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This article examines the nature of political opposition in the Macao Special Administrative Region (MSAR) to give us an understanding of its role in and approach to political reform in the territory. It explores the emergence of the pro-democracy opposition in Macao since the end of the colonial era and the self-perception of pro-democratic opposition groups in the MSAR regime, and argues that the majority of opposition groups perceive themselves as ‘loyal’ opponents to the current regime. The groups aim at checking the authorities in the scope of the constitution as loyal constituents. Their assumption of this role is the result of several environmental factors, including a relatively weak civil society, a lack of resources and a pro-government media.

The extent of a regime's transition from authoritarianism to democracy depends on the dynamics and momentum generated by the political opposition, while its pace depends on the interplay between the ruling and opposition elites.2 As such, democratic reform is not a linear process that automatically occurs along with socio-economic development; rather it is a back-and-forth process involving negotiation between the ruling and opposition elites.3 Therefore, the manner in which the political opposition shapes its strategies and mobilizes the masses to challenge the authorities is a significant factor in the success of a democracy movement.

This article examines the nature of the political opposition in the Macao Special Administrative Region (MSAR) in order to gain an understanding of its role in and approach to political reform in the territory. Despite the emergence of opposition groups, democratic reform has not kept pace with economic development in Macao as modernization theory predicts. No progress has occurred regarding electoral reform, particularly regarding the election of the chief executive, who is still selected by a 300-member electoral college; the Legislative Assembly, of whose 29 members only 12 (40 per cent) are directly elected by citizens; and the legislature, one-third of whose members are selected by social groups through indirect elections and one-quarter are appointed by the chief executive.

Moreover, the article explores the emergence of the pro-democracy opposition in Macao since the pre-1999 colonial era and the self-perception of pro-democratic opposition groups in the MSAR polity by addressing the following questions: why has the political opposition failed to stimulate the enactment of democratic reform? Which factors are currently constraining the democracy movement in Macao? Which strategies and tactics have the opposition adopted in its political campaigns? What is the role of the opposition in Macao politics and how does it perceive itself in the political system? The article argues that the majority of opposition groups perceive themselves as ‘loyal’ opponents to the current regime. They aim to check the authorities within the scope of the constitution as loyal constituents. Their assumption of this role is the result of several environmental factors, including a relatively weak civil society, a lack of resources and a pro-government media.


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According to Barker, the term ‘political opposition’ can be divided into six categories:

Opposition may mean total resistance to the form and basis of the state, and a determination to overthrow it by whatever means. . . . Secondly, the word may denote resistance to the power of the state when the latter is viewed as an oppressive institution. Thirdly, the word ‘opposition’ may refer to resistance to the group, faction, or dynasty in command of the state, and to a denial of its legitimacy. Fourthly, it may be used to denote a loyal opposition which opposes the commanding group without either contesting its legitimacy or threatening or rejecting the basis of the state or the constitution. Fifthly, opposition may be used to mean the system of checks and balances whereby the constitution guards against and corrects its own excesses, or to identify a belief in a composite or divided sovereignty. . . . Finally, the term has been used to describe the methods whereby the citizen or group, without condemning government as inherently oppressive, modifies its action, mellows its harshnesses, and prevents its tyrannies.4

The first three definitions refer to revolutionary opposition in the form of forces that oppose, confront and delegitimize authorities to achieve their ultimate goal of ousting the current regime and installing a new one. In contrast, the last three definitions refer to loyal opposition in the form of groups that oppose and confront the authorities, but only under the umbrella of existing institutions. Specifically, they register their opposition through their participation in political institutions in which they can represent the interests of certain groups and check the power of the administration. Loyal opposition groups aim to share political power and provide alternatives rather than overthrowing the extant regime. They can often be absorbed into the ruling alliance.5

O'Donnell and Schmitter indicate that the interplay between ruling and opposition elites triggers regime change towards democracy, and they argue that a cleavage between ruling and opposition elites is likely to be resolved in the form of compromise and power-sharing.6 Huntington confesses: ‘A democratic regime is installed not by trends but by people. Democracies are created not by causes but by causers.’7

To initiate negotiation with governing authorities for democratic reform, the opposition must create strong mass–elite alliances and exert tremendous pressure on the authorities. To do so, it must overcome various external and internal constraints. First and foremost, the opposition faces a weak civil society whose lack of civic participation makes it difficult for it to engage in mass mobilization.8 Second, it must overcome the challenges posed by a pro-government mass media reluctant to serve as a means by which the opposition can communicate with the masses.9 Third, the opposition lacks the resources necessary to conduct political campaigns and sustain grassroots support.10 Fourth, the opposition is often forced – or persuaded – to use a ‘soft’ strategy of opposition that imposes self-restrictions in pushing for reform and forces – or encourages – it to assume the role of the ‘loyal’ rather than the ‘revolutionary’ opposition. Such a middle-of-the-road form of opposition is insufficient to convince the masses to replace the authorities and establish a democratic regime.11 Gene Sharp asserts that opposition elites should not submit passively to the authorities but instead actively confront them,12 for example by adopting a non-cooperative approach, which has proven an effective means of impelling the authorities to engage in negotiations for reform. To achieve democratization, the opposition may not only advocate democratization but also serve as an alternative form of rule in a democratic regime, as democratization cannot be achieved and sustained in the absence of alternative power. Walle concludes, ‘The stronger the opposition, the brighter democracy's future appears.’13


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Before the 1980s, the Macao political system was dominated by the Portuguese, Macanese and pro-Beijing Chinese elites.14 Until 1984, when the colonial government called for electoral reform for the legislature,15 young and independent Chinese elites sought opportunities to participate in the polity and to address the interests of the populace. When Alexandre Ho Si-him, a young and educated elite member, returned to Macao after studying overseas, he led a group of young elite people who assisted residents to resolve their livelihood problems by such means as pressuring the government to provide public services.16 As a result of his efforts, he gained the support of the local community and won a directly elected seat in the 1984 legislative election. Ho's group became known as the ‘livelihood faction’ because of its efforts on behalf of the interests of the lower classes.

Shortly thereafter, the 1989 student movement in mainland China encouraged further political participation by young and educated elite members. They organized activities and institutions to address the student movement in China as well as democratic development in Macao.17 After the 4 June incident, several pro-democracy elites cooperated with Alexandre Ho in campaigning for the legislative elections. Although Antonio Ng Kuok-cheong, the leader of a pro-democratic group, was defeated in the 1991 by-election despite being supported by Ho, he later won a seat in the legislature in the 1992 direct election.

A conflict soon developed between Ho and Ng regarding the strategy for achieving democratization in Macao.18 Whereas Ho advocated institutional improvement by addressing residents' livelihood problems, Ng aimed at political reform by challenging the authorities. Ng founded the New Macao Association, which became a flagship of pro-democracy forces in Macao, and campaigned apart from the ‘livelihood faction’ in the 1992 and 1996 Legislative Assembly (LA) direct elections. Although the ‘livelihood faction’ led by Alexandre Ho had been putting tremendous pressure on pro-Beijing forces for a decade, its success ultimately came to an end when Ho was defeated in the 1996 LA elections.

The emergence of Antonio Ng's New Macao Association signified the emergence of the democratic opposition for institutional reform. Ng and his partner Au Kam-san, a municipal councillor in the colonial government who later became an MSAR legislator, focused on resolving residents' complaints regarding government services and maladministration19 by educating residents and encouraging them to organize to voice their demands and fight injustice. In the 2009 LA direct election, the New Macao Association made a breakthrough by winning three seats that saw Ng and Au re-elected and Chan Wai-chi also being voted into the assembly.

After the 1999 handover, many independent labour groups came into being to check the power of the government, specifically regarding labour policy. In April 2000, a group of unemployed workers protested at the government's inability to reduce unemployment.20 After some activists became provocative and began rioting,21 the police fired tear gas to disperse the protestors. Several labour leaders then founded the independent Association of Labour Rights and Interests to continue the struggle. Due to interpersonal conflicts, though, several members withdrew from the association and established various labour groups while maintaining a loose alliance.22 Together with the New Macao Association, the emerging independent labour groups pressured the MSAR government to engage in reform and recognize civil rights and interests. The pro-democratic opposition forces flourished and proliferated after Macao's return to People's Republic of China (PRC) sovereignty, with the New Macao Association and other independent labour groups continuing to monitor administrative wrongdoings and pressuring the authorities for reform and improvements. Although many did not stress democratic reform, most advocated civil rights, mass participation and government accountability and transparency, which are essential elements in a democratic regime.


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During the 2005 LA direct election, seven prominent candidates from six candidate lists became known among the masses as the ‘seven swords of democratic forces’, a label that designated them as elite members representing pro-democracy forces.23 These candidates were Antonio Ng Kuok-cheong, Au Kam-san, Lee Kin-yun, Jeremy Lei Man-chow, Paul Pun Chi-meng, Wong Cheong-nam and Fong Man-tat. Of these, only Antonio Ng and Au Kam-san, leaders of the New Macao Association and regarded as the most prominent figures, were ultimately elected.

Among the pro-democratic opposition, Antonio Ng and Au Kam-san can be regarded as the leading figures. Arguably, Ng and Au are loyal opponents of the government since they do not aim to replace the existing authorities and rule the territory themselves but only to improve the governability of the regime. According to Au, they have been waging a ‘two-wave’ strategy,24 the first of which was waged by Alexandre Ho in the 1980s to increase service delivery capacity by pressuring the government to extend public services. The defeat of Ho in the 1996 LA direct election marked the end of the first-wave challenge, with pro-Beijing forces effectively displacing the opposition that had been delivering social services to the populace.

Since the mid-1990s, the New Macao Association has been focusing on the second wave, which identified administrative wrongdoings and called for reform. As Ng and Au are careful to show themselves to be members of a loyal opposition, they have been, to a certain extent, acceptable to Beijing. According to Au, several Beijing officials told him that he and Ng were very important in the improvement of the MSAR administration, and they encouraged and supported the democrats to keep up their practice of checking the Macao authorities.25

At the same time, Ng and Au have encouraged residents to practise their civil rights, which are regarded as the roots of democracy. Describing his work, Ng remarked, ‘I organize campaigns and come with residents making complaints to the Government Office, as they have to deliver the message to officials themselves. This is an exercise in educating them for democratic participation. If you don't come out and voice your demands, nobody will help you. If you want democracy, you will have to fight by yourself.’26 Ng added that when the media reported on demonstrations outside the Government Office, he did not stand in front of the camera but rather encouraged residents to take centre stage by explaining to them that they were the main actors in any issue. On his personal page on Facebook, Au commented:27

A resident will look for our help when he has suffered from injustice and unfairness. If we successfully solve his problem, he can help his friends to deal with similar issues and advise them on how to protect their rights and interests. Thus, he will become an ‘opinion leader’ who can advise his friends on dealing with the authorities. When most residents learn how to protect their rights and interests, we will have a mature civil society, won't we? We still have a long way to go toward a mature civil society. Nevertheless, it is an important element for democracy. Although we must travel a long distance, we must walk toward democracy step-by-step.

For Ng and Au, livelihood issues cannot be detached from politics. Through their political campaigning they have attempted to educate residents regarding the best means of approaching authorities when they are treated unfairly. Au argued that an inability to resolve everyday concerns in political institutions indicates that these institutions are deficient28 and thus require political reform and democratization so that they may sustain and improve the quality of life of Macao residents. Ng and Au have generally adopted a soft strategy to promote their agenda, seldom organizing mass protests and demonstrations to confront authorities directly. Indeed, they organized no demonstrations for the first seven years of the MSAR's existence, although they participated in several organized by other opposition groups.29 Instead of confrontation with authorities, they have stressed the education of the public.

Ng and Au's strategy may reflect a certain degree of pessimism due to the dominance of pro-Beijing forces in the polity and the democrats' inability to act in the undemocratic MSAR regime. They believe that the pace of democratization in Macao depends on the pace of political development in mainland China.30 Their campaign, to a great extent, reflects this belief, as it aims to foster a strong civil society for mass participation in a democratic polity when the Chinese government opens the regime.

Compared to Ng and Au, Lee Kin-yun emerges as a radical opposition figure in Macao, one who dares to be provocative and confront the authorities. Despite being arrested for lambasting the police at the 2007 Labour Day protest, of which he was an organizer, Lee mobilized the masses for street protests on National Day the same year. Between 1996 and 1998,31 Lee worked in Hong Kong as an assistant to Leung Kwok-hung, who claims to be a revolutionary and a critical socialist.32 To a certain extent, Lee has applied Leung's campaign approach in Macao, and is also regarded as a radical democrat fighting for democracy in Macao. Lee is not a revolutionary, however, as he understands that democracy must be achieved gradually.33 According to Lee: ‘Social mobilization is the first step in democratization. Citizens must learn their rights to protect their interests in the society. Once they are inspired to fight for their civil rights, they will recognize the need for political reform.’34

Arguing that Macao residents are not ready for full democratization because of their unwillingness to foment conflict and their relative apathy to politics, he explained: ‘Macao people always avoid stirring up trouble on any issue, even those regarding protection of their own rights and interests. Therefore, we have to conduct social movements and to protect their rights. This will help to build a network for participation and promote civil society in Macao step-by-step.’35 As his statements indicate, his view is very similar to that of Ng and Au – that democratization requires a step-by-step strategy – but he uses a different approach.

Other actors in the pro-democratic opposition have not made such strong demands for democratization in Macao. One such ‘soft-line’ actor has been Jeremy Lei Man-chow, a member of the New Macao Association who has participated in the labour movement since the handover while maintaining a relatively close relationship with the business community.36 Ng Sek-io, a partner of Lee Kin-yun, described Lei as a political opportunist whose goal in working with the labour movement is to accumulate political capital to use with other businessmen interested in politics.37 Wong Pui-lam, a leader of the labour movement, indicated that Lei was financially supported by Victor Cheung Lup-kwan, a casino boss and legislator, in the Association of Labour Rights and Interests, which was founded during the labour movement in 2000.38

After the 2005 LA elections, Lei became an assistant to legislator Chan Meng-Kam, a prominent businessman, while continuing to participate in the labour movement by establishing various trade unions. Despite these actions, he did not provide support to demonstrations organized by other labour groups. He even went so far as to write an article in the Macao Daily News criticizing the Labour Day demonstration organized by independent labour groups in 2007.39 Based on his argument that, because the government was suffering a legitimacy crisis, political mobilization would merely destabilize the regime without improving the situation of the working class,40 he stated: ‘If the Edmund Ho government [the government led by Chief Executive Edmund Ho from 1999 to 2009] is forced to step down, there would be no replacement and Macao would be in chaos.’41 In fact, he voted against organizing a Labour Day demonstration in 2007 at a joint meeting of independent labour groups,42 while his partner Ho Heng-kuok asked Ng Sek-io and Wong Pui-lam not to organize National Day demonstrations in 2007.43

Nevertheless, Antonio Ng and Au Kam-san agree that Lei has supported Macao's democratic development, despite his close relationships with several businessmen.44 Expressing his shared view with Ng and Au regarding Macao's democracy movement, Lei stated: ‘There is a long distance [we must go] to make the Macao people understand democracy and democratic participation. What we are doing aims at helping them resolve everyday problems. We hope that they can learn to deal with the authorities. At this moment, the concept of democracy has no political market in Macao society.’45 Although his statement reflects an understanding that the opposition must inspire the public to fight for their civil rights before fighting for democratic reform, many members of the pro-democratic opposition believe that Lei is too ‘soft’ in his negotiations with the authorities.

After the 2005 LA elections, Paul Pun Chi-meng, Wong Cheong-nam and Fong Man-tat became relatively inactive in Macao politics. Fong resigned because of his frustration in the 2005 elections,46 while Wong and Fong decided not to run in the 2009 LA elections. Although keeping some distance from other pro-democracy opposition groups, Pun continued to participate in politics and was appointed by the MSAR government to serve on several consultative committees. Expressing his political differences with other pro-democratic elites, he stated: ‘I support democracy and have my own approach for it. I can voice my opinion inside the government [consultative committees] and talk to the media. For instance, I was interviewed by a Portuguese newspaper and expressed my support for democracy and universal suffrage in Macao. However, I am promoting democracy according to my own means.’47 Unlike other members of the opposition elite, Pun takes such a soft line with the authorities and has been absorbed into the administration to such an extent that his identity as a member of the opposition is questionable. In fact, although the media have identified Pun as a member of the pro-democracy movement, he has not identified himself as such.48 He did not explicitly or openly clarify his stance during the 2005 elections; perhaps there is a misperception of his political stance by some Macao people.

José Maria Pereira Coutinho, a Macanese elected to the legislature in 2005, has been exerting much pressure on the MSAR government to recognize the interests of civil servants. He has not only mobilized civil servants for the improvement of their welfare and benefits but also participated in several actions considered relatively radical. He was a member of the election committee for the chief executive, but refused to vote in the 2009 chief executive election to demonstrate his opposition to an election process that he felt was not democratic. He has been less strident regarding democratic reform in Macao, however, and has kept a distance from pro-democracy forces.49 His actions are like those of several local Portuguese and Macanese who prefer to adopt a soft strategy rather than explicitly call for democratic reform.50 As such, their actions are similar to those of Agnes Lam Iok-fong, a candidate in the 2009 LA direct election who is suspected of having some ties to pro-Beijing forces.51 Although she has advocated democratic reform in Macao and proposed a timetable for movement towards the universal election of the chief executive and the LA, she – like many pro-democratic elites who advocate political reform – believes that democratization must follow a gradual, step-by-step approach and opposes revolutionary action for such reform.52

When assessing the entire political spectrum of the pro-democratic opposition, Lee Kin-yun and his supporters appear relatively radical, as they do not hesitate to mobilize the masses to protest in the streets or to confront the authorities. Ng and Au's New Macao Association is considered moderate in that it seldom organizes protests, instead drawing public attention to maladministration and helping residents register complaints against the authorities. The remaining members of the pro-democratic opposition appear to take a relatively soft approach towards the authorities. Although most of the independent labour groups have simply organized protests and urged the government to recognize labour rights and interests, several have met with government officials, albeit irregularly, regarding labour policy.53 Reflecting their greater willingness to cooperate with the authorities, Jeremy Lei and his former partner Ho Heng-kuok indicated that they would accept an invitation to serve on consultative committees.54

Disregarding their different approaches, most democratic opposition elites agree that there is a need to take a progressive approach to achieve democracy that begins with educating the public and encouraging mass participation in politics. Their campaigns generally aim to inspire the public to fight for their civil rights while strengthening civil society, both of which are conducive to democratic development. As none suggests the use of revolutionary tactics to overturn the existing regime and establish a new democratic polity, all could be considered ‘loyal’ to the existing regime.


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Like its counterparts in many undemocratic states, the Macao pro-democratic opposition has been encountering constraints imposed by the current state of the civil society and a lack of resources. First, civil society in Macao is relatively weak. On the one hand, many residents do not dare to confront the authorities due to fears of retribution from the power elites. Antonio Ng explained that because Macao is a small society whose residents tend to have close relationships with many others, those who voice their demands or criticize the government openly are in danger of losing their jobs because of their employers' relationship with the authorities.55 Indeed, both Ng and Au were dismissed from jobs for their political participation.56

Ng and Au's experience served to deter others from participating in politics. Leong Kam-chun, a leader of the ‘livelihood faction’ in the 1980s and 1990s, explained: ‘Macao people try to maintain harmony and do not criticize others openly because the criticized may be a friend of yours. Your criticism will have repercussions on your social life and hurt your relationships with your peers.’57 Before the handover, many middle-class residents were working inside the government, since the private sector was not sufficiently large to pay them a comparable salary.58 Most civil servants avoided participating in social movements during the colonial era. Such deterrence from political participation inhibits the emergence of Macao civil society.

Furthermore, although there are thousands of social groups and organizations in Macao, most are not conducive to civic engagement. Most were founded for electoral mobilization by political elites for their participation in the chief executive and LA elections,59 and are financially supported by business elites to further their interests rather than increase civic engagement.

Macao's mass media is unable to serve as a watchdog that holds in check the power of the authorities or promotes civic participation. Most media outlets do not conduct independent investigations, instead merely reporting ‘facts’ provided by the authorities, and provide no or minimal coverage of the pro-democratization movement and pro-democratic events,60 including demonstrations organized by the opposition. In addition, self-censorship is observed in the Macao media. A rumour circulated that a Television De Macau (TDM) reporter had been transferred as a form of disciplinary action after she had refused to censor a story.61 Facing such retribution, most media outlets in Macao remain uncritical of the government and exert pressure on their journalists to engage in self-censorship.

Pro-democracy forces also face the constraints imposed by a lack of resources. As Antonio Ng mentioned, the opposition forces, unlike the pro-Beijing forces, have limited resources with which to provide social services and meet community demands. Although the government subsidizes some social groups in Macao, the amount provided is based on arbitrary considerations, and opposition labour groups naturally receive little financial support from the government. For instance, when the Association of Workers and Citizens' Concern did not receive a government subsidy after the 2007 Labour Day demonstration, the government explained it did not grant the subsidy because it had not received the application.62 Wong Pui-lam, leader of the organization, interpreted this failure to grant the subsidy as a penalty for the group's mass mobilization in the Labour Day demonstration.63 On the other hand, the government doubled its subsidy to the Workers' Union in 2007.64 As Jeremy Lei and Ho Heng-kuok had applied for funding from the government quoting the same budget that they had quoted the previous year, this increase could be interpreted as the government's recognition of the significance of their group in the labour sector,65 or as a sign of its appreciation of their relatively soft approach.

As their shared lack of resources has tended to produce disunity among the independent labour groups, financial favouritism by the government or business groups could lead to the rupture of such opposition relationships. Business groups' attempts to buy the political support of independent unions was exemplified by Wong Pui-lam's indication that after several leading members of the Association of Labour Rights and Interests – which is regarded as the origin of most independent labour groups since the handover – received financial support from a prominent businessman,66 he withdrew and established the Workers' Union with Jeremy Lei in 2001. When he then discovered that Lei had received sponsorship from another businessman, Wong withdrew from that too and founded the Association of Workers and Citizens' Concern.67 Interestingly, Lei and Ho Heng-kuok's partnership ended in 2008 over differences about financial management in the Workers' Union;68 this further demonstrated the lack of unity among independent labour groups regarding resources and financial issues.

Furthermore, many opposition elite members cause fear among the authorities because of their political participation. Chan Wai-chi, a legislator of the New Macao Association, indicated that several of his teammates ended their participation in the association because of social pressure, often abetted by authorities mobilizing support to exert pressure on the opposition through their social networks.69 Several eventually withdrew due to the mental stress that they experienced from the political pressures imposed on them. Fong Man-tat partly attributed his resignation from politics to the strong social pressure that he and his family experienced when he ran in the 2005 LA elections.70 Several unionists who have families and businesses in mainland China worry that their political participation will affect their interests in the PRC – including Ng Sek-io, who is concerned that he will not be able to return to his family in the mainland because of his political participation in Macao.71 Ho Heng-kuok was reminded by the PRC national security branch that it expected to maintain harmony in Macao to honour the tenth anniversary of Macao's return to China in 2009.72 Ho interpreted this as a warning from Beijing that his business in the mainland, which had begun in 2008, would be threatened if he and his group caused trouble for the authorities.

Another weakness of the opposition groups has been the quality of their leadership, with most leaders of independent labour groups being less educated and less capable of organizing political campaigns than the authorities' leaders. Wong Pui-lam, a union leader, remarked: ‘I received little education and my ability is very limited. I do not know democracy deeply and can only do something for the interests of the working class.’73 Jeremy Lei affirmed that, due to the relatively low quality of many union leaders, the labour and democracy movements have not been able to make significant gains.74 Also identifying a leadership problem among independent labour groups, Antonio Ng stated: ‘They [the union leaders] are doing what they can, although they may not organize themselves effectively.’75 The pro-democratic elites' recognition of this leadership deficit may, to an extent, explain their gradual approach to democratization and their promotion of civic participation rather than direct and more aggressive demands for political reform.

Nevertheless, the economic development of Macao has somewhat eased the constraints faced by pro-democratic opposition groups in Macao.76 The booming of Macao's economy intensified public discontent against the government, particularly regarding a decreasing standard of living.77 Many became suspicious that the government was in collusion with the business elite after the corruption case of the former secretary for transport and public works, Ao Man-long,78 and the overspending of the organization on the East Asian Games.79 Although the public remains relatively politically inactive, after this case there were more and more demonstrations by residents against government policy.

For example, when the government ignored public demands in 2006 to prevent a land developer from constructing a skyscraper that would block the view of Guia Lighthouse, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site in Macao, several architecture professionals joined with youth organizers to establish a movement protesting the development. A group of teachers joined the protest during the 2007 National Day demonstration, to draw public attention to the interests of teachers, while in 2008 a group of academics and professionals founded Civic Power, a political discussion group promoting civic participation as a means improving government administration.80 During the 2010 May Day demonstration, a group of the so-called ‘post-80s’ (a term designating that they had been born after 1980) mobilized 400 young people to demand equality and justice in Macao society.81 Thus, although Macao's civil society remains relatively weak, it appears to be expanding in tandem with the domestic economy, albeit at a gradual pace.

While the local media tend to discriminate against the opposition in Macao, the Hong Kong media, whose reports are read by many Macanese residents, have been focusing more intensely on Macao because of its rapid economic development. To a certain extent, the Hong Kong media have performed the watchdog function relinquished by the local media, checking on the power of the Macao authorities. Although most local media outlets remain reluctant to criticize the government, several have dared to be more critical of the Macao government since 2005, the year in which Labour Day demonstrations began in earnest. Joining the Journal of Informacao, the rare Chinese-language weekly that was brave enough to find fault with the authorities in the past, Macao Asia Satellite Television, Journal of Citizens and Cheng Pou have responded to rising public expectations of the mass media by becoming more critical of the government.82

The Macao pro-democratic opposition has also received aid and support from its Hong Kong counterparts. For example, independent labour groups received support from the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Hong Kong Democratic Party in their complaint to the International Labor Organization against governmental suppression of the 2007 Macao Labour Day demonstration.83 In 2009, a group of Hong Kong democrats attended a forum on national security law in Macao to show their support for the Macao opposition in its fight against the legislation. Showing the truth of Grodsky's remark, external aid can support the domestic opposition in countering governmental repression.84

Arguably, despite various environmental constraints, the Macao opposition is finding that socio-political circumstances are becoming increasingly favourable to its campaigns. The return of Macao's sovereignty to its motherland and economic development have strengthened the civic identity of Macao people, who have begun to be more concerned about and more active in public affairs.85 Furthermore, the poor performance and scandals of the government have triggered public discontent and have encouraged citizens to participate in the polity. The continuation of Macao's economic growth and internationalization will enhance civic identity and reinforce the political participation of the population.86 When civil society is sufficiently strong and the opposition forces can skilfully mobilize society to pressure the authorities for political reform, Macao's democracy may be able to move a step forward. In the case of Hong Kong, another Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC, when the opposition forces unified civil society and continuously mobilized the mass against the HKSAR regime, Beijing finally confessed that the political institution of HKSAR could no longer accommodate the political demands of Hong Kong people and agreed that universal suffrage elections for the chief executive and legislature might be held in 2017 and 2020, respectively. In the same vein, the convergence of opposition and civil society is essential for the achievement of a democratic MSAR. If the Macao opposition redirects its alignment against the authorities in response to changing environmental circumstances, the MSAR's democracy may evolve, like that of its Hong Kong counterpart.


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  2. Abstract

Pro-democratic opposition forces are relatively weak in Macao and are rather soft in their conduct towards the authorities. Neither aiming to overthrow the existing authority nor advocating self-led revolutionary reform in the polity, they instead aim to identify administrative malpractice, achieve institutional reform and spur the public to fight for civil rights. As such, they can be considered a loyal opposition whose campaigns accord with the institutional reform proposed in the framework of the ‘one country, two systems’ model.

The soft strategy employed by pro-democratic opposition groups in Macao reflects the environmental constraints imposed on them. First, they face the underdevelopment of civil society and a lack of civic participation by the populace. Second, they confront difficulties in promoting their campaigns through media outlets that are generally supportive of the government. Third, they lack resources to engage in political campaigns. Fourth, they must endure political pressure, and even threats, from authorities. Last, many groups are organized by leaders who lack the education and/or experience required to promote a vision for true reform of the political system. Due to these constraints, most of the opposition merely continues to exert political pressure on the authorities for reform within the system.

Nevertheless, the opposition in Macao has been encouraged by circumstances to review its middle of the road strategy in light of changing socio-political circumstances, perhaps adopting a less cooperative or a more revolutionary approach with the emergence of civil society and continued development of the economy. The pro-democracy opposition must lead the push for democratization, the achievement of which depends on the opposition's ability to become integrated with civil society and generate momentum from the grassroots. The opposition must be assimilated into civil society in order to initiate authoritarian–opposition negotiations or to make the pacts that are necessary for democratization.87 When they converge in the democracy movement, Macao can take steps towards democracy.

  • 1

    This research is funded by a grant from the Research Committee, University of Macau (Project Title: Social Groups and Organizations in Macao: Formal and Informal Politics, Cativo No. 2495). An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Conference of the Hong Kong Political Science Association in August 2009. The authors are indebted to two anonymous referees for their comments and input.

  • 2

    Garry Rodan, ‘Theorising Political Opposition in East and Southeast Asia’, in Garry Rodan (ed.), Political Oppositions in Industrialising Asia, London and New York, Routledge, 1996, pp. 1–2.

  • 3

    Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies, Baltimore, MD, and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

  • 4

    Rodney Barker, ‘Introduction’, in Rodney Barker (ed.), Studies in Opposition, London, Macmillan Press, 1971, p. 5.

  • 5

    Rodan, ‘Theorising Political Opposition in East and Southeast Asia’, p. 9.

  • 6

    To O'Donnell and Schmitter, pacts are not an essential element in all democratic transitions, regardless of their pace. O'Donnell and Schmitter, Transition from Authoritarian Rule, p. 37.

  • 7

    Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Norman, OK, and London, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, p. 107.

  • 8

    Andrew Nathan, ‘China's Path from Communism’, Journal of Democracy, 4 (1993), p. 37; also see Franceso Cavatorta and Azzam Elananza, ‘Political Opposition in Civil Society: An Analysis of the Interactions of Secular and Religious Associations in Algeria and Jordan’, Government and Opposition, 43: 4 (2008), pp. 561–78.

  • 9

    Hussin Mutalib, Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore, Singapore, Eastern Universities Press, 2003, pp. 12–20.

  • 10

    Edward Shils, ‘Opposition in the New States of Asia and Africa’, in Barker, Studies in Opposition, p. 58.

  • 11

    Guo Xiaoqin, State and Society in China's Democratic Transition: Confucianism, Leninism, and Economic Development, New York, Routledge, 2003, pp. 103–4.

  • 12

    Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part II, Boston, MA, Porter Sargent, 1973, p. 31.

  • 13

    Nicolas van de Walle, ‘Africa's Range of Regimes’, Journal of Democracy, 13 (2002), p. 68.

  • 14

    It is noted that there was a confrontation between the pro-Beijing forces and Portuguese authorities in 1966. The event was called the 123 incident as the clash began on 3 December. However, the Chinese communists did not overthrow the colonial government but wanted to maintain the status quo. For discussion of the 123 incident, see Tam Chi-keung, Aomen Zhuquan Wenti Shimo, 1553–1993 (The Problem of Macao Sovereignty, 1553–1993), Taipei, Yong Ye Publications, 1994, p. 245.

  • 15

    In 1980 the Macanese legislators put forward a proposal to enlarge the legislature's authority and allow it to put a vote of ‘no confidence’ in government officials; the colonial government did not accept this. In 1984, the new Governor Costa decided to dissolve the Macanese-dominated legislature and to enlarge the franchise of direct legislative elections to local Chinese in order to dilute the political power of the Macanese. See Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, Political Development in Macao, Hong Kong, Chinese University Press, 1996, pp. 32–5.

  • 16

    Personal interview with Leong Kam-chun, 22 February 2008.

  • 17

    Personal interview with Chan Wai-chi, a leader of the New Macao Association, 16 April 2008.

  • 18

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 18 April 2008.

  • 19

    Personal interviews with Au Kam-san, 8 November 2007, and Antonio Ng, 18 April 2008.

  • 20

    Personal interview with Wong Pui-lam, the founding leader of the Association of Labour Rights and Interests, 4 November 2007.

  • 21

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, a unionist who participated in the protest, 28 October 2005.

  • 22

    Personal interview with Wong Pui-lam, 4 November 2007.

  • 23

    It is noteworthy that the Macao LA direct election has adopted the listed proportional representation system with the use of d'Hont formulae. For the electoral system of the Macao legislature, see Lo Shiu-hing, Political Development in Macau, pp. 81–115.

  • 24

    Personal interview with Au Kam-san, 8 November 2007.

  • 25

    Personal interview with Au Kam-san, 26 March 2008.

  • 26

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 29 July 2005.

  • 27

    Quote from Au Kam-san's page on Facebook,", accessed 12 August 2009.

  • 28

    Personal interview with Au Kam-san, 8 November 2007.

  • 29

    According to Antonio Ng, the New Macao Association organized its first demonstration after the handover on 20 December 2007, the anniversary of Macao's return to China. Personal interview with Ng, 18 April 2008.

  • 30

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 29 July 2005.

  • 31

    Personal interview with Lee Kin-yun, 4 October 2007.

  • 32

    Sonny Lo, Yu Wing-yat, Kwong Kam-Kwan and Wong Wai-kwok, ‘The 2004 Legislative Council Elections in the Hong Kong Administrative Region’, Chinese Law and Government, 38: 1 (2005), pp. 14–15.

  • 33

    Personal interview with Lee Kin-yun, 4 October 2007.

  • 34


  • 35


  • 36

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 18 April 2008.

  • 37

    Personal interview with Ng Sek-io, 24 October 2007.

  • 38

    Personal interview with Wong Pui-lam, 4 November 2007.

  • 39

    See Macao Daily News, 26 April 2007, p. B02.

  • 40

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 22 February 2008; also see Macao Daily News, 26 April 2007, p. B02.

  • 41

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 22 February 2008.

  • 42

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 29 April 2007.

  • 43

    Personal interview with Wong Pui-lam, 4 November 2007, and Ng Sek-io, 24 October 2007.

  • 44

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 18 April 2008, and Au Kam-san, 8 November 2007.

  • 45

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 22 February 2008.

  • 46

    Personal interview with Fong Man-tat, 18 April 2008.

  • 47

    Personal interview with Paul Pun Chi-meng, 1 April 2008.

  • 48


  • 49

    Coutinho indicated that he has not contacted Antonio Ng, who is regarded as the figurehead of the pro-democratic opposition, but that he does speak with Ho Heng-kuok, who is considered to take a softer line with the government. Personal interview with José Maria Pereira Coutinho, 13 March 2008.

  • 50

    José Carlos Matias, a local Portuguese and asisstant editor of Television De Macau, told the author that the Portuguese and Macanese communities support democracy in Macao but are unwilling to campaign for universal suffrage elections of the chief executive and legislature. Instead, they aim to practise democratic principles in their daily activities. Personal chat with José Carlos Matias, 18 March 2010.

  • 51

    One social group worker from the pro-Beijing camp told the author that his organization had been instructed to campaign for Lam's group in the 2009 election.

  • 52

    Lam expressed her view of Macao's democracy on her personal Facebook page,!/agnesmacau?v=wall, accessed 2 June 2010.

  • 53

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 22 February 2008 and Ho Heng-kuok, 13 April 2009.

  • 54

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 22 February 2008, and Ho Heng-kuok, 13 April 2009.

  • 55

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 22 April 2008.

  • 56

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 22 April 2008, and Au Kam-san, 18 November 2007.

  • 57

    Personal interview with Leong Kam-chun, 18 March 2008.

  • 58

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 22 April 2008.

  • 59

    For the social politics of Macao elections, see Eilo Yu Wing-yat, ‘Formal and Informal Politics in Macao Special Administrative Region Elections 2004–2005’, Journal of Contemporary China, 16: 52 (2007), pp. 417–42.

  • 60

    Personal interview with Au Kam-san, 8 November 2007.

  • 61

    Journal of Citizens, 10 September 2010, p. 5; also see Cheng Pou, 24 September 2010, p. 1.

  • 62

    Personal interview with Wong Pui-lam, 4 November 2007.

  • 63


  • 64

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 22 February 2008, and Ho Heng-kuok, 8 October 2007.

  • 65

    Personal interview with Ho Heng-kuok, 8 October 2007.

  • 66

    Personal interview with Wong Pui-lam, 4 November 2007.

  • 67


  • 68

    Personal interview with Ho Heng-kuok, 13 April 2009.

  • 69

    Personal interview with Chan Wai-chi, 16 April 2008.

  • 70

    Personal interview with Fong Man-tat, 18 April 2008.

  • 71

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 24 October 2007.

  • 72

    Personal interview with Ho Heng-kuok, 13 April 2009.

  • 73

    Personal interview with Wong Pui-lam, 4 November 2007.

  • 74

    Personal interview with Jeremy Lei Man-chow, 22 February 2008.

  • 75

    Personal interview with Antonio Ng, 22 April 2008.

  • 76

    Since its return to China in 1999, Macao has experienced rapid economic growth. Between 2002 and 2008, Macao's GDP increased by double digits annually and GDP per capita increased to MOP$311,000 or US$39,000 in 2009. See the website of the Statistics and Census Service, MSAR government,, accessed 30 September 2010.

  • 77

    Lo Shiu-hing, Political Development in Macau, pp. 68–70.

  • 78

    Ao had accepted bribes from land developers and government project contractors and was sentenced to 26 years' imprisonment.

  • 79

    The Audit Commission of the MSAR government reported that the overall expenditure for the games was MOP$4.4 billion, a figure that was 50.6 per cent over budget. Problems included the organizer's waste of governmental resources and the need to reconstruct many facilities due to faulty original designs.

  • 80
  • 81

    Journal of Citizens, 2 May 2010, p. 1.

  • 82

    For a discussion of the political stance of the Macao media, see Tam Chi-keung, ‘Bocai Luyouye yu Dazhong Meiti de Hudong: Yi Shiminribao de Zaixian Weili’ (‘The Interplay between Gaming-Tourism Industries and Mass Media: A Study on Journal of Citizens’), in Beatrice Leung and Sonny Lo (eds), Zhongguo Aomen Tequ: Bocaiye Yu Shehui Fazhan (China's Macao Special Administrative Region: Gaming Industry and Social Development), Hong Kong, City University Press, 2010, pp. 98–113.

  • 83

    Personal interview with Ng Sek-io, 24 October 2007.

  • 84

    Brian Grodsky, ‘Resource Dependency and Political Opportunity: Explaining the Transformation from Excluded Political Opposition Parties to Human Rights Organization in Post-Communist Uzbekistan’, Government and Opposition, 42: 1 (2007), pp. 96–120.

  • 85

    Malte Philipp Kaeding, ‘The Evolution of Macao's Identity: Toward Ethno-Cultural and Civic-Based Development’, Journal of Comparative Asian Development, 9: 1 (2010), pp. 131–66; for the discussion of Macao identity, see also Lam Wai-man, ‘Promoting Hybridity: The Politics of the New Macao Identity’, China Quarterly, 203 (2010), pp. 656–74.

  • 86

    Kaeding, ‘The Evolution of Macao's Identity, pp. 163–4.

  • 87

    Cavatorta and Elananza, ‘Political Opposition in Civil Society’, pp. 561–78.