Attacks on the Press 1999: Macau

The handover of the former Portuguese colony of Macau to China on December 20 effectively ended the last vestige of European rule in Asia. Macau, a tiny island territory whose principal industry is casino gambling, is now a Special Administrative Region of China, to be governed in the same general manner as its larger neighbor, Hong Kong. Under this system, which China hopes one day to apply to Taiwan, Beijing pledges to take a hands-off approach to Macau’s social, legislative, judicial and economic systems for at least another 50 years.

A somber tone was set on the eve of the handover, however, by Macau police who detained Taiwanese journalist Chen Ming-chen of the daily Power News. Chen was arrested and held for seven hours, after she covered a demonstration by members of the spiritual movement Falun Gong against Beijing’s suppression of the sect. A Hong Kong news photographer was also detained as police hauled away some 30 Falun Gong demonstrators. Some critics charged that the detention of Falun Gong demonstrators, and the journalists covering them, was an attempt to curry favor with Beijing in advance of the formal political handover. Under “one country, two systems” governance, both Hong Kong and Macau have separate laws from mainland China, and while Falun Gong has been banned in China, it is not illegal in Macau.

As a center for gambling and assorted vices, Macau has been torn in recent years by vicious turf warfare among competing gangs, who have attacked their victims using everything from car bombs to machetes. This violence has led some residents to hope that law and order might be restored under Beijing’s sovereignty. Perhaps for that reason, civil liberties and press freedom were far less urgent issues in Macau’s handover to China than they were during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.

The new director of the Macau Government Information Services, Victor Chan Chi-ping, a former journalist with Macau’s government-owned television station, told reporters in December that press freedom would continue in the former colony. “I will do my best to co-operate with the media,” Chan said. “Press freedom is guaranteed by law, so there will be no change.”