Macau on Sunday marked 10 years of Chinese rule, capping a decade that has seen its transformation from seedy colonial backwater to global gaming hub rivalling the Las Vegas Strip.
The enclave was returned to China in 1999 following more than four centuries of Portuguese rule. Since then, visitor numbers have sky-rocketed and the city has reaped the financial rewards.
And like nearby Hong Kong, the former British colony that was handed back to China in 1997, Macau has a separate constitution guaranteeing freedoms not available to Chinese on the mainland.
But that has not been enough to satisfy everyone.
As a new chief executive for the territory was sworn in at a ceremony attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday, hundreds of residents rallied in a city-centre park to demand cleaner government.
Many of the protesters complained about shady land deals between officials and developers.
“It is a sad day for us. Ten years after the handover, many ordinary citizens here still can’t have their own flat because property prices are out of their reach,” taxi driver Tang Po-yin told AFP.
“Developers, on the other hand, can buy land from the government for almost nothing.”
Beijing largely controls political appointments in the glitzy entertainment city, as it does in Hong Kong, but unlike the former British territory, Macau does not have a strong pro-democracy movement.
However, Hong Kong campaigners used the opportunity of Hu’s visit to make their voices heard. Five activists travelled to the city to petition to Hu to release mainland political dissidents, but two of them were blocked from entering the enclave.
Richard Tsoi, one of the pair, said he was cornered by six or seven customs officers, while his peer fell down to the floor amid the pull-and-push at the ferry terminal after their arrival Hong Kong.
“We were told our entry would affect public order in Macau,” said Tsoi, who was denied entry to Macau on Sunday.
Immigration officials on Saturday turned away another 14 Hong Kong activists customs for “security reasons” while two journalists were also denied entry.
Most of the changes since the handover have been economic.
In 10 years, the city has risen from a crime-ridden gambling den to a gaming haven with 31 casinos, overtaking Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined in terms of casino revenues as foreign and locally owned resorts sprang up.
The turning point came in 2002, when the government liberalised the market, ending mogul Stanley Ho’s four-decade monopoly and attracting big-name international operators, including Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson.
The city of 540,000 people is the only place on Chinese soil where casino gambling is allowed. The annual gross revenue from gaming activities jumped from 5.5 billion US dollars 2004 to 14 billion dollars in 2008.
The government has recorded more than 20 million annual visitor arrivals to Macau in recent years, most of them mainland Chinese short-stayers who go more for the casinos than the city’s UNESCO world heritage sites.
But the heavy reliance on gaming is proving to be a concern.
“The lucrative business in gaming does not necessarily benefit the local economy in the long run because the foreign casino operators can just grab the money and go,” said Gabriel Chan, a gaming analyst at Credit Suisse.
Unlike the gaming sector’s breakneck growth, development on the political front has been slow.
A 300-member body mostly picked by Beijing selects Macau’s chief executive, while fewer than half of the city’s 29 lawmakers are directly elected.
Progress toward democracy lags behind Hong Kong by at least 50 years, Au Kam-san, a lawmaker and organiser of Sunday’s rally in the city park, told AFP.
“We do not have properly formed political parties,” he said. “We often saw tens of thousands of Hong Kong people taking to the street demanding universal suffrage — it’s hard for me to imagine that happening here.”
While senior officials have pledged to clean up government, critics say much more needs to be done.
In April, Macau’s highest court sentenced a former minister to 28 years in jail for taking kickbacks from contractors in construction projects.
But the high-profile case is “only the tip of the iceberg,” said legislator Jose Coutinho, who described corruption among government officials and businessmen as “rampant”.
Andrew Tang, a waiter, said Macau’s return to Chinese rule did not make much difference to his life.
“Macau has always been in the hands of a small group of power brokers,” he said. “We as ordinary citizens do not speak out or protest because we know it won’t make any difference.”