According to Article 27 of the Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (MSAR) Macau residents “shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication”. Yet in recent years freedom of speech in the former Portuguese colony, whose sovereignty was handed over to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1999, hasbeen increasingly undermined.
The arrest of two Macau citizens on August 28 on charges of spreading “rumours” only confirms that liberal values, inherited from the colonial period, cannot be taken for granted.
On Friday, August 25, the Macau government asked Chinese troops stationed in the Region to help clean up the city after the destruction caused by typhoon Hato. 1,000 members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) left their barracks on Taipa island for the first time in history.
Hours after the soldiers had begun the disaster relief operation, however, Macau netizens published posts alleging that some PLA members had taken advantage of the situation to rob stores, and that two local citizens were dragged by troops to an underground parking lot and beaten to death.
The Macau government immediately denied the allegations. “The PLA Garrison in Macao since Friday has helped with disaster relief with strict principles and efficiency,” a statement released by the government said. “The Macao SAR government and citizens showed sincere appreciation and high respect to the efforts of the PLA Garrison in Macao.”
On August 31 the city’s Secretary for Security Wong Sio Chak (黃少澤) stated that the rumour originated from the United States, and that it reached Hong Kong and eventually Macau via foreign servers. “This is a very serious matter, it is nothing but a rumour aimed to degrade and attack the PLA. The Police will continue to investigate,” he said. It is noteworthy that the authorities are not investigating whether the alleged facts happened.
Wong added that police have already detained 4 people who are suspected of spreading rumours about the parking lot incident. The suspects had claimed to have witnessed the murders.
According to the Secretary for Security, the rumours had wasted the government’s energy at a time when it was coping with the aftermath of the natural disaster. Wong emphasized that the arrests made by the Macau police “unquestionably aim at maintaining social stability.”
The Macau Judicial Police condemned the rumours and warned citizens not to spread false information online, “or else [they] might be committing criminal offenses.”
Some netizens’ disapproving comments about the rumours were picked up by mainland Chinese media. “Some people always want to turn freedom of speech into freedom to spread rumours”, one netizen said. “We must firmly crack down on rumour-mongers who want to smear the name of our sons and daughters of the army,” wrote another.
Since taking office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a crackdown on internet “rumours”. According to the Basic Law, the Macau government is run independently of Beijing, but it is hard to assess how much influence the Chinese Communist Party exerts, directly or indirectly, on the Macau authorities.
On August 28 the Macau police arrested a 73-year-old businessman and his 68-year-old sister on grounds of spreading “rumours” about the typhoon. The suspects had forwarded messages claiming that five bodies had been recovered in a flooded car park in Fai Chi Kei, and that the government was covering up the news.
On August 26 the Macau immigration authorities blocked four Hong Kong reporters from entering the city. Immigration officials said that the journalists “posed a threat to the stability of the territory’s internal security’,” and refused them entry according to the National Security Law.
As a Special Administrative Region of the PRC under the ‘one country, two systems‘ formula, Macau enjoys a high degree of autonomy, with independent executive, legislative and judicial powers. However, the inherent contradictions of a liberal political system within the context of a one-party Communist dictatorship are evident.
In 2009 Macau passed a National Security Law which codifies in broad terms crimes against national security. For instance, Article 3 sec. 1 of the Law states that any “person using violence or practising other grave illegal acts to overthrow the People’s Central Government or prevent or restrict its functions shall be sentenced to a prison term of 10-25 years.”
A liberal form of government ultimately rests on checks and balances that prevent abuse and concentration of power. Beijing, however, has set up a system that has a democratic facade without substance. The Communist government can not only “appoint or remove the Chief Executive, the principal officials of the government and the Procurator Generals”, but it also has the power to interpret and amend the Law.
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