closer ties that increase domestic fears of their eventual reunification. Others, like Tsai Ing-wen, have been adamant that Taiwan should continue to pursue its own path, although stopping short of declaring outright independence in the fear of a Chinese invasion.

Whilst Richard Nixon’s shock visit to meet Mao Zedong in 1972 opened the door for formal American recognition of the PRC, at the expense of the ROC, Washington remains committed to preventing China upsetting the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Freedom of navigation exercises through the Strait, in addition to hefty arms sales to Taipei, have reinforced this commitment to Beijing’s frustration.

There is a feeling now in some quarters that with American support and Tsai into a second and final term, Taipei may have the desire to declare a more formal split from Beijing, casting the ‘One China’ policy into the fire for good. Of course, Washington would disapprove of this move as much as China would detest it and the chances of such a bold unilateral development are slim, despite domestic pressures in Taiwan.

To employ a popular and oft-derided concept of international relations theory, a balance of power exists across the Taiwan Strait which will take a concerted, irrational effort to break. The last major stand-off – the 1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis – was ultimately defuzed by an American show of force and, even with its increasing military capabilities, the PRC is not in a position to invade Taiwan and consolidate its rule there.

Complacency is dangerous, nevertheless, and it is important that America continues its commitment to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, whilst maintaining a substantial military presence in East Asia. Beijing, meanwhile, has enough internal disquiet to worry about – Hong Kong proving a particular thorn in its side – whilst simultaneously seeking to expand its global influence through its Belt and Road Initiative, that destabilising relations with Taipei would be as counter-productive as Tsai Ing-wen declaring independence.

For now, at least, a nervous calm persists. The splintered consequence of China’s 19th century exploitation by the international powers, the demise of the Qing Dynasty, the country’s republican revolution under Sun Yat-sen, its descent into warlordship, its invasion by Japan and the subsequent civil war, is two Chinas not one. There is no reason why they cannot continue to live and prosper in opposing harmony.