Ho Iat Seng did well in Portugal. It has to be said. Not because of a special seduction, brilliance in speech, or strategic appetite. It was agreed upon a long time ago by all parties involved.
China included – that was going to be fine. How did it go. This mutual predisposition, incidentally, is in itself a relevant fact. But the Chief Executive, so often accused of communicating little, and with few people, had relevant political statements in Portugal, both for Portugal and the Portuguese of Macau, and about the political options that the future announces.
The hot topics were present: the Security Law, freedoms, the exodus… voices were heard that think that everything is going to go wrong in Macau. The debate was in the papers – and Ho Iat Seng was confronted.
He reacted reasonably well to pressure, not being challenged or faced with major controversies. In the following days, Lula da Silva was much more controversial, due to his relations with Russia and China. The truth is that by guaranteeing that there are freedoms in Macau – “… they can even disagree and criticize me” – he committed himself to this vision of autonomy, and its importance for relations with Portugal. He explained, by the way, that things are like that only because “Macau is not like China”. In the current international context, instead of declaring himself nationalist and dependent on Beijing’s decisions – as he has done in Macau – Ho Iat Seng opted to assert the added value of difference. And it did so not only in the context of proof of autonomy, but also as a tourist attraction factor and driver of diversification. Ho Iat Seng thus assumes that it is his responsibility to care for and answer for this difference between the Macao SAR and the Motherland.
This trip also served for Ho Iat Seng to announce that he is committed to air connections between Macau and Portugal, albeit with stopovers, and assumes that the post-Covid recovery, and economic diversification itself, need critical mass, namely from Portugal . In view of this, think what to think about the political future of Macau, and of China; whatever the debate about freedoms and guarantees – which matters and must be done – it cannot be said that Ho Iat Seng’s strategy is to neglect the relationship with Portugal, run with the Portuguese, or turn his back on the world in a nationalist drift. The commitment assumed in Portugal was precisely the opposite.
Which is what makes sense; is what Portugal wants to hear – and the Portuguese in Macau need to hear it. Portugal, as it had to be, also did well. It received the leader of Macau at the highest level, with the Portuguese political leadership being very clear on the unavoidable close relationship. There seems to be a clear consensus among the Portuguese political elite around the idea that relations with Macau are safe from diplomatic tensions between China and most of Portugal’s allies – in Europe and NATO. One really feels that the more doors are closed to China, the more important it is for Portugal to keep those of Macau open.
I leave one last note that deserves to be highlighted on this trip. Ho Iat Seng said one thing very clearly about the future: Macau doesn’t stop losing gambling revenue; but if it does not succeed in economic diversification, there goes the fiscal comfort. That is, if the State does not have enough revenue, “it will have to charge more taxes to its citizens”. Clear – and clairvoyant.
*Director General of PLATAFORMA