Interesting juxtapositions in today’s Standard. First, a Malaysian funeral services company called Nirvana is listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Second, a Shenzhen security chief is suspected of pocketing billions from the city’s 2011 World Student Games boondoggle. Third, a Mainland official advises Macau to reduce its dependency on casinos for the good of the nation.
We can more or less join these dots. First, some surprising businesses raise capital in Hong Kong. Undertakers are arguably socially useful, but we have Japanese pachinko operators, whose sleazy quasi-gambling sunset industry is ever-so allegedly linked to gangsters. More to the point, there are the Macau casinos that some occasionally say are a screaming buy – not to mention backdoor listings by junket operations, which collect legally unenforceable gambling debts and are of course paragons of corporate social responsibility. Second, corruption on the Mainland is endemic and systemic, and authorities are clamping down strictly, if selectively. Third, dirty money, like that given as bribes, is laundered in Macau, in and around the city’s casinos.
In brief: Beijing is warning that Macau’s main source of revenue could decline as the Chinese leadership attempts to save Communist one-party rule from itself. (The collateral damage on some of the slimier companies listed in Hong Kong is essentially of amusement value.)
We are often told that Hong Kong ‘depends’ on Mainland shoppers/tourists, because there are so many of them. This is rubbish. The city was a happier place without the influx. If anything, it is the Mainland tourists who ‘depend’ on Hong Kong for lower-priced tacky luxury goods and non-poisonous milk powder and cosmetics. Strip the parasitical tourism industry away, and Hong Kong would flourish in a new era of affordable rents and less-crowded public space.
Not so Macau. Apart from some textiles sweatshops, fireworks factories and fishing, Macau in Portuguese colonial times had little apart from a few casinos (and at times gold smuggling). It was crumbling and quaint – or in plain English, third-world. Since acquiring the role of China’s only legal gambling/money-laundering hub, it has seen per-capita GDP surpass Switzerland’s. Ordinary people see little directly of the extra wealth; as in Hong Kong, rising rents and other inconveniences have if anything outweighed benefits from tourism. But their government has more to throw around. Meanwhile, Macau’s economy is more than ever a monoculture, where teenagers avoid college in order to go straight into employment as croupiers.
By warning that gambling receipts could fall (actually, continue falling) Beijing’s Li Fei is probably not addressing ordinary Macau people. China has just appointed Chief Executive Fernando Chui to a second term and approved a team with a mission to ensure the city remains docile in a way Hong Kong clearly is not. Li is more likely telling Macau’s casino and other tycoons (the ‘other’ families overlapping greatly with Chui and his top officials) to count their blessings, accept less obscene rake-offs from the gambling/rents thing, and spare a few crumbs to keep the masses subdued (mainly through subsidized housing and welfare).
The parallels with Hong Kong are not exact. Our economy is far bigger, and it is diversified well beyond the laundering of Mainland officials’ dirty money. Also, our population is politically aware and assertive. But we can probably assume that a clampdown on the recycling of illicit funds through Macau will apply to Hong Kong as well. And if Beijing is prepared to harm the Macau oligarchy’s interests for the greater good of ‘national security’, Hong Kong plutocrats would get the same treatment. This is no help to the pro-democracy cause – the ultimate threat to the motherland. But it reminds us that Hong Kong’s property hegemons enjoy their malevolent and overbearing influence over the city only for as long as the Chinese government sees a point to it.