MACAU: Nearly 20 years have passed since Portugal handed Macau over to China, and although colonial culture still infuses parts of daily life, the influence of the territory’s Portuguese elite is declining rapidly as the special administrative region becomes increasingly closer to mainland China.
Authorities say they want the world’s largest gambling hub to diversify into a trade and business center for Portuguese-speaking countries including Brazil, Portugal and Angola, but there is a gaping disconnect, Portuguese residents say.
Two Portuguese top legal advisers, renowned for their expertise and training of local judges and prosecutors, were abruptly dismissed in August, far ahead of retirement age.
And legislation this year proposed Portuguese judges should be removed from sensitive cases altogether.
“They say everywhere that Portuguese are part of Macau and are always welcome, part of the history. In fact, what they are doing is not what they are saying,” said Alvaro Rodrigues, a lawyer in Macau.
The removal of Paulo Taipa and Paulo Cardinal, both of whom served for more than 20 years in the government, is a bad signal, said Rodrigues, who came to Macau 28 years ago from Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony in Africa.
The head of Macau’s legislature, Ho Iat Seng, who orchestrated their dismissal, said in September it was because of “restructuring.”
Ho has been touted as a candidate for Macau’s chief executive in 2019. Ho and Macau’s Legislative Assembly office did not respond to requests for comment.
“Both of the jurists have for the past few years internally criticized some of the government’s bills by stating, in their confidential legal opinions, that they breached the Basic Law, several of which the assembly ended up passing,” said assembly member Jose Coutinho.
For example, he said, a law on government salaries runs afoul of the Basic Law by discriminating against low-level civil servants.
Like neighboring Hong Kong, Macau operates under China’s “one country, two systems” policy. Its Basic Law is supposed to allow a high degree of autonomy and greater liberties like a free press and an independent judiciary.
The legal system is broadly based on Portugal’s. But influence from the Chinese mainland is squeezing it, experts said, in an accelerated version of the scenes unfolding in Hong Kong.
“We can feel it. If you look to the legislation that has been passed in recent years, we understand that there is a big influence from the first system (China) on the second system (Macau),” said Pedro Cortes, a lawyer in Macau.
Jorge Neto Valente, head of the Macau’s Lawyers Association, said freezing out Portuguese judges violated the Basic Law and created a sort of patriotism test based on their feelings toward China.