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Xi flatters Macao in bid to sell 'one country, two systems'

Charm offensive stands in contrast to Hong Kong cold shoulder

Children welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping at Macau International Airport on Dec. 18. The leader showed off his friendly side during the trip to the territory.   © Reuters

BEIJING/MACAO -- Call it a Chinese tale of two cities. As pro-democracy protests rage in Hong Kong, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday heaped praise on Macao -- the other, less fractious city under the "one country, two systems" model.

The former Portuguese colony, known for its casinos, has served as a model for the Communist Party since being handed back to China 20 years ago. Xi appeared determined to keep it that way during his trip here to celebrate the big anniversary this week.

"The Macao Special Administrative Region government and members of society have together achieved the highest dimension of development in Macao's history," Xi said at a ceremony celebrating the handover. "They have written a beautiful and colorful chapter on implementing 'one country, two systems' with Macanese characteristics."

The president also visited a local school Friday. He responded with a broad smile when students called him "Grandpa Xi," a popular term of endearment for the Chinese leader.

The state-run China Central Television broadcast clips of a relaxed Xi without a tie, shaking hands with the people of Macao.

Xi was much less affable when he visited Hong Kong two and a half years ago to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that territory's handover from the U.K. He inspected the People's Liberation Army garrison stationed there, commending his "comrades" for protecting the city.

The military display likely was intended as a warning to the Hong Kong people that opposition to the Chinese Communist Party would be quashed by force.

"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government ... or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible," Xi said at the commemoration ceremony, through which he maintained a steely expression.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects troops at the People's Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong in June 2017.   © Reuters

Macao, like Hong Kong, was granted a high level of autonomy at its handover under Beijing's "one country, two systems" framework. Yet it has carefully toed the Communist Party line since, banning insults against the Chinese national anthem in January and cracking down on an August rally in support of the Hong Kong protesters.

Macao barred senior leaders of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong as well as several Hong Kong reporters from entering the city ahead of Xi's visit.

Xi, in his speech, proclaimed Macao's success at maintaining wide autonomy while ensuring the central government's jurisdiction over the city.

But perhaps the Chinese leader could not keep Hong Kong out of his head. While touting Macao's success, Xi mistakenly called the city "Hong Kong," hinting at his true concern.

Macao's compliant stance reflects its economic dependence on the mainland. Macao, which outranks Las Vegas as the casino capital of the world, derives the majority of its gross domestic product from the gambling industry. It opened to foreign casino operators in 2002.

The city's nominal GDP is eight times higher than at the 1999 handover, largely thanks to rich visitors from mainland China. Mainlanders accounted for 71% of all visitors to Macao in 2018, up from about 20% at the handover.

But the protests in Hong Kong, a financial center even before its 1997 return to China, have exposed the limits of controlling a city through force and cash.

Young Hong Kongers, worried about their future, have openly rejected the Communist Party's rule through aggressive demonstrations for much of 2019. The Xi administration is accused of refusing to listen to Hong Kong's public, including during the Umbrella Movement protests that occurred in 2014.

Beijing shows no sign of easing up on Hong Kong. Xi met with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in Macao, stressing that he remains in full support of her city's government -- a veiled instruction to continue responding to the protests by force.

Meanwhile, as Xi and the attendants sang loudly along to a patriotic song, TV cameras caught Lam's husband Lam Siu-por not clapping like everybody else.

Hong Kong's protests also have bolstered support for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who seeks reelection Jan. 11. Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party have drawn support from residents fearful of Hong Kong's example of "one country, two systems" -- a framework that Xi proposed for Taiwan at the beginning of this year.

Xi's effusive demeanor in Macao suggests the importance of that territory's success for the "one country, two systems" model to continue.

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