The Editorial Board,
The New York Times
Democratic activists in Macau, a Chinese territory, are planning an unofficial referendum next month about holding direct elections for its chief executive. Beijing says Macau — a Portuguese colony handed back to China in 1999 — has no legal authority to hold a referendum, and dismisses any vote as meaningless. But the territory’s newly awakened democratic force is not something Beijing can just wish away.
Macau’s universal suffrage movement follows the unofficial referendum in Hong Kong last month that called for the right to freely elect that city’s chief executive. Some 800,000 people voted, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets calling for democracy.
Macau, like Hong Kong, enjoys a high degree of autonomy, including freedom of speech and press as well as a capitalist economy, under China’s policy of “one country, two systems.” Macau’s chief executive, though, is elected by a commission of 400 people, most of whom are Beijing loyalists. The proposed referendum will ask Macau residents whether universal suffrage should be adopted for the 2019 chief executive election, and whether they have confidence in the current chief executive, Fernando Chui, who is expected to be re-elected by the commission in August for another five-year term.
Macau’s 600,000 residents were politically quiet until recently. Then, in May, 20,000 people protested Mr. Chui’s attempt to legislate a lavish retirement package for top officials and immunity from criminal persecution for the chief executive for any misdeeds committed while in office. What began as a protest against Mr. Chui quickly shaped into a larger democratic movement challenging China.
Beijing promised at the time of the British handover of Hong Kong to preserve “one country, two systems” for 50 years, which leaves 33 more years. During this time, the richer southeastern coastal regions of China are likely to become more like Hong Kong and Macau economically, socially and in political aspiration. Beijing should be thinking about how to accommodate these long-term trends instead of conjuring ways to suppress today’s dissent in the two specially administered cities.