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Hong Kong and Macau retain privileges

Though China was far too huge to become a colony during the age of imperialism, various European countries nibbled away at its coastline and islands.

Two of these outposts would remain colonial possessions until the end of the 20th Century.

Hong Kong was a British possession from 1842 to 1997. Britain later added parts of the Kowloon peninsula and the many smaller islands surrounding Hong Kong to its holdings. It leased the mainland New Territories in 1898.

Macau, acquired by the Portuguese in 1557, reverted to Chinese rule in 1999. The Portuguese had arrived in the Zhujiang (Pearl) River delta in 1513, but were for a long time met with hostility.

However, when the Portuguese aided China in eliminating coastal pirates, the Chinese Ming court gave consent for a permanent and official Portuguese trade base at Macau.

A near neighbour of Hong Kong, Macau occupies a small peninsula and two islands off China’s southern coast.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Hong Kong’s population was boosted by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants from China, many fleeing domestic upheavals.

Industrialization gathered pace, and by the 1970s Hong Kong had become one of the region’s economic powerhouses.

Hong Kong’s economy has moved away from manufacturing and is now services-based. It is a major corporate and banking centre, as well as a conduit for China’s exports.

Initially, Macau prospered on the lucrative returns from regional trade, and European-style mansions and churches mushroomed. Trade dwindled from the 1600s, but the introduction of licensed gambling in the mid 1800s revived Macau's fortunes.

Macau has seen its low-key colonial character give way to massive commercial and tourist development. Macau has capitalized on its long history as a gambling centre, drawing many thousands of visitors from China and Hong Kong.

Foreign casino companies have invested heavily and “mega-casinos” are now the norm. Gambling-related taxes account for 85 per cent of government revenue, but they have been in decline.

Worried that the economy depends too much on gambling, chief executive Dr. Fernando Chui has pledged to diversify the local economy.

Both Hong Kong and Macau are “special administrative regions” governed under the principle of “one country, two systems,” under which China agreed to give them a high degree of autonomy and to preserve their economic and social systems for 50 years from the date of the handover.

China controls their foreign and defence policies, but they have their own currencies and customs status.

But Beijing can veto changes to the political system, and in Hong Kong pro-democracy forces have been frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of political reform.

Currently, of the legislative council’s 70 members, only 40 are directly elected, with the rest chosen by professional and corporate groups that favour Beijing loyalists. The chief executive is indirectly elected by an electoral college effectively controlled by Beijing.

China has pledged to allow the chief executive to be elected by direct universal adult suffrage by 2017, but still wants all candidates to be chosen by a nominating committee.

Occupy Central, a group pushing for more expansive democracy in Hong Kong, in June 2014 held an unofficial poll that garnered almost 800,000 votes in favour of more democracy than China is willing to allow.

Tensions spilled over into mass protests in September 2014, with calls for full democracy and the resignation of chief executive C.Y. Leung, elected two years earlier.

For two months demonstrators occupied major parts of the city and caused political upheaval. Critics argue that Leung’s true loyalties lie with Beijing.

Macau re-elected its chief executive Fernando Chui in August 2014. He was the sole candidate and was selected by an electoral college. The 33-seat legislative Assembly has only 14 directly elected members.

Activists had organized an unofficial poll calling for more democracy but the vote was disrupted by the security forces and only 9,000 people took part, with 89 per cent voting for universal suffrage by 2019, when the next election will be held.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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