By Farah Master
MACAU (Reuters) - While Hong Kong has been roiled by protests and calls for independence from China, things have been quieter in the neighboring gambling center of Macau, which has seen little dissent to rule from Beijing.
The calm in the former Portuguese enclave, now a special administrative region of China, is partly the result of a multi-decade effort by Beijing to exert its authority over the territory.
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In the decade before the handover in 1999, the Chinese government handpicked a group of about 40 young graduates from across China and placed them in key government departments, according to former officials familiar with the process.
Those young graduates, armed with a fluency in Portuguese and legal training, swiftly rose through the ranks. They eventually assumed powerful positions that have helped align Macau more closely to the mainland at a time when infighting and instability plagues Hong Kong, said Jose Luis de Sales Marques, Macau’s mayor from 1993 to 2001.
“They were given positions when they were still very young, very leading positions,” said Marques, who now heads Macau’s institute of European studies.
Half of Macau’s most senior officials have origins in China, in stark contrast to Hong Kong, where no mainland Chinese occupy top government posts.
Among those officials is Wong Sio Chak, who was appointed Macau’s security chief in 2014. He has been tipped as a potential leader when elections for Macau’s chief executive take place in two years, according to sources in the civil service.
Cheong Weng Chon, head of Macau’s anti-corruption body, and Ip Son Sang, Macau’s public prosecutor general, are other officials sent from the mainland in the 1990s to help Portugal and China prepare for the post-handover administration. Details of the officials’ careers have been corroborated through interviews with over a dozen former officials and civil servants and official public records.
Soon after the officials from the mainland were appointed to top positions in 2014, Macau launched a cleanup of the territory’s $30 billion gambling industry, responding to a call by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to stamp out corruption in China.
Chinese rule has been generally welcomed in Macau, which has seen economic growth soar and a period of stability - in contrast with the years preceding the handover when there were a series of mobster wars.
More than half of Macau’s population of 600,000 immigrated from China in recent decades, which has helped foster a stronger affinity for the mainland than in Hong Kong, where most of the population was born in the territory.
Macau’s calm has been noticed in Beijing. In July, Xi visited Hong Kong and lavished praise on Macau. In contrast, he delivered a stark warning to Hong Kong that Beijing would not tolerate any challenge to its authority.
Still, as China’s influence in Macau becomes more overt there are growing fears that its autonomy is threatened.
"I think Macau is losing that autonomy quite fast. I think we have lost two thirds of it in fifteen years,” said a civil servant who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Hong Kong and Macau operate under a framework that allows them to enjoy certain liberties not permitted on the mainland, such as a free press and an independent court structure.
However, lawyers have been increasingly vocal that liberties are being eroded and there are growing worries that media freedoms are being undermined.
There are also concerns that Beijing's liaison office in Macau has been expanding its activities, co-opting local associations and monitoring political activities.
“Now there is a tendency to impose self censorship to not raise the attention of the liaison office,” said Bill Chou, a former professor at the University of Macau and civil rights activist who was fired in 2014 for his political activities, referring to local academia and the media.
Wong, the security chief, said in a 2015 interview with Reuters that Macau remained faithful to the ”one country, two systems” model that defines its status but added that the government had daily communications with mainland authorities.
"The central government will not meddle or intervene but they will of course want to understand our policies and from what angle we are considering,” Wong said.
One official who declined to be named said China was becoming more involved in Macau affairs as a result of events in Hong Kong.
“They want to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen in Macau,” the official said. “Macau is a good student, we listen well.”
In Hong Kong, some activists see the situation in Macau as a cautionary tale as they protest increasing intervention by Beijing.
“We will be the second Macau sooner or later,” said Chan Chun-kit, a 20-year-old university student who was attending a protest following a court ruling that expelled four democracy activist lawmakers from Hong Kong's legislature.
“Our freedom has been gradually stifled.”
(Additional reporting by William Ho; Editing by Philip McClellan in Singapore)