More than a week after Macao’s legislative assembly passed controversial amendments to the former Portuguese colony’s national security law, a sense of uncertainty pervades in the vibrant and popular gambling and tourist destination, with some people remaining mum about the law taking effect this week.
Since the measure’s passage, some journalists, writers, and businesspeople contacted for this article have refused to be interviewed out of fear of repercussions for expressing concerns about the amended law.
“It’s not appropriate [or convenient] to accept interviews on the national security law,” was the common response.
Others, however, were seeking answers on how the law would affect day-to-day life.
The amendments, passed unanimously by the legislature May 18, are aimed at upgrading the Law on Safeguarding National Security, first enacted in 2009, a decade after Macao returned to Chinese sovereignty.
FILE – In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, policemen perform a flag-raising ceremony in Macao, Dec. 20, 2021, marking the 22nd anniversary of the former Portuguese colony’s handover to Chinese rule.
A statement on Macao’s government website said the amendments were necessary because “the country [meaning China] is facing a more complicated and changing security and development environment,” making safeguarding national security “increasingly arduous.”
The amendments will enable Macao to “more effectively respond to future internal and external security situations,” it said.
Without giving details about what those threats are, the website lists changes to the law, including:
expanding the definition of secession to include acts carried out by nonviolent means;
widening the definition of sedition to include “acts that incite participation in riots;”
renaming the crime of “theft of state secrets” to “violation of state secrets.”
The amendments also change the references to the crime of collusion with “foreign political organizations” to simply collusion with “organizations outside Macau” that are seeking to damage national security. This could be aimed at pro-independence groups in Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a part of China.
They also call for punishing “outside hostile forces” and locals who support them with the intention of harming national security by trying to influence Macao’s elections, advocating sanctions against the enclave, and trying to make Macao’s people hate the central government in Beijing.
Analysts said Beijing, alarmed by weeks of widespread and sometimes violent protests against an extradition bill in Hong Kong in 2019, wants to close loopholes in the law, to prevent such occurrences in Macao. They say China’s government had nudged Macau’s chief executive and legislature to pass such amendments in the past, but there was reluctance until now.
“When Hong Kong experienced political turmoil in 2019, Beijing was definitely threatened by the social movement. … Therefore, the amendment of Macao’s national security law, in the eyes of Beijing, is to fill up the legal loopholes in Macao,” said Eilo Yu Wing-yat, associate professor at the University of Macau’s Department of Government and Public Administration.
Asked why Beijing would feel the need to toughen control measures in Macao, given how peaceful it is compared to Hong Kong, Victor Gao, a professor at China’s Soochow University, agreed that the Hong Kong protests were the catalyst and Beijing felt it should take preemptive measures.
“Any political system would not tolerate secession or rebellion,” Gao said, referring to some Hong Kong protesters advocating for the territory’s independence and others storming the local Legislative Council building at one point. “Therefore, Macau needs to close the loopholes, so that if anyone tries the same thing in Macau, they will have the legal wherewithal to deal with these anti-social stability, sabotaging acts.”
Other analysts, however, say the amendments widen the scope of actions under which individuals and groups can be punished, and this could harm Macao’s freedoms.
“The expansion of national security offenses to include non-violent means and inciting participation in ‘riots’ will further chill an already frosty civil society, media, and academic space,” wrote Jason Buhi, associate professor at Barry University’s School of Law in Florida and author of The Constitutional History of Macau, in an email.
What is especially worrying is that crimes involving “incitement” and “state secret” are not well defined, which could have a major impact on the freedom of press and speech in Macao, and the public’s right to know, according to a statement posted by the 100-member Macau Journalists Association on its Facebook page in…